As we enter the season of family gatherings and holiday parties, when imbibing is often on the itinerary, we may wonder: Should we or shouldn’t we? The latest research findings may help you decide. A Harvard University study found that as few as three glasses of wine per week can increase your risk of breast cancer. So if you are at high risk for breast cancer, you’re going to want to think long and hard about having even one drink.
On the other hand, red wine appears to reduce the risk of some other types of cancer. And the evidence is even clearer for heart disease. Researchers have long noted that people who drink moderately tend to be healthier and live longer than people who don’t drink at all. And it’s not just because they know how to have a good time. There are some decent scientific explanations for why a bit of alcohol, particularly red wine, can protect your heart, blood vessels and brain. Here are some benefits to weigh as you consider your beverage choices.
Reduced risk of some types of cancer. An “anti-aging” compound called resveratrol in red wine can reduce tumors in mice, and, in the laboratory, inhibit many types of cancer cells, including leukemia, skin, breast, and prostate cancers. Research has found that drinking a glass of red wine a day may cut a man's risk of prostate cancer in half and that the protective effect appears to be strongest against the most aggressive forms of the disease. And a glass a day reduced women’s risk for ovarian cancer by as much as 50 percent. One important way resveratrol works is by reducing activation of a gene that stimulates cancer cell growth and metastasis. It also reduces inflammation, which promotes cancer development.
Lower heart disease and heart attack risk. Moderate alcohol use reduces the risk of coronary heart disease, atherosclerosis, and heart attack by about 30 percent to 50 percent, compared with nondrinkers. Plant compounds called polyphenols in red wine increase levels of HDL cholesterol, reduce the formation of blood clots and help reduce inflammation in the cells lining your blood vessels.
Slower age-related memory decline. Studies around the world show that moderate drinkers are less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, and do better on memory tests, than those who do not drink at all. Wine, especially, may help maintain blood flow to the brain the same way it protects your heart: by preventing blood clots, cholesterol build-up and reducing inflammation in blood vessels.
Less abdominal fat. People who drink wine daily have lower body mass than those who indulge occasionally. Moderate wine drinkers have narrower waists and less abdominal fat than people who drink liquor. Polyphenols in red wine actually inhibit fat cell formation and induce fat-burning. Plus, the effort your body must make to metabolize an alcoholic drink burns extra calories for about 90 minutes. The trick is to count alcohol calories as part of your diet and not overindulge.
Fewer stomach problems. In the days before water sanitation, drinking alcohol was safer than drinking dirty water, as alcohol kills germs. In one study, people who drank about one glass of wine a day cut their risk of infection by Helicobacter pylori bacteria, a major cause of gastritis, ulcers and stomach cancers. As little as half a glass may also guard against food poisoning when people are exposed to contaminated food.
Stronger bones. Women who drink moderately have higher bone mass than abstainers. Alcohol boosts estrogen levels slightly; this hormone slows bone breakdown and can beef up the production of new bone in women past menopause.
Better insulin sensitivity. In women with type 2 diabetes, two weeks of daily drinking of 12 ounces of red wine improved glucose clearance by 43 percent—indicating reduced insulin resistance, a main cause of type 2 diabetes—as much as any drug or exercise. Researchers believe that one of the polyphenols in red wine, called resveratrol, activates genes in cells that boost insulin sensitivity.
Reduced stroke risk. Light-to-moderate alcohol consumption reduces your risk for ischemic stroke (the most common kind of stroke, caused by a blood clot.) It improves blood flow to the brain, increases HDL cholesterol, and reduces the tendency for unwanted blood clots. However, it increases the risk of hemorrhagic stroke–caused by bleeding in the brain.
Better digestion. Red wine stimulates the release of gastrin, a hormone secreted by the stomach that, in turn, stimulates hydrochloric acid secretion, stomach and upper-intestine contractions and the release of pancreatic enzymes that all improve the digestion of food.
Sunburn prevention. The same polyphenols that protect your heart and brain may also protect your skin when it is overexposed to sun. Researchers from Spain found that these plant compounds protect skin cells from the ultraviolet radiation that causes sunburn, skin damage and wrinkles. But don’t ditch your sunscreen for a bottle of merlot, just yet. You’ll have to wait until skin products containing red wine’s polyphenols are on the market.