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Wine and Health: A Bio-Psycho-Social Perspective

Written by Chris Howard

There is both hope and hype in the notion that wine is good for your health. From the French Paradox to the Mediterranean Diet and the latest science of aging, let’s get to grips with the debate on wine and health.

If well being is the sum of its parts, understanding the health benefits of wine calls for a holistic perspective.

Wine's health benefits what are they really?
Are the health benefits of wine negated because of the alcohol?

After a short review of wine’s long medical history and more recent scientific trends, let’s explore wine’s biological and psychosocial benefits.

A Brief History of “Enotherapy”

The relationship between wine and health goes way back. Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs and Sumerian tablets from 2,200 BCE document wine as the world’s oldest human-made medicine.

Hippocrates lecturing his students. Photo courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.
Hippocrates lecturing his students. Photo courtesy of the Wellcome Collection.

From ancient Greece and Rome through the Middle Ages, people used wine for everything. It killed bacteria in drinking water, acted as a digestive aid, cleaned wounds, relieved pain, and cured lethargy.

Hippocrates, the “father of clinical and molecular medicine,” championed the health benefits of wine, as did Babylonian kings, Persian doctors and Catholic monastics. The Jewish Talmud plainly states:

“Wine is the foremost of all medicines: wherever wine is lacking, medicines become necessary.” – Jewish Talmud

By the 19th and 20th centuries, however, medical research and changing attitudes towards alcohol called this status into question.

Yet since the early 1990s, scientific research on the health benefits of wine has proliferated. Much of this inspired the paradoxically healthy, wine drinking Mediterraneans.

Mediterranean Lessons on Wine and Health

The diet and lifestyle of the Mediterranean have long been renowned as a beacon of health. Based on research by scientist Serge Renaud, a 1991 episode of 60 Minutes put the French Paradox on the map.

A wine dinner with cheese, meat, and honey. Photo by Lana Abie.
If this is healthy eating, I’m gonna live forever. Photo by L. Abie.
Wine in the French Paradox Diet

Renaud observed a paradoxical relationship between the seemingly not-so-healthy diet of his countrymen. High fat, high dairy, and daily wine, despite low rates of coronary heart disease. C’est la vie!

France: that wine-loving, baguette and fromage-eating nation surpasses many countries in average life expectancy. Not without controversy, French vitality has been attributed to the cultural value of drinking 2-3 glasses of wine a day.

The longest living people in France reside in the Gers region of the southwest. Here, high saturated foods like foie gras, sausage, duck fat for cooking, cassoulet, and cheese are standard fare.

Local, sun-kissed reds such as Madiran, Cahors, and Bergerac wash down all this glorious fat.

These wines’ tannins not only scrape fat from the palate and digestive tract but are rich in heart-healthy procyanidins.

A view of Santorini, Greece with dinner and wine. Photo by Kamala Saraswathi
The Mediterranean diet: View not included. Photo by K. Saraswathi.
Wine in the Mediterranean Diet

The next biggest thing since the French Paradox has been the Mediterranean diet.

Recognized for its health-promoting effects, the Mediterranean diet blends moderate consumption of alcohol (mostly red wine) with less meat and a high consumption of vegetables, fruits, nuts, legumes, seeds, and olive oil.

The proof of concept is some of the longest-lived people on earth.

Diet in a strictly biological sense, however, is only part of the story. Along with its cuisine, wine is an intrinsic aspect of the culture, history, and lifestyle of the Mediterranean.

Before exploring the psychosocial benefits of wine further, let’s look at its biological health properties.

Hands holding a bunch of red grapes. Photo by M. Petric.
Red wine is chock full of polyphenols thanks to these skins. Photo by M. Petric.

Biological Health Benefits of Wine

Chemical compounds called polyphenols are the key to wine’s health benefits. As tannins and flavonoids, polyphenols also provide structure, texture, and flavor to wine.

Polyphenols – Key Facts
  • Polyphenols reside in the skins and seeds of grapes.
  • As antioxidants, they scavenge free radicals from the body’s cells, preventing or reducing damage caused by oxidation.
  • The composition and concentration of polyphenols in wine vary by grape variety, vintage, geography, climate, and vinification.
  • The bioavailability of polyphenols varies greatly across grapes and individuals: all that goodness isn’t absorbed equally.
  • Red wine has about 10 times more polyphenols than white (mostly because of a red’s maceration on the skins.)
When it comes to the amount of Polyphenols, not all wines are created equal.

Resveratrol: King of Polyphenols

Resveratrol (rez-ver-a-trol) has emerged as the single most health beneficial polyphenol. The good news for us is that red grapes have some of the highest concentrations in nature, along with olive oil.

In the paradigm-shifting book, Lifespan (2019), Harvard geneticist David A. Sinclair can’t sing higher praise for resveratrol’s life-extending effects. Peppered throughout are references to wine’s health benefits.

“The best wines in the world are produced in dry, sun-exposed soil or from stress-sensitive varietals such as Pinot Noir; as you might guess, they also contain the most resveratrol.” – David A. Sinclair, Lifespan

Is Good Health a Struggle?

Production of resveratrol in plants is in response to stress, thus serving a survival function. This explains why grapes, especially from vines that struggle for water and nutrients, have the highest levels of all.

Just as vines that struggle yield the best grapes, people can be the same way. Sinclair points out that humans are at their most vital under just the right amount of stress.

However, he isn’t talking about the stress you get from a day at the office. Instead, it’s the stress from exercise, intermittent fasting, and hot/cold therapies, combined with a diet high in resveratrol.

Your body is a vineyard! Tend it with care, but also let it struggle.

find your wine preference
Wine: good for both your literal and metaphorical heart.

Wine and Heart Conditions

Since Renaud’s work on the French Paradox, a growing body of research has confirmed that the polyphenols in wine, especially resveratrol, serve a cardioprotective effect.

Regular moderate wine drinking can protect and reduce heart diseases such as hypertension, coronary artery disease and diabetes.

How? Resveratrol helps break down cholesterol and other bodily plaques, enhances glucose utilization, and controls levels of oxidative stress. This all puts less pressure on the heart and keeps the blood flowing.

Another polyphenol that protects the heart and promotes longevity is procyanidin, which is found in red wine tannins.

So why not seek out some Tannat from Gers or Uruguay, Sagrantino from Umbria, or Cannonau from Sardinia’s Nuoro district?

Check out our deep dive on tannins and list of top tannic wines here.

Wine and Cancer

Recent studies have shown that moderate wine consumption, as in the Mediterranean style diet, may protect against certain cancers, including pancreatic, breast, ovarian, skin, oesophageal, gastric, colon and prostate.

The polyphenols present in red wine, especially resveratrol and procyanidin, exert antioxidant effects that kill free radicals and thwart the growth of tumors.

Other Health Benefits of Wine (Especially Resveratrol)

  • Protects against age-related bone loss (homeostasis)
  • Improves kidney function, fibrosis and unwanted drug toxicity
  • Protects against degenerative eye diseases
  • Lowers glucose levels, which helps treat or prevent diabetes
  • Improves gut health by eliminating bad bacteria and metabolizing healthy polyphenols
  • Prolongs female and male fertility by increasing ovarian lifespan and spermatogenesis
  • Anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects aid the functioning of the blood system
  • Skin protection from UV radiation and melanoma
  • Improves lung health by preventing fibrogenesis, dysfunction, asthmatic effects
A bunch of red grapes in a vineyard in Spain. Photo by Nacho Domínguez Argenta
I can feel myself getting healthier already. Photo by N. Argenta.

As great as it sounds, the science is mixed on the bioavailability of polyphenols in wine (i.e. our bodies ability to absorb them).

Some studies claim health benefits from a glass or two of red a day. But others say we would need to drink between 100 and 1000 bottles a day to see real benefits (not recommended).

The proof is perhaps in the long life expectancy and low rate rates of heart disease in the Mediterranean, where the psychosocial benefits of wine complement its biological aspects.

Psychosocial Health Benefits of Wine

Wine has psychosocial benefits that promote overall well being.

Research has found that alcohol releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter largely responsible for experiencing pleasure.

What’s more, hydroxytrosol, a phenolic compound and antioxidant present in wine and olive oil, aids the ethanol assisted release of dopamine. Win win!

Resveratrol in wine has shown to have neuroprotective effects, including protection against the damage that leads to Alzheimer’s and dementia.

A major Spanish study has found an association between low to moderate alcohol intake and with lower rates of depression.

However, anything above “moderate” drinking appears to increase the risk (this goes for any other health conditions).

A group of people toasting with red wine. Photo by Kelsey Knight
Pictured: a bunch of health nuts. Photo by K. Knight.

Wine as a Social Ritual

Social rituals, whether formal or informal, play an important role in health and well being.

Inspired by Epicurean philosophy, the physician Hippocrates advocated a holistic approach to health in which friendship, pleasure, and wine were all necessary.

The pleasure of good wine and company also offers relief from the madness of the world, so wine can literally bring us back to our senses.

As the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han observes, our “burnout society” orients towards the vita activa while overlooking the vita contemplativa.

The ritual process of wine helps us slow down and become mindful and present. This can be important for health and well being.

Engaging in restorative activities has shown to be very good for our health. These activities can also make us more productive and creative.

A vineyard during sunrise. Photo by Sven Wilhelm.
Believe it or not, just daydreaming about a beautiful vineyard is good for you. Photo by S. Wilhelm.

Engaging with the Beauty of Wine

Wine regions and vineyards are not only beautiful but can be “therapeutic landscapes.” Anthropology and cultural geography define these as spaces of healing, especially where natural and social environments overlap.

While visiting winescapes can be therapeutic, neuroscience shows that even imagining or anticipating visiting such places can release almost the same levels of dopamine as actually visiting them.

So if you can’t make a real trip, crack the World Atlas of Wine or our Magnum Edition, pour a glass and let your imagination wander.

Anyone for 6 hours of vineyard sheep therapy?

Searching for Meaning in Wine

Another psychological health benefit of wine is meaning, something we are all searching for. Wine has a meaningful history that connects us to ancient civilizations, religious traditions, land, climate, and community.

An interest in wine can easily develop into a passion, sending us on meaningful quests (i.e. pilgrimages) for deeper understanding and appreciation of wine.

We need one last sociological caveat after extolling the many health benefits of wine. Because the relative good health of wine drinkers may be less a cause of wine than an effect of socio-economics.

A Danish study demonstrates that wine drinking is a general indicator of “optimal social, cognitive, and personality development in Denmark”.

Statistically, wine drinkers are better educated, have higher incomes, and are in better overall health than beer, spirits and even non-drinkers.

As the sociologist Max Weber might say, there appears to be an “elective affinity” between wine and positive life outcomes.

Wine and the Good Life

Being a product of nature and culture, wine is a bio-psycho-social affair that calls for an ecological perspective. Of course, reaping the health benefits of wine means balancing the health risks of alcohol.

Anything over moderate (2-3 glasses a day for males, 1-2 for females) consumption is likely to cancel out the benefits. However, we all have hard days or big nights, so consider one or two wine free days a week to balance things out.

Wine is best approached in the Mediterranean style – as part of a healthy diet and lifestyle. Doing so can improve our chances of living long and well. This means, among other things, that we can live to explore the myriad wines of the world.

Written byChris Howard

Dr. Chris Howard is an anthropologist interested in the biocultural aspects of wine. He lectures for Chaminade University of Honolulu, Massey University and conducts research for the New Zealand government and other organizations. Originally from Sonoma, CA, Chris resides in Wellington, NZ.

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