Have you ever wondered how the French can eat rich, fatty foods and still live long, healthy lives? According to a growing number of studies, the secret to this phenomenon, known as the “French paradox,” may be due to the red wine many Europeans drink with daily meals. In fact, a January 2010 review in the International Journal of Wine Research reported that drinking moderate amounts of red wine appears to offer significant protection from coronary heart disease, even in those who routinely eat a diet high in saturated fat.
What makes red wine so healthy? The key is an antioxidant compound in wine called resveratrol that may help prevent atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) by directly affecting the endothelium—the cells that line blood vessels.
In a January 2012 placebo-controlled trial of 40 patients who had suffered a heart attack, researchers at the University of Pecs, Hungary, found that taking just 10 mg of resveratrol daily for three months boosted endothelial function. The researchers noted that one way resveratrol triggered these positive changes was by reducing the “stickiness” of blood platelets, thus preventing them from clumping together and forming a clot.
Study participants who took resveratrol also saw improvement in several other important risk factors for heart disease—their LDL (bad) cholesterol levels and blood pressure dropped, and their arteries were more flexible compared to those of participants taking a placebo. The study was published in Clinical Hemorheology and Microcirculation.
Earlier research conducted at the University of London suggests that resveratrol positively influences the way the cells communicate with each other in the lining of blood vessels. Another study, published in the journal Biofactors in September 2010, found that resveratrol triggers the release of nitric oxide, which plays an important role in relaxation of blood vessels (vasodilation). Considered together, these findings strongly suggest that resveratrol improves vascular health and may even play a role in preventing atherosclerosis.
Other health benefits
Your heart may not be the only thing that can benefit from resveratrol. A January 2012 review in Anticancer Agents in Medicinal Chemistry suggests that resveratrol provides protection against cancer by regulating the destruction of cancer cells. And according to a January 2006 study published in Nutrition and Cancer journal, research at France’s University of Burgandy demonstrated that resveratrol also suppresses tumors by preventing the growth of blood vessels that feed them. These actions may explain why preliminary studies have found that this wine-derived antioxidant may offer protection against pancreatic, lung, colon, prostate, breast and skin cancers. Keep in mind that cancer is a multifaceted illness and much more research is needed before we can conclusively say that resveratrol will help prevent or treat it.
In addition to keeping arteries healthy and protecting against cancer, resveratrol was shown to help minimize damage to the brain following a stroke in an October 2010 study published in the Journal of Neuroimmunology. Its mechanisms were believed to be two-fold: first, reducing inflammation in the brain; and second, blocking free radicals from doing further harm.
In a February 2007 study published in the journal Aging Cell, scientists from Harvard Medical School discovered that the antioxidant actually increased the life span of a specific type of yeast cell by 70 percent. When resveratrol was injected into the cells, it mimicked calorie restriction, which studies have confirmed is the only known way to slow aging. During related research, the Harvard team found that resveratrol also extended the life span of mice eating a high-calorie diet. While this research is preliminary, scientists speculate that resveratrol could have the same effect on humans.
How much should you take?
While an occasional glass of red wine with dinner is one way to boost your resveratrol intake, it may not be the most efficient. A better way to ensure you’re obtaining the health benefits this powerful antioxidant is to take a daily resveratrol supplement.
Resveratrol exists in two forms: cis-resveratrol and trans-resveratrol. While both forms are similar, the bulk of scientific study has been on the “trans-” variety, which appears to be more biologically active than its “cis-“ cousin.
Dosage is important, too. Look for a standardized supplement that provides at least 20 mg of trans-resveratrol per serving. But since research shows resveratrol is extremely safe, even at high doses, people with existing health issues may want to opt for 100 mg daily.