In 1819, Samuel Black, an Irish physician, first documented what is now known as the “French Paradox.” The French tend to eat far more fattening food than many other people, yet they suffer far lower rates of heart disease. The phenomenon was thought to be related in some way to the fact that the French drink more wine per capita than any other nation in the world.
Red wine is the best source of the powerful antioxidant resveratrol.
When this paradox was discussed on 60 Minutes in 1991, U.S. consumption of red wine rose nearly 50 percent and wineries began lobbying for the right to call their product a “health food.” Today, evidence suggests a substance in wine called resveratrol is probably connected in some way (although the amounts in wine cannot fully explain why the French can eat croissants with seeming impunity).
Resveratrol is a substance that works as an antioxidant (a molecule that helps cells protect themselves against the damaging effects of metabolism), and can be found in grapes, wine, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries, plums and peanuts (especially peanut butter). In plants it serves to keep away bacteria and fungi.
As an antioxidant in animals it seems to slow or prevent some of the cellular processes that in time result in the conditions and diseases associated with aging (slowing metabolism, arthritis, increased risk for injuries and disease, memory loss).
Research also hints that resveratrol is a powerhouse nutrient that might inhibit the spread of various types of cancer (especially prostate and breast tumors), might kill cancerous growths and possibly even block reproduction of viruses such as HIV and herpes simplex.
One of the best sources of resveratrol in food is wine. Non-muscadine red wines contain anywhere from 0.2-5.8 mg/L, depending on the varietals used. Non-muscadine white wines contain much less because resveratrol is found primarily in the skin and seeds of grapes and white wine is not fermented with the skins in place.
Significantly, muscadine wines produced here in the Carolinas are the best source of resveratrol in the world and can have more than 40 mg/L, regardless of color. Along with them, wines from Spain are particularly potent sources of resveratrol. This is because the Carolinas’ and Spain’s hotter climates increase the growth of pathogens, which increases the plants’ need to fight off infection.
For those who cannot or do not drink alcohol, cranberry juice and red or purple grape juices are also good sources of resveratrol.
The recent, untimely passing of Clay Lambert (a.k.a. Tracy Morgan) brings up an issue not commonly discussed in relation to HIV treatment: the fact that some of the medications increase a patient’s risk of developing a blockage in the arteries, raising the risk of heart attack and stroke.
Although the studies are not yet conclusive, it is thought that the antioxidants, polyphenols and procyanidins in the wines and foods mentioned here give important protection to the circulatory system.
Of course, cardiovascular disease in general is a widespread problem. Individuals with a genetic predisposition (family history), a sedentary lifestyle and/or an unhealthful diet (e.g. too much meat and processed carbohydrates and not enough vegetable matter and whole grains) can also benefit from these foods.
As an anti-cancer agent, resveratrol inhibits or slows the initiation, promotion and progression of tumors in mice. It interrupts the sequences required for cells to over-replicate and prevents the expression of enzymes that are pro-cancerous. Initial studies also indicate that resveratrol might be used in the future against Huntington’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.
As an anti-viral agent, resveratrol may increase the efficacy of anti-retroviral drugs used for HIV treatment in vitro. This means that unborn babies may one day have better protection against infection from HIV-positive mothers, and people living with HIV/AIDS may one day have better treatments as well.
Studies have also found that resveratrol inhibits the protein functions of the herpes simplex virus that causes cold sores. It may also block the ability of the influenza virus to transport its proteins, which would prevent it from replicating.
So, what does all this mean? In a nutshell, if resveratrol lives up to all the possibilities ascribed to it, doctors may one day have highly effective treatments for cardiovascular disease, cancer and viral infections.
Of course, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Since the FDA reports that resveratrol isn’t toxic even at high doses, it might be worth it to consider the potential benefits of including foods in your diet that are potent sources of the nutrient. Just remember to enjoy your resveratrol responsibly.
info: For more information about the Carolina muscadine wines mentioned in this column, look for our story on Carolina wines in the Dec. 1 issue of Q-Notes.
— Q-Notes’ “Health and Wellness” column rotates between physical fitness, spirituality, green living and medical wellness.