Wine and health – always good for a headline

Wine and health is one of the major topics of the world of wine. Although the discussion is mainly conducted using scientific arguments, the atmosphere is often highly emotional. There are studies galore with more and more indicators. However, a clear result is further away than ever. Thereby, some of the results could be reliable.

“Tequila is good against osteoporosis” or “red wine slows down brain ageing”: You read headlines like this nearly every week. In one study, the resveratrol in wine proved to provide good protection of the synapses, which inhibits the brain’s ageing process. However, the test subjects were very old mice, and when converted the dose was equivalent to 2,500 bottles of wine a day. “That is why”, warns Professor Gregorio Valdez, head of the study, “I also would not advise anyone to pump themselves full with resveratrol now”, let alone with wine. After all, the true mechanism of action is not even clear yet. The study is all too typical of the state of research. Physicians repeatedly observe positive effects. But rarely does one know exactly how they come about.

The rapturous headlines are confronted with bitter facts for the time being: Every year, about 700,000 people develop cancer in the entire digestive tract and in the chest that is associated with alcohol consumption. “The connection is hardly known amongst the public”, laments Jennie Connor, who performed the meta-analysis for the University of Otago in New Zealand. About half of the sick people die.

On the other hand, the rate of infection is increasing rapidly in proportion to consumption. It particularly affects alcoholics, and this applies all the more to serious liver damage. But wine drinkers are rather moderate drinkers. With moderate alcohol consumption, the likelihood of developing one of these illnesses is not greater than with a teetotaller.

Painting on Verdicchio keg

Painting on Verdicchio keg, © Matthias Stelzig

Darling of the literati

The notion that wine is a medicine is almost as old as wine itself. In Persia, where the first wines were made, one creation myth involves a king’s fermented grapes. Initially, evil spirits were assumed to be behind the fermentation. Finally, the queen wanted to take her life with the fermented concoction. The suicidal monarch tasted it, and she was not only promptly cured of her migraine, but also in high spirits.

The connection between wine and physical as well as mental health has been a topic since ancient times, when dealing with the aspect of inebriation was much more open. Participants in Bacchus rituals utilised the psychedelic-disinhibiting effect of alcohol.

Koran authors also appreciated the effect on general well-being. Jesus Sirach mused: “What kind of life is that if one does not have any wine?” In the 14th century, lyricist Hafez “rinsed the sorrow from the soul. Only wine alone can save me and dispel all fear and anguish!” Every epoch had its literary worshippers.

For a long time wine had a practical medicinal effect because it was one of the most sanitary victuals. In metropolitan areas and at sea it saved many a life. Intellectuals from Homer to Hemingway swore by wine. Many an older journalist has his recommendation “write drunk, edit sober” framed on the desk. Quite a few of them also wear their idol’s wool pullover.

The beginning of the modern hype surrounding wine and health harks back to an episode of the American TV show “60 Minutes”. In 1991, the news programme reported on a study conducted amongst people from several industrial nations. The study had shown that the French subsist on considerable amounts of alcohol, butter and cream, but suffered less from lifestyle diseases than people from other countries. A sense of amazement was registered by the world of science, and the effect went down in history books as the “French paradox”.

At that time, the alcohol consumption amongst the French was vastly more than that of the Americans and was primarily covered by red wine. So scientists concluded that it had to have a positive effect on the heart muscle.

The story has been told a thousand times, and yet 999 times it is erroneous. Years later it was realised that the American burgers were much larger than the portions of foie gras which the French enjoyed for lunch. But the story had long since gone around the world.

Weißwein

Weißwein, © Matthias Stelzig

From arthritis to dental decay

The sphere of medical research developed a keen interest in the topic, perhaps also because positive results were met with a wide favourable response amongst the press. There are a vast number of studies solely with regard to the effects against the widespread diseases affecting the heart, circulation and vessels. For instance, red wine thins down the blood and improves circulation. Its polyphenols capture free radicals and protect vessels – particularly coronary vessels – against harmful deposits. Red wine helps the body to form omega-3 fatty acids, which reduces the risk for the heart. The heart tolerates food with many calories better thanks to the resveratrol in wine. Wine has anti-inflammatory effects on the blood vessels, prevents arteriosclerosis and has a positive effect on the cholesterol level – above all champagne. The risk of a stroke or heart attack even decreases amongst people who are already suffering from a heart condition. Red wine drinkers can also hope for low blood pressure, unlike some fans of spirits.

Naturally the likelihood of an arterial occlusion decreases. At the same time, grape varieties with high tannin content and long maceration times stood out, such as Cannonau from Sardinia and Madiran from the Pyrenees, where the life expectancy is suspiciously high. Recent research also provides evidence for the efficacy of white wine.

A study published in the professional journal “Heart” came to the conclusion that the adequate dose can be up to one bottle per day. This way, the risk of heart diseases should be halved. The survey from Spain – a country with one of the lowest cardiac death rates, but one of the highest rates of liver diseases – was frequently called into question, if also not methodically refuted. Physicians occasionally prescribed red wine for cardiac patients. The effect against dementia is also noteworthy. Studies repeatedly substantiate that wine noticeably curbs the disease.

But not enough. Red wine strengthens the immune system in many ways. It helps the body to build up immunity against 200 different viruses that trigger colds. Studies indicated further positive effects in the fight against arthritis, wear of invertebral discs, bronchitis, damage to intestinal flora, diabetes, colon cancer, gall stones, uterus cancer, brittle bones, eye cataracts, sore throats, lung damage, renal function disorders and renal cancer, osteoporosis, Parkinson’s disease, prostate disorder, rheumatism, insomnia, obesity, dental decay, periodontal diseases.

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Contemplative tones in Logroño

Wine was practically regarded as a cure-all. But then newer, larger studies were published. Many findings were relativised in their light. Occasionally it was revealed that even smaller quantities of alcohol increase certain health risks such as cancer. Scientists are simply also quite perplexed by some findings, such as the fact that black women benefit less from the health advantages of wine than white women, or that a certain genetic constellation facilitates alcoholism.

The “Wine and Health Meeting” in February 2017 recently addressed the complicated conflict situation. The meeting was held in Logroño (Spain) under the auspices of the International Organisation of Vine and Wine (OIV). The organisers and venue in the capital of the La Rioja province with its famous “Street of Tapas” (Calle del Laurel) implied that the positive effects were the priority of interest amongst researchers here.

Scientists, healthcare experts and representatives of the wine industry worked out the most varying health aspects of wine during the events. Overall, it was revealed that people who drink two to three glasses of wine a day – and not more – came off best in most studies. Professor Rosa María Lamuela-Raventós, head of the event, admitted in her closing statement that “several questions remain open”, above all the question regarding causality. It is still not exactly known which metabolic products account for the effect.

A body as a tuned machine

But to some extent, societal developments go in a different direction. Many people see their body less as a precious asset than as a machine to be optimised. And many a politician waves his or her flag in the political wind.

In Great Britain, which suffers from a high tax on alcohol anyway, the government issued a consumption guideline in 2016, which was far below internationally accepted levels. The health effect of wine was generally doubted without further evidence. But ultimately every Briton knows how and why the great statesman Winston Churchill lived to be 90 years old. After furious protests, the government meekly backpedalled. A top official sheepishly acknowledged that 300 millilitres of wine per day is really not more harmful than driving a car.

Institutions subsequently outdid each other with questionable pieces of advice, such as the fact that women should generally refrain from alcohol if they are sexually active. Another institution recommended that women should only drink if they use a contraceptive at the same time. One bank prohibited its employees from drinking beer at lunch, while a gloomy death of tradition-steeped pubs is lamented on the island.

Grapes

Grapes, © Matthias Stelzig

The police accused the owner of an Italian bistro in Sydney of promoting anti-social behaviour, because he offered his wine by the glass instead of only by the bottle. An anti-alcohol lobby in France even wanted to forbid posters depicting smiling winegrowers. Only such bizarre excesses often make headlines. In many markets, social mistrust is stoked by tax collections and allocations of blame, which are not oriented towards high consumption.

The teetotaller movement in the USA is historically strong. Wine dealers, who grapple with bizarre sales statutes in the individual states, can tell you a thing or two about that. Associations of beverage producers sent an urgent request and called on the government to please advise problem drinkers and not to criminalise moderate drinkers.

In Germany, the Federal Chamber of Psychotherapists called for the price of beer to be quadrupled. In addition, personal rights would be vigorously encroached upon with actions such as screenings and compulsory detoxification in case of “risky drinking behaviour”.

In 2015, a campaign to disclose the calorie content of alcoholic beverages on the label – which is meanwhile gaining ground throughout the EU – wandered like a ghost through the media. The fact that ‘alcohol calories’ are converted much less into fat than other calories remains unconsidered up to now.

In contrast, the mention of positive effects is suppressed. Even the harmless term “agreeably digestible” – with which traditional winegrowers have described their light Kabinett white wines for ages – was judicially prohibited. The essentially German tradition of drinking a toast to create a socially pleasant situation exists only in travel guides nowadays.

Those who can, help themselves. Airlines charge steep prices for beer and wine and hand out unhealthy sweet stuff and soft drinks free of charge. This has never bothered any health freak.

More life quality without scientific proof

One problem of many research efforts is that lifestyle aspects cannot be separated from the results. Whereas the positive effects were often doubted with the argument that intelligent, sports-oriented high earners also simply had a good life expectancy without wine, few scientists apply the indicators the other way round.

Does anyone who performs physically hard work and is less educated, does not engage in any sports and does not take care of their body have a lower life expectancy, even if he or she does not drink wine?

In particular, the increased quality of life is overlooked. Studies revealed that wine drinkers have a better brain performance for a longer period of time; in plain language: They are more intelligent.

Other studies have unearthed that wine can not only help against erectile dysfunction. Red wine drinkers are sexually better stimulated, more active and perceive sex to be more satisfying than teetotallers.

Master sommeliers have larger brains and get Alzheimer’s disease more rarely. Even smelling a glass of wine promotes health.

Wine tasting

Wine tasting, © Matthias Stelzig

Wine drinkers are more rarely depressive, have to struggle less with anxieties and have greater social skills than non-drinkers. These are findings for which most wine drinkers do not even need a troupe of researchers. In the final analysis, study results which predict a longer lifetime for wine drinkers cannot be denied.

A study conducted by the University of Oxford also refers to another benefit. People who drink in company are happier and healthier than others and have more friends. Alcohol is an effective social lubricant, because it stimulates the release of endorphins, which in turn encourages social bonds.

Perhaps that is why drinkers also earn more on average than teetotallers. Wine could even be the secret of a happy marriage. At any rate, in one study wine drinkers had more satisfying and stable relationships.

In summary, people who consume alcohol reasonably enjoy life more, and it is advisable not to spoil the pleasure for them. Pope Francis, who often sums up the situation in the world very precisely, recently expressed himself clearly as usual to this end: A person should not play the role of a judge in front of their fellow human beings, not even in front of a homeless person who spends his panhandled money on alcohol. “If his only happiness is a sip of wine, then that is just the way it is.”

Matthias Stelzig