To Your Health

Where else can a teetotaler get the benefits of red wine?

Q. I am a lifelong teetotaler, having been brought up in a religion that considers any alcohol intake a sin. Thankfully I don't even like the taste of any alcoholic beverage, but I keep hearing that a few glasses of wine each week is healthy. Is this true?

A. There is a growing body of information pointing to a reduction in heart disease among consumers of red wine. The so-called "French Paradox," the observation that the French can eat lots of cheese, buttery sauces, and other rich foods and still suffer less heart disease than people in the U.S., may be partially explained by their fondness for wine.

Red wine contains a class of flavonoids called "oligomeric proanthocyanidins" or, due to this awkward name, OPCs. These are credited with increasing the good HDL cholesterol and may also inhibit the production of a peptide called endothelin-1, which is a potent blood vessel constrictor. Overproduction of endothelin-1 is thought to be a key factor in blood clotting tendency and hardening of the arteries, and both of these actions would increase the risk of heart disease.

Red wine can be considered an alcohol tincture of OPCs, with one glass of red wine supplying 4-5 mg of OPC. Typically, alcohol tinctures are absorbed more completely than water solutions, which grape juice represents. However, before you uncork the bottle, consider this: The American Heart Association recently advised health-care professionals to downplay the theory that red wine can keep heart attacks at bay. Overconsumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages may increase your blood pressure (which can increase your risk of heart disease) and carries increased risk for certain cancers, stroke, cirrhosis of the liver, and auto accidents. And at more than 140 extra calories for a couple of glasses of wine, weight gain must also be factored in. Since there are plenty of other proven lifestyle changes that you can make to reduce you risk of heart disease, taking up drinking alcohol only for your heart's sake is not recommended. The best place to shop for a healthy heart is at your grocery store, not at the liquor store.

The good news for you and other teetotalers is that OPCs are present in many other fruit juices, grape juice in particular, although fruit juices seem to be less potent than wine. Even better than aspirin, the OPCs in grape juice can decrease platelet aggregation in humans, a risk factor in coronary heart disease. Research indicates that daily consumption of red or purple grape juice protects against the development of and death from coronary artery disease the same way red wine does.

Other foods besides grapes contain OPCs. They are found in many plants like blueberries, bilberries, and cranberries. OPCs are found in betal nuts, chewed by millions of Asians as a stimulant. OPCs are also available in pills with 50 to 100 mg per pill a common amount.

Beyond having an effect of lowering heart disease risk, OPCs help maintain the natural elasticity of collagen in skin, joints, arteries, capillaries, and other connective tissues, which assists in reducing capillary resistance to blood flow. OPCs bind with collagen fibers and protects them from premature degradation, much as does vitamin C.

OPCs appear to be excellent antioxidants, measuring in the test tube many times stronger than vitamin C or E, although test tube measurements may not adequately reflect their action in a living organism. OPC-treated mice had about 50% better protection from DNA fragmentation, associated with cancer, compared with 10% to 30% protection provided by other antioxidants. In a test tube experiment that measured the response of human mouth cells to the free-radical damage caused by smokeless tobacco, OPCs were stronger antioxidants than vitamins C and E, even when the two vitamins were combined.

So there is no need to compromise your principles to obtain the benefits attributed to red wine. In place of 2-4 ounces of wine, just have 8-10 ounces of red or purple grape juice or another good source of OPCs daily, along with an otherwise heart-healthy lifestyle.

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