Forget apples. Instead, it’s a glass of red wine a day that may keep the doctor away. Studies show red wine may protect the heart and control cholesterol levels, among other benefitsRed wine: A drink to your heart. Saleem, T.S., Basha, S.D. Department of Pharmacology, Annamacharya College of Pharmacy, new Boyanapalli, Rajampet, Andhra Pradesh, India. Journal of Cardiovascular Disease Research, 2010 Oct;1(4):171-6.Grape seed and red wine polyphenol extracts inhibit cellular cholesterol uptake, cell proliferation, and 5-lipoxgenase activity. Leifert, W.R., Abeywardena, M.Y. Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Division of Human Nutrition, Adelaide BC, Australia. Nutrition Research, 2008 Dec;28(12):842-50.Favorable effects of berry consumption on platelet function, blood pressure, and HDL cholesterol. Erlund, I., Koli, R., Alfthan, G., et al. Biomarker Laboratory, Department of Health and Functional Capacity, Nutrition Public Health Institute, Helsinki, Finland. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 2008 Feb;87(2):323-31.. And these protective qualities have been mostly attributed to two components in red wine: the alcohol and the grape’s antioxidants.

French Paradox — Why It Matters

The French may be on to something: Despite a diet heavy in saturated fats (think: rich cheeses and buttery croissants), French rates of obesity and heart disease are relatively low, causing researches to ponder the connection between the French fondness for red wine and the French ParadoxModerate red wine consumption and cardiovascular disease risk: beyond the “French paradox”. Lippi, G., Franchini, M., Favaloro, E.J., et al. Diagnostica Ematochimica, Azienda Ospedaliero-Universitaria di Parma, Italy. Seminars in Thrombosis and Hemostasis 2010 Feb; 36(1):59-70..

Moderate alcohol consumption, one to three drinks per day, is shown to improve heart health and circulation. In some studies, moderate drinkers were associated with the lowest mortality rates. Alcoholic beverages, including wine, are credited with increasing “good” HDL cholesterol levels (HDL cholesterol basically acts like the body’s maintenance crew; scavenging and removing LDL, or “bad,” cholesterol).

But cholesterol levels are only half of the equation. Red wine’s antioxidant superpowers (resveratrol, to be exact) may also providing protection against problems with blood flow to the brain, possibly preventing stroke (though the research is currently based on rats, so results may vary for humans)Resveratrol protects against experimental stroke: putative neuroprotective role of heme oxygenase 1. Sakata, Y., Zhuang, H., Kwansa, H., et al. Anesthesiology and Critical Care Medicine, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore , MD. Experimental Neurology, 2010 Jul;224(1):325-9. The grape itself is responsible for two of red wine’s star antioxidants: resveratrol in the skin and proanthocyanidin in the seed. So why are these little guys so important? Antioxidants help protect the body’s cells against free radical damage, a type of oxidative stress, which can be a precursor to diseases like heart disease, Parkinson’s, and Alzheimer’sRed and White Wines Inhibit Cholesterol Oxidation Induced by Free Radicals. Tian, L., Wang, H., Abdallah, A.M., et al. College of Enology, Northwest A&F University, China. Journal of Agriculture Food Chemistry 2011 May.. Wine can also increase life span by inducing longevity genesWine and polyphenols related to platelet aggregation and atherothrombosis. Ruf, J.C. Nutrition and Health Unit, International Wine and Vine Office, Paris, France. Drugs Under Experimental Clinical Research 1999;25(2-3):125-31.. One study even suggested moderate amounts of red wine and purple grape juice be included in the 5-7 recommended daily servings of fruits and vegetables by the American Heart AssociationPotential health benefits from the flavonoids in grape products on vascular disease. Folts, J.D. Coronary Thrombosis Research Laboratory, University of Wisconsin Medical School, Madison 53792-3248, USA. Advanced Experimental Medical Biology 2002;505:95-111..

But remain wary: the bulk of these pro-wine studies were done on mice and not verified on humans. Plus, the mice weren’t lucky enough to drink actual wine— just fed high doses of pure resvertrol far larger than a human could get from drinking any reasonable amount of wine.

To Drink, or Not to Drink? — The Answer/Debate

Not a fan of red? While it lacks the reservatol present in red wine, white wine, might be just as protective of the heart and— even the lungsType of wine and risk of lung cancer: a case-control study in Spain. Ruano-Ravina, A., Figueiras, A., Barros-Dios, J.M. Department of Preventive Medicine and Public Health, School of Medicine, University of Santiago de Compostela, Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Thorax 2004 Nov;59(11):981-5. — as long as it’s rich in other antioxidants like tyrosol and hydroxytyrosolDoes white wine qualify for French paradox? Comparison of the cardioprotective effects of red and white wines and their constituents: resveratrol, tyrosol, and hydroxytyrosol. Dudley, J.I., Lekli, I., Mukherjee, S., et al. Cardiovascular Research Center, University of Connecticut School of Medicine, Farmington, Connecticut 06030-1110, USA. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 2008 Oct;56(20):9362-73..

But, alas, all wines are not created equal. Dark red wines made from a grape with thick skin, like Malbec, are full of resveratrol. Other antioxidant winners include Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinor Noir, and ChardonnayAntioxidant capacities and phenolics levels of French wines from different varieties and vintages. Landrault, N., Poucheret, P., Ravel, P., et al. Département d’Oenologie and Laboratoire de Pharmacologie, Faculté de Pharmacie, Université de Montpellier I, France. Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry 2001 Jul;49(7):3341-8.. Don’t drink (or simply can’t stand) either? Consider purple grape juice or a resveratrol supplement to reap similar benefits.

One thing to keep in mind: one serving of wine is only five ounces. Drinking the whole bottle doesn’t double (or quadruple) the benefits, and drinking too much can lead to cancers and other diseases. Like any indulgence, moderation is key: the USDA recommends no more than five ounces for women and ten ounces for men per day. With these limitations in mind, go grab that glass. Salut!

Updated January 2012

*Note: The original version of this story appeared on May 27, 2011. In January 2012, a researcher of red wine whose findings were used in the original article was accused of fraudulent research on the subject. All research by this scientist originally cited in this article has since been removed and replaced.