In a glass of red wine, the health benefits may be many

The evidence is growing: Wine is good medicine.

A British heart surgeon has started prescribing a daily dose of two glasses of red wine for cardiac patients at the Great Western hospital in Swindon, England.

William McCrea began recommending the daily tipples after scientific research convinced him that moderate consumption of red wine can reduce the risk of heart attacks by 50 percent and cut the chances of strokes by 20 percent.

More than a decade ago, research into the so-called French paradox linked moderate wine consumption with a lower risk of heart disease.

Now scientists are investigating whether wine improves cardiovascular health. Even for patients with advanced heart disease, moderate drinking may help reduce the risk of a second or third heart attack, according to studies at the Laboratory of Cardiovascular Stress and Associated Pathology at Grenoble University in Lyon, France, and at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston.

A little red wine may also help prevent prostate cancer, reduce the occurrence of bowel polyps (a precursor of colon cancer), and ward off skin cancer.

Considering that heart disease and cancer are the two leading causes of death in America and Europe (killing about two-thirds of all adults), this news is being embraced by scientists as they try to further understand the relationship between red wine and health.

Wine lovers who live longer may also enjoy life longer. Research conducted in the Netherlands and published in the British medical journal The Lancet suggests that red wine lowers the risk of dementia and Alzheimer's disease in older people.

Most of the recent studies have focused on a polyphenol compound called resveratrol. A powerful antioxidant, resveratrol is found in the skins of grapes (and in much greater concentrations in red wine -- which is fermented on the skins -- than in white wines).

Red wine's role in fighting cardiovascular disease is pretty clear. I remember a 1994 conference in San Francisco on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet, sponsored by Oldways Preservation and Exchange Trust, where the noted French epidemiologist Serge Renaud said, "If red wine were offered in pill form, it would be more effective than any pharmaceutical on the market."

No wonder health-food stores are selling red-wine extract pills. And researchers at the University of Leicester in England are set to begin testing a cancer prevention pill based on resveratrol on patients with preoperative colon cancer.

Resveratrol's effects on cancer are just beginning to be explored. As reported in the Feb. 20 issue of the journal Cancer Letters, resveratrol destroyed human skin-cancer cells in laboratory experiments at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va.

Last spring, researchers at the University of Wisconsin released the results of a study indicating that resveratrol may help prevent sunburn and certain skin cancers when applied to skin in cream form. The study's coauthor, Nihal Ahmad, wrote that "resveratrol acts as an antioxidant to prevent and repair the damages caused by UV exposure."

Resveratrol is found in nuts and berries as well as in grapes and wine, but it is most highly concentrated in red wines. The average amount of resveratrol in 1 ounce of peanuts (without the skins) is 73 micrograms. In comparison, red wine contains about 160 micrograms per ounce.

Certain types of red wine -- specifically, red wines that improve with age, such as French Bordeaux, premium cabernet sauvignon, petite sirah, malbec, and pinot noir -- have higher concentrations of resveratrol than others. And grapes grown in cooler climates have higher levels than those from warmer climes.

Most health professionals recommend "moderate" consumption of wine for patients who drink wine. What constitutes moderate drinking varies from culture to culture, but in the United States it's usually defined as about two 4-ounce glasses a day for men and one glass for women.

Women need to watch their intake, however, because alcohol consumption may slightly increase their risk of breast cancer.

One potentially potent and delicious source of resveratrol is wine made from the thick-skinned malbec grape. Malbec yields wines that are dense, inky and somewhat rustic. In Bordeaux, small amounts are used as a blending grape to add color and tannin to cabernet sauvignon and merlot.

In France's Cahors region, malbec is bottled on its own and is known as "the black wine." The grape was exported to South America in the 19th century and is now the most widely planted grape in Argentina.

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