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To your health
By Geoff Bland

As a practicing physician, I'm often asked by patients, "Should I drink a glass of wine for my heart?" It seems like such a simple question that a yes or no should suffice, but in reality, the answer is more complex and requires some understanding of the effects of wine on the human body.

It is also fascinating to me that 25 years ago, no one ever asked that question.

To trace the origin of the question and see the beginning of interest in the connection between wine and health, we must go back to 1991 and a broadcast done by Morley Safer on "60 Minutes" called "The French Paradox." In this segment, Safer explored the fact that the French, while consuming a diet high in fat and dairy products, experience a much lower rate of heart disease than Americans. His simple closing statement - that "The answer to the paradox may lie in this inviting glass" -spurred wine sales in the U.S., and they have never looked back. As a wine merchant, I thank him for that!

To understand the answer to the original question requires a little knowledge of heart disease, cholesterol and platelets. Heart attacks are caused when a blood clot suddenly develops in one of the coronary arteries, typically in an area that has been somewhat narrowed by the buildup of a cholesterol plaque. This plaque has usually developed over a period of many years and has not caused major problems even if it is blocking the artery by a large amount. It is the sudden development of a blood clot, or thrombus, at the site of the blockage that leads to complete occlusion of the artery and a heart attack. It is felt that high levels of cholesterol cause these plaques.

Cholesterol is a fatty substance that circulates in the bloodstream, and it comes in several different types - the density of the molecule differentiates the types. HDL cholesterol is considered healthy, as it decreases the buildup of cholesterol deposits in the blood vessels. Red wine and other forms of alcohol increase the body's level of HDL cholesterol, a very good thing. LDL is considered the bad form of cholesterol, as it leads to the buildup of cholesterol deposits. In order for LDL to penetrate the wall of a blood vessel and cause a blockage, a chemical process called oxidation must occur. All wine, and particularly red wine, contains a chemical compound called resveratrol, which is a powerful antioxidant. This may lead to decreased buildup of plaque in the arteries of the body.

The previously mentioned blood clot is caused by the aggregation or clumping of platelets. Platelets are small cells that circulate in the bloodstream and usually prevent us from bleeding excessively when we injure ourselves. That's normally a good thing, but in the case of the partially blocked coronary artery, this clotting may be fatal. Once again, our friend resveratrol comes to the recue. Resveratrol decreases the platelets' ability to clump together and cause clots. This property may partially explain the health benefit of wine, as it decreases the chance of a clot completely closing off a partially blocked artery.

So we see that the three benefits of wine are raising HDL cholesterol, decreasing oxidation of LDL cholesterol and decreasing aggregation of platelets. These are all desirable things, and if you have no compelling reason not to drink a glass of wine, then enjoy it in good health. But it is important for people to consider the potential negative effects of wine on their health.

People with pre-existing liver disease should avoid wine, as should people who take medication that may affect the health of their liver. Finally, people who suffer from alcohol addiction should avoid wine for obvious reasons. 

With those caveats aside, about 90 percent of the population can enjoy a glass of wine and feel that they are doing something positive for their health. It seems Plato was onto something when he wrote that "nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was ever granted by the Gods to man."


Story published Friday, November 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 6 )

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