Pouring Out the Truth
Posted On Aug 03, 2016
Facts and fiction about women, wine, and health.
By Amy Zavatto
There is no single topic that causes our information-overloaded minds to plunge into an abyss of confusion faster than that of what to eat and drink for our health. And when it comes to wine, the good (and bad) news seems to change as quickly as you can pull a cork or twist a screw-cap from a bottle. There is a multitude of contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading information floating around out there. Is resveratrol, found in the skin of red grapes, a miracle or has it shown no hard evidence of helping anything except sales of grape-based products? Is a daily glass of red wine great for your health, or is it simply an excuse to imbibe more?
From dental health to heart and breast health, from pregnancy to nabbing a good night’s sleep, we checked in with the experts to untangle some of the most confusing aspects of wine and women’s health. How does a drink or two measure up? Read on.
DRINKING IN DISEASE
Perhaps the number one question on the lips of every wine imbiber: Is this glass of vino good for me or am I sipping on the liquid version of a ticking time bomb? And is wine in particular the lesser of all potential evils when it comes to alcohol? True, a glass of vodka, for example, will be somewhere around 40 percent alcohol by volume, while a glass of wine will average around 13 percent, but according to the American Cancer Society (ACS), it seems to make no difference. What does, is moderation. According to a June 2013 paper written by Dr. Susan Gapstur, MD, MPD, and vice president of epidemiology of the ACS, excessive drinking (for women, that means more than one drink a day) can be directly linked to multiple types of cancer, including breast cancer. In all likelihood this occurs because acetaldehyde, a toxic chemical produced when breaking down alcohol, can damage the DNA in normal cells, causing abnormal cell growth and, thus, cancer.
But moderate consumption has been linked to benefits as well. According to Dawn Napoli, RD at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando, these include a small but noted increase in good (HDL) cholesterol, and the potential for the resveratrol, an antioxidant found in red grape skins (as well as that of blueberries and cranberries). Resveratrol is known to benefit diabetics, lowering the risk of heart disease by preventing damage to blood vessels and possibly keeping the blood flow efficient.
Hard scientific proof on any of the above benefits still has yet to be unequivocally proven. “There are only theories, and the studies are often done not in live people, but on a cellular basis,” says Dr. Monica Reynolds, a cardiologist with Columbia Doctors Medical Group in White Plains, New York. “Some say it promotes nitric oxide formation—a chemical produced within the vascular walls that improves the flow of blood. It’s also supposed to have an anti-inflammatory affect. Some say [resveratrol] increases the HDL; other evidence says it has anti-clotting effects, but these are all theories and it’s all-vague. There’s no real hardcore understanding of what it does. Bottom line is, nobody recommends wine as treatment for heart disease.”
Still, there is some encouraging evidence on the horizon in the arena of heart disease. This past April, the New England Journal of Medicine’s conclusive study on the Mediterranean Diet— one that includes food and drink typical to areas like Italy, such as nuts, olive oil, fish, fruit, cereals and, yes, red wine in particular—found that both male and female participants had a whopping 30 percent risk decrease in cardiovascular disease. Dr. Reynolds, however, cautions that knowing who the particpants are makes a difference in what the 30 percent actually means. “These are healthy people to begin with,” she says.
THE GRAPE SKIN YOU’RE IN
Does wine wreak havoc on your skin, or is it the equivalent of the fountain of youth? There’s been much ado about the antiaging qualities that grapes provide for your skin, with a bumper crop of companies over the last decade coming out with wine grape-based skin products claiming to diminish time’s cruel crevasses and lines. Why? Again, proponents and researchers point to the polyphenol compound, resveratrol.
“Red wine is rich in resveratrol, which is an antioxidant derived from flavonoids found in grapes,” says Beverly Hillsbased esthetician Gina Mari. “Antioxidants boost collagen and elastin production, fight harmful free radicals, and reduce cellular damage to the skin.” According to Mari, Flavonoids combat the sun’s rays and—unlike physical and chemical sun blocks—produce reactive oxygen species or ROIs, which help decrease UV rays, ability to cause sunburn.
That, however, refers to wine grapes in topical form. When ingested, balance becomes a big issue. “Resveratrol, a polyphenol antioxidant, has anti-aging, anti-cancer, and anti-inflammatory benefits, and can help control blood-sugar levels,” offers holistic nutritionist and educator Peggy Kotsopoulos, host of the show Peggy K’s Kitchen. “It’s found in the skin of red grapes, and becomes most active during fermentation, making red wine the highest source.” Resveratrol, she says, can slow down the aging process and help prevent wrinkle causing free-radical damage. However, overindulging can take all those benefits and dump them down the drain. “Too much alcohol consumption stresses and dehydrates the skin, which exacerbates aging. Fruits, such as blueberries, may be better at keeping you youthful looking than a glass of wine.”
If you suffer from a skin condition like rosacea, drinking red wine not only enlarges the blood vessels, leading to redness and puffiness, but it can also exacerbate the condition, says Debra T Jaliman, board-certified dermatologist and assistant professor of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “Red wine is bad for your skin if you have rosacea, as it will tend to flare up the outbreak,” says Jaliman, author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist. In excessive amounts, it can also dehydrate skin, making you more prone to wrinkles, and constricts oxygen supply, making you look tired. But then again, says Mari, moderate acts of de-stressing with wine can go a long way. “We believe that stress is one of the top contributors to premature aging,” she notes. “A single glass of red wine at the end of a hectic day can be very therapeutic.”
CHEW ON THIS
Ever indulge in a couple of glasses of Cabernet, only to look in the mirror afterward and see your teeth have turned a hideous, dingy shade of purple? Don’t panic. Those stains will go away quickly and fairly easily. The one thing you don’t want to do, though, is brush them immediately. Instead, swish a bit of water around in your mouth and wait at least a half an hour.
“The problem, when we talk about wine and oral health, is acid,” says Dr. Gigi Meinecke, DMD, of Potomac, Maryland. Wine grapes contain malic and tartaric acids, as well as lactic, citric, and succinic, in smaller amounts.
Think of it this way, offers Dr. Meinecke: If you have a piece of glass and put citric acid on it, let it sit for a moment, and then rub it with a brush, it scratches. “That’s because it’s acidetching… It’s the same with the enamel of teeth. If you’re drinking in moderation—one to two glasses an evening—and not brushing teeth immediately afterward, these acids are not going to have a huge effect. But most people think, I’ll just run and brush my teeth.”
If you assume that white wines are safe stain-wise, think again. “People have this assumption that white wine won’t stain teeth badly, but it does,” Dr. Meinecke insists. “It acts as transport system for the pigments of other foods.” While any sort of wine will do that, if you’re keeping teeth clean and brushing and flossing morning and night, you’re doing everything that can be done. And as far as long-term discoloration goes, you can get those less-than-white stains cleaned off when you visit your oral hygienist annually, just like the stains from wine, coffee, tea, and other beverages.
SWEET, SKINNY DREAMS?
While the positive effects of the Mediterranean Diet are gaining research-backed traction, the fact of the matter is: drinking too much wine isn’t going to do anything to help you maintain a healthy weight. A five-ounce glass of wine, red or white, contains about 120 calories. For a woman of average height and weight to maintain her scale digits, she needs to keep her calorie intake just shy of 2,000. If you tip back three glasses of wine over the course of an evening, that either takes a hefty, lessnutritional-than chunk out of that caloric limit, or tacks on quite a bit.
As for how effectively that glass of vino sends you off to sleep? The experts say, “Not so well.” A glass or two of red wine will help you get to sleep, but it will negatively disrupt the necessary deep REM sleep that you need to feel rested and refreshed. As a result, you’ll likely wake up groggy and tired. “While delicious, I don’t suggest drinking red wine, or any alcohol for that matter, within three hours of bedtime,” warns Karin Mahoney, director of communications for consumer education group the Better Sleep Council.
Is drinking during pregnancy the height of irresponsible motherhood, or the equivalent of an overhyped, wine-centric witch hunt? It can be both, but this is one area where doctors seem to find irrefutable evidence to point you toward rare consumption—or better, eschewing it altogether.
“Wine in pregnancy is a continuing controversy.We know it’s been common in many cultures for centuries, with unknown consequences,” begins Dr. Bruce Young, MD, FACOG, who is the director of the NYU Langone Medical Center’s Pregnancy Loss Prevention Center and author of Miscarriage, Medicine & Miracles: Everything You Need to Know About Miscarriage. According to Young, medical research now shows that daily consumption of two or more glasses of wine during pregnancy has serious consequences for the child, which can vary from mild learning disorders and behavioral problems to stunted growth, to mental retardation, pointing to fetal alcohol syndrome. “That said, there is no threshold effect. A small dose such as a glass of wine early in pregnancy or late in the last month is not likely to damage the fetus. However, for a given woman, the amount of alcohol that would cause the mildest form of the disease is unknown. We OBs ask our patients to drink as little as possible during pregnancy, or to abstain completely, just to be safe.”
A 2012 study from Stanford University concluded that organic foods are not significantly healthier than conventionally grown or produced foods, and this caused quite a stir. These results, however, were gleaned from researchers who were, in effect, merely studying other studies—not their own test subject research. With organic or biodynamically produced wines, what it boils down to is additives, many of which you probably don’t need or want in your glass.
Understanding the terms, though, can be helpful when meandering through your wine shop’s aisles. Wines produced from organically farmed grapes are grown without synthetic pesticides and disease control. Biodynamic wines take this one step further and are made from grapes grown in a habitat concerned with bio-diversity on a farm—everything from the microbes in the soil to the weeds and plants that grow in it to the patterns of the season, sky, and surrounding elements to encourage more natural protection of the vines.
“There are 200 legally allowable additives that may be used in winemaking,” says Jenny Lefcourt, of Jenny & François Selections, adding that as of right now there are no laws in any country requiring those ingredients to be put on a label. One of those additives is sulfur, and while some labels have a base warning (“Contains sulfites,” or sulfur dioxide), that wording is only affixed to let you know there are more than 10 parts per million of sulfur in that wine. The amount can go as high as 350ppm in the US, and as high as 210ppm in the EU.
Is sulfur in wine bad? It is a safe additive allowed in wine production for everything from stopping a wine’s fermentation to acting as a preservative to extend the life of a wine, but too much can make one feel awful, and on occasion cause allergic reactions. “Some people are more sensitive than others, but some wines can make you feel terrible,”Lefcourt says. “If you’re drinking the maximum of sulfites—more than the FDA recommends you consume in a day—it makes you feel bad.” Most people who call themselves natural winemakers would only have a total of 20 or 30 milligrams of sulfur per liter—only one tenth the legal amount, and similar to the amount of sulfur that is naturally present. “Many winemakers add sulfur at bottling as a preservative, but that’s something your body doesn’t really feel, as opposed to ten times that amount.” It’s also been shown in studies that sulfur destroys vitamin B1, which helps your body metabolize alcohol and carbohydrates.
Some people are certainly more sensitive to the presence of sulfur, but when the amounts used are toeing the line on the legal limit, all the resveratrol in the world won’t tamp your body’s bad reaction to it. “There is definitely something to the notion of balance in certain wines that can make you feel good or bad,” Lefcourt insists.
GLASS HALF FULL
Trying to get to the bottom of a topic as old as wine is not an easy cork to pop. The answers become more complicated the deeper you peer through its opaque liquid-y lens. But what you can walk away with—and, possibly, the best conclusion as with most issues of health—is that being a moderate wine consumer is perfectly fine, if not quite beneficial. Overindulging, however—be it in wine, sun, carrots, vitamins, ice cream, sex, or what have you—may begin as a healthy-seeming notion, but can quickly become more akin to vice (or, at worst, detrimental). Drink in that resveratrol; have a glass of wine with dinner or with friends. Keep your consumption in check and you’ll soak in all the benefits vino has to offer. Cheers to that.