Health Effects of Red Wine – How Moderate Drinking Can be Good For You

Sometimes after a long day at work, I look forward to washing dinner down with a fine glass of wine. 

(Yes, even when I have work again the next day…)

Wouldn’t it be nice if wine actually was beneficial to your health? Luckily for both of us, that’s actually the case – for moderate quantities, anyway.

That’s right. Wine – particularly red wine – can influence your health in a number of positive ways.

À votre santé!

Bottles of red wine in a rack

How Can Wine be Healthy?

For many of the positive effects of wine, the full benefits only come when you drink in moderation. 

The concept of hormesis and the hormetic zone refers to the dosage of a particular substance or physical stress which causes a positive biological effect. Generally, these stressors have a J-shaped dose-response, where some exposure is “good for you” but continued exposure can cause damage.

The classic example is working out. Working out 3-6 times a week for an hour or 2 builds an impressive physique, but too much exercise can lead to injury and symptoms of overtraining.

Inverted J-curve showing hormetic effects
In the hormetic zone, a moderate dose of an otherwise harmful stressor can be good for you (Wikimedia)

So too for wine; a moderate amount of wine (and the alcohol in it) – a glass or two a night, maximum – can have positive effects. However, too much alcohol over time has the opposite effect – you can assume that most of the benefits in my list will dry up.

Of course, too much wine also leads to acute effects… like a terrible hangover that’ll ruin your day.

Red Wine vs. White Wine

The difference between red wine and white wine is red wine is fermented with the grape seeds and skin. 

Leaving seeds and skins in wine while it ferments affects the color, but it also affects the composition of win. Most interestingly, red wines are richer in tannins and byproducts such as resveratrol than white wines

From what we know today, red wines tend to have more health-promoting effects than white wines. White wine does seem to have positive effects as well, but white wines also have a tendency to accumulate more toxic byproducts during fermentation such as acetaldehyde

What is the French Paradox?

The French Paradox refers to the fact that the average French person has a much lower risk of heart disease, despite a diet that’s full of rich foods and saturated fats. And, as you might expect by its inclusion in this post, a fair amount of wine.

Lots of different explanations have been proposed to make sense of this paradox. We can’t entirely explain why the French diet is so healthy, unfortunately. The current thinking is there’s something about the French diet that protects the eater from some of the adverse side effects. 

One of those potential mitigating factors? Their aforementioned  enjoyment of red wine.

That’s right – the same biological effects we’re discussing might explain some of that French longevity, and their generally lower levels of heart disease, cancer, and obesity.

Two people toasting with red wine

Active Ingredients in Red Wine

At a surface level, red wine is nothing but grape juice that’s been left to ferment and age. 

Set that aside – if you dig a little bit deeper, red wine contains loads of biologically active organic compounds that can help explain the health benefits of drinking in moderation.

Resveratrol

Resveratrol is a compound found in the skins of grapes, blueberries, raspberries, and other dark red fruits. 

Official data is in some places contradictory, and resveratrol is poorly bioavailable (that is, your body breaks down a majority during digestion). However, scientists believe resveratrol on its own can help reduce the risk of heart failure or cardiovascular disease and convey a multitude of other beneficial effects on the body. 

Resveratrol is also usually cited as the most influential compound in explaining the paradoxical health benefits of wine.

Flavanols and Flavonols

Flavanols and flavonols are two separate groups of compounds generally found in fruits and vegetables. Flavanols are much rarer than flavonols, but both are found in relatively high quantities in wine. 

Both groups of compounds have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects, and can even help the body block “bad bacteria” from starting an infection.

Antioxidants

In addition to resveratrol, red wine carries loads of other antioxidants—particularly malvidinanthocyanin, and catechin—that can help reduce the risk of heart disease and boost the body’s natural immune system.

Resveratrol is the most active ingredient in red wine, but these other antioxidants pack a punch on their own.

Alcohol

Ethyl alcohol or ethanol is the primary biologically active substance in wine. It’s what makes you intoxicated.

Produced by the fermentation of yeast, sugar, and various starches, ethyl alcohol is actually the only type of alcohol that humans can consume without suffering severe health effects from even small doses. 

Ethanol is the psychoactive ingredient that gives you that buzz off of a few glasses of red wine, which means that it has the most immediate health effect out of all the other main ingredients in red wine.

Other Ingredients

As wine ferments, the process creates a variety of other organic compounds that lend a red wine its characteristic color and flavor. In colder climates, winemakers will sometimes add extra sugar to help speed up the fermenting process, especially if the grapes weren’t able to fully ripen before harvesting. 

The type of barrel that the winemakers used to store the wine can also add flavor and character to the finished product—an oak barrel, for example, gives a subtle note of vanilla to red wines. Oak barrels, in particular, also impart a significant amount of their own tannins into the process.

The process of fermentation causes some byproducts, as well. Acetaldehyde appears in small quantities in winemaking – but it’s also one of the major carcinogens found in tobacco smoke. Other non-desirable components such as acetone (yes, the active ingredient in nail polish remover) are measurable in wine as well.

15 Health Benefits of Red Wine

1. Moderate amounts are good for your heart

Bent wire and lights in a heart shape

Heart disease is one of the greatest threats to people around the world – and particularly in America. Anything that reduces the risk of heart disease is a definite win, and red wine has some major positive claims on this subject. 

 The health benefits of red wine have long focused on its heart-healthy attributes – red wine is known to reduce the risk of heart failure when enjoyed in moderate amounts. No one is entirely sure how red wine protects the heart, but most researchers believe that resveratrol is a critical fighter in this particular battle. 

Whether the health effects are due to the resveratrol, the general combination of antioxidants (or some combination of both) red wine’s heart-healthy effects are its most persuasive arguments as a healthy drink.

2. Can improve cholesterol levels

Group toasting with white wine

High cholesterol is another one of those health markers that plagues more and more countries. People who enjoy a moderate amount of red wine seem to have better cholesterol readings than those who abstain or overdrink.

Again, resveratrol probably takes the credit here. Resveratrol is known to inhibit the lipid peroxidation processes—in other words, it can help prevent the buildup of fat along the arteries. 

This reduces the amount of cholesterol found in the bloodstream and can help prevent some of the medical conditions that come along with high cholesterol. Diet and exercise still play a hugely important role, of course, but red wine provides a little extra help.

3. May help you live longer

Turtle swimming in the ocean

It may seem like a natural result of all the heart-healthy benefits listed so far, but red wine can boost your longevity beyond protecting your heart. While the health benefits that red wine promotes can play a huge role in prolonging your natural lifespan, some studies indicate that red wine can actually induce the growth and production of longevity genes!

It almost sounds like science fiction, but resveratrol seems to have similar effects to calorie restriction on your body. Both fasting and resveratrol improve insulin sensitivity and are incredibly cardioprotective.

For this study, the familiar red and white wine positions were reversed. Scientists found white wine encouraged longevity better than red wine.

4. Lowers risk of type 2 diabetes

Lady doing a yoga post in background on pier

Type 2 diabetes is yet another health risk that is all too common in many Western countries. Fortunately, research indicates that red wine may help prevent diabetes! 

According to a 2005 study, test participants who drank a moderate amount of red wine daily showed a 30% reduction in their risk for Type 2 diabetes.

What makes this study especially interesting is that there was no significant difference in test participants measured by Body Mass Index (BMI). In other words, no matter where you’re at with your fitness goals, a moderate amount of red wine can reduce your risk for associated diseases and help you get a head start on your plan to get where you need to be.

5. Bone Mineral Density

Focus on lady's fist while she punches at camera

As we get older, our bodies stop producing osteocytes, or bone cells, at the same rate as before. As a result, our bones tend to get slightly more brittle or fragile, which can obviously be dangerous and results in general weakness and bone fractures. However, according to a 2012 study on bone density in women after menopause, red wine can help your bones stay sturdy and healthy for a longer time!

Out of a range of tested alcoholic beverages, red wine was one of the only drinks that boosted bone density in the test participants. At the end of the study, the participants who had enjoyed a moderate amount of red wine had stronger, thicker bones than the participants who hadn’t. 

Maybe we should be reaching for a bottle of wine instead of milk?

6. Counteracts blood clot formation

Cartoon blood cells

Blood clotting is a crucial part of the way our body protects against disease and infection. However, inside the body, blood clots can lead to a whole range of health complications that only get worse as we get older. 

Red wine is well-known for its anti-inflammatory properties that reduce the risks of infection or fever, but those same properties can also help our body fight off dangerous clots within our bloodstreams.

According to a 2018 article on red wine’s health benefits, resveratrol, anthocyanins, and catechins can actually break through a blood clot barrier and help break down any clumps that are starting to form within the veins. This is a massive plus when it comes to reducing the risk of stroke or any blocked arteries and veins.

7. Prevents Cataracts

Lady with beautiful blue and green eyes

Red wine’s health benefits aren’t limited to things on your insides, either. When it comes to one of the more unique advantages of drinking red wine, the eyes have it! 

A moderate amount of red wine has been linked to a lowered risk of developing cataracts or other degenerative eye diseases.

Once again, the powerhouse of red wine’s healing properties is the mysterious compound resveratrol. While we may not know the exact mechanisms, we know red wine can greatly reduce the risk of blindness as a result of degenerative eye disease. 

One possible hypothesis is that the antioxidants found in red wine help reduce the risk of inflammation in the eyes and allow the immune system to fight back against any potentially dangerous infections.

8. Fights Ulcer-Causing Bacteria

Microscope on bacteria on slide

Most of us have used rubbing alcohol as a cleaning agent or as an antibacterial compound. It should come as no surprise that the alcohol found in red wine has similar antibacterial properties. 

H. pylori is the bacteria that causes ulcers or even gastric cancers. It infects about half the world and seems to be practically omnipresent.

According to a 1999 study, red wine can not only fight back against ulcers but can actually prevent H. pylori from attacking your internal organs in the first place! Because red wine has a higher alcohol content than similar drinks, the bacteria-killing effect of a glass of red wine can go a long way towards making sure that your body has its best chance to fight off any intestinal baddies.

9. Might aid in weight loss

Man biking on left side of road around corner

Even if you’re already at a healthy weight… who isn’t on the lookout for ways to keep their diets on track? According to scientists at Washington State University, a moderate amount of red wine can actually help you lose weight and keep weight off in a healthy, sustainable way.

As mentioned earlier, red wine contains compounds that can help prevent your body from converting food sources into fat. This helps protect the veins and the heart, but it also means that the energy from high-fat foods is more likely to be stored as beige fat instead of white fat. 

Beige and brown fat are thermogenic fats that actually help you burn off your fat deposits, while white fat is the traditional “bad” accumulated fat.

10. Can improve short term memory

Chess pieces with a narrow depth of field

You may have heard that dark chocolate can boost your memory, but red wine has some of the same effects for the same reason! Resveratrol is found in both dark chocolate and red wine, and it is once again the main driving force behind this health benefit of red wine.

In a 2014 study, participants were given resveratrol supplements or a placebo and then tested on their short-term memory abilities after the study was concluded. 

The participants who had been taking resveratrol showed an increase in short-term recall when compared to the placebo group. In other words, if you find yourself looking for something, maybe a few bites of dark chocolate or a sip of red wine is the way to find it!

11. Could prevent damage from strokes

Rusted iron shield hanging on a wall

When a person has a stroke, the main danger comes from damage to neurons while the body struggles to provide oxygen. Red wine can’t actually increase the amount of oxygen in the bloodstream, but it can better shield the cells in the brain and nervous system until your body can fix the problem.

Resveratrol boosts the shielding enzymes that surround some of the most fragile cells in the body. This means that in the event of a stroke, your body can hold off against the damage for longer. 

While medical help is still incredibly important, this shielding effect might give your brain a much better chance of fighting back against the lack of oxygen and help protect you from some of the more damaging health effects of a stroke.

12. Moderate consumption can prevent cognitive decline

Rubik's Cube in lady's hand

The human brain cleans itself by flushing the brain tissue with cerebrospinal fluid which “rinses” away any accumulated toxins. Once rinsed, these toxins are dissolved into the bloodstream and cleared away by your body’s immune system. 

This natural flushing process protects the brain from dangerous diseases and toxins that would otherwise damage the most critical organ in the body.

Drinking a moderate amount of red wine can help this process. Some of the compounds found in red wine reduce inflammation in the brain and prevent the adhesion of toxins to the delicate tissue of your brain! As a result, a few glasses of red wine can help you stay sharper for longer and reduce your risk of contracting neurological diseases or conditions that impair your brain’s capacity.

13. Fights cavities and tooth decay

Lady with nice teeth smiling

Nothing beats a regular trip to the dentist, but for those of us whose busy schedule doesn’t allow for intense dental work every month, red wine can actually help keep your teeth shiny and white! Red wine has antiadhesive properties that block harmful bacteria in the gut, and the same features can kick in to help your smile.

According to a 2018 article, the antiadhesive capabilities of the compounds found in red wine (polyphenols and oenological extracts, to be specific) help stop some of the most common tooth decay bacteria. These are nasty bugs that cause everything from gum decay to cavities. 

It won’t beat carefully brushing your teeth, but it’s still a pretty good argument to pour that glass of wine!

14. Can prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s disease

Lady reading a book in library

The same anti-inflammatory properties that make red wine a good weight loss or antioxidant compound help stave off neurodegenerative disease as well! 

As usual, this study only applies to red wine enjoyed in moderation, but according to a 2004 study, an occasional glass of red wine was found to significantly reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s and other neurological degenerative diseases.

As mentioned above, red wine can help prevent ischemic stroke damage, and those same anti-inflammatory properties can help protect the brain against common aging diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. While too much drinking leads to its own memory problems, a glass enjoyed in moderation can help you build a healthy, flexible brain that will keep you feeling sharp and ready to go for years to come!

15. (Somewhat) Mimics Exercise

A lady does an overhead press

You may have read some popular headlines claiming that a glass of red wine can mimic the benefits gained from exercise. The truth is that it absolutely can—but only to a minimal degree. You would need to drink around thirteen hundred glasses of red wine to replace the benefits gained from an hour of exercise. 

In general, while the resveratrol in a glass of wine can definitely boost the usual health and cardiovascular strength kick that you can get from working out, you shouldn’t cut your daily job just yet. 

Instead, consider your daily glass of red wine as a supplement to enhance the benefits you get from something as simple as a brisk walk around the neighborhood!

Negative Effects of Red Wine

Of course, while the health effects of red wine have long been a topic of interest in the medical field, there are plenty of adverse side effects. As I’ve mentioned, the key to gaining the benefits of red wine is found in moderation

There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a glass of red wine or two for its health benefits and social value, but drinking to excess is dangerous. If you think you are beginning to develop symptoms of alcohol use disorder, you are not alone. Reach out to some of the people around you who want to help and use any resources available to you.

Hangovers

Perhaps the most obvious acute negative effect of red wine is the infamous wine hangover. Because red wines, especially, have a higher concentration of alcohol than other alcoholic beverages, the hangover from drinking red wine can be pretty powerful. 

The exact cause of a hangover is still unknown, but factors like age, gender, genetics, and frequent alcohol consumption can all play a role in just how bad your hangover is going to be the next day. 

Sulfite concentration, tannins, histamines, and other features of red wines undoubtedly play a part. Still, the truth is hangovers can be pretty terrible… and we really don’t know all the details why.

High amounts bad for heart health

While red wine protects your heart in small doses, it has the opposite effect in large quantities. 

If you regularly consume a large amount of red wine, you may be putting your heart at increased risk for vascular diseases and other circulatory illnesses that will impact your ability to keep living life to its fullest.

Excess amounts of wine can increase the risk of certain cancers

We all know that cigarettes cause cancer, but the link between alcohol and cancer hasn’t attracted nearly the same amount of attention.

 Nevertheless, the World Health Organization lists alcohol as a Group 1 carcinogen, which means that it is as dangerous as asbestos. Excess amounts of alcohol are linked to an increased risk of breast cancer, as well as cancers of the throat, lungs, liver, and mouth.

On top of what we know about alcohol, the fermentation process also leads to undesirable compounds such as acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde is a Group B2 (probable) carcinogen in its own right and something you want to avoid as best you can.

Other Effects

As mentioned above, excess consumption of red wine can lead to a high risk of alcohol use disorder, colloquially known as alcoholism

If you or someone you love is showing signs of alcohol addiction, reach out to a trusted source and get the help that you need to take care of your health.

Beautiful lady with wine glass

Is Red Wine Good for You?

With the list of negative side effects spelled out above, red wine may seem like less and less of a godsend and more like a serious health risk. As a general rule, red wine can be good for you, but only in moderation. 

If you choose not to drink for personal, financial, or religious reasons, there are still ways to get some of the same health benefits present in red wine—without the nasty hangover.

If you choose to drink, how much is moderate?

As a general rule, a moderate amount of red wine in a night is no more than one glass for women and two glasses for men. Depending on your age, weight, height, and gender, you may be able to drink slightly more or less than some of your friends or family members. 

More than that can be dangerous, however, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism sets a maximum of fourteen drinks per week for men and seven for women.

In this context, a “drink” is defined as around fourteen grams of pure alcohol. In red wine, this translates to about five fluid ounces of table wine. 

Alternatives to Drinking

The most obvious alternative option to drinking red wine is drinking grape juice

You will not get the same buzz as you would from a nice glass of wine, but you’ll get many of the same health benefits without the increased risk of cancer or various other health effects from overconsuming alcohol. 

But if you can’t quite make yourself order a glass of grape juice the next time you’re out with friends, there are still ways to get some of the same compounds that make red wine so heart-healthy!

Apples, berries, and a wine bottle

Where else can you get resveratrol?

Resveratrol can be found in red wine, but it can also be found in a wide variety of other foods that are equally tasty. 

Here are some other foods which usually come with a significant amount of resveratrol:

  • peanuts
  • pistachios
  • blueberries
  • cacao
  • some dark chocolates

What else has comparable antioxidants?

As mentioned above, you can get most of red wine’s health benefits from grape juice or by eating regular, un-juiced grapes. 

If you want a more convenient method, however, most of the antioxidants and compounds found in red wine can be purchased as supplements. Whether you prefer peanuts or pills, chocolate or capsules, there are ways to get the health benefits you need besides red wine.

What do you think?

It’s nice to know that there are some benefits to a daily wine habit – in moderation. A small amount of red might even be beneficial to your health.

Let’s toast to that.

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