Is red wine really good for your heart and your brain?

An excerpt from Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You.  Published by Hyperion. Copyright(c)2011.

by Marie Pasinski, MD

Although much has been written about how red wine in moderation can be good for your heart and your brain, I would like you to reconsider. It’s important to understand that the studies supporting this claim are “observational.” This means they were conducted through self-reported questionnaires inquiring into the drinking habits of a large group of people, then correlated with their heart and brain health. Let’s look at why these types of studies may be severely flawed and why the opposite conclusion—that moderate drinking is unhealthy—may, in fact, be true.

In recent years we have seen that the results of similar “observational” studies were disproved when subjected to a “randomized controlled trial”—the standard bearer of scientific proof. A good example of this is female hormone replacement. For decades it was believed that female hormone replacement was beneficial. But a randomized controlled trial, called the Women’s Health Initiative, demonstrated that the exact opposite was true. The study was stopped in 2002 because women taking the study pills of estrogen plus progestin were developing heart disease and breast cancer at increased rates compared to those taking the placebo or inactive pills.

Unfortunately, randomized control trials have not been done on alcohol, nor are they likely to be done in the near future. And there is reason to believe that the observational studies out there are flawed. An important study by Dr. Tim Naimi looked at the characteristics between moderate drinkers and teetotalers. He found that moderate drinkers were wealthier, healthier, better educated, and received better health care than those who abstained from alcohol. In other words, there are many other reasons why moderate drinkers are healthier that may have nothing to do with alcohol.

Additionally, in his editorial for the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. Ira Goldberg wrote: “One wonders if the alcohol consuming group also drank more tea, ate more nuts or consumed more fish.” So we would be wise to think twice before toasting to the health of our brains with alcohol.

There have also been news stories about the incredible antioxidant benefits of resveratrol, which is found in red wine. This has been used by spirits’ fans and distributors as yet another reason to fill our goblets. Although studies did show mice that were given hefty doses of resveratrol were healthier and lived longer, an article in the New York Times pointed out that the average 150-pound person would need to drink 750 to 1,500 bottles of red wine a day in order to get the equivalent beneficial dose!

One thing that is not in dispute, however, is the fact that alcohol is a neurotoxin. Excess alcohol causes widespread damage throughout the nervous system, and in particular, it kills off cells in important memory areas. When intake is not curbed, alcoholic dementia ensues. A 2004 study by Changhai Ding and colleagues using MRI imaging showed that moderate alcohol intake is associated with brain atrophy. Even more brain damage may occur in teenagers who binge drink, because their brains are not yet fully developed.

It is also important for women to take into account the fact that even low to moderate alcohol consumption is associated with an increased risk of cancer. Although previous studies have shown a link between alcohol consumption and breast cancer, the Million Women Study in the UK shows that women who drink as little as one alcoholic beverage per day, be it wine, beer, or hard liquor, have an increased risk of cancer. The risk increased with increasing alcohol consumption, especially for cancers of the breast, liver, mouth, throat, and esophagus. After reviewing this study for the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Michael Lauer, M.D., and Paul Sorlie, Ph.D., of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, concluded: “From a standpoint of cancer risk, the message of this report could not be clearer. There is no level of alcohol consumption that can be considered safe.”

Although the above study is also observational, taking all this information into account, as well as the dire consequences of alcohol abuse and addiction, as far as I’m concerned the conclusion is clear: Alcohol is not good for us, even in small amounts. So if you can’t give up that glass of wine with dinner, a Smart Diet would include reducing the amount of alcohol you drink. If you need even more incentive for a last call, remember that alcohol contains empty calories that slow the body’s ability to burn fat for energy, and some studies support the notion that binge drinking can promote abdominal fat. They don’t call it a beer belly for nothing!

Marie Pasinski is a neurologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and author of Beautiful Brain, Beautiful You.

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