Red Wine, Resveratrol and The French Paradox
A wonderful fellow hubber, The Sandman, asked me what I knew about Resveratrol. At the time I knew very little except it was the miracle found in red wine. I told him I would have to look into it. Here is what I found out.
The French Paradox
The French Paradox is a phenomenom that has been studied for years. Why is it that the French eat so many rich, high-fat foods, yet remain slim with relatively few cardiac problems. In America, we are trained from a young age that eating rich, high-fat foods will make you fat and make you die of a heart attack at an early age. So we eat fat-free yogurt, fat-free cheese, fat-free sour cream even fat-free salad dressings. The fat free choices abound these days. But we are still heavier and have more heart disease than the French who are eating croissants, full-fat cheese, pastry, butter, cream...oh my mouth is watering!
It barely seems fair. Americans diet, depriving themselves of tasty food, opting for bland and fat-free fare, while the French are feasting daily. I wish I had a few of those French genes. If I do, there are not enough to make a difference! Then I realized, it may not be just good genes. What is it that the French do different? Can I learn something from them?
In 1991 NBC's 60 Minutes ran a spot about the French Paradox. The research at the time was speculating that red wine was the cause of the French Paradox. The French drink an inordinate amount of red wine. The French, however, do not consume an inordinate amount in one sitting. Red wine is routinely taken with meals, but never more than one or two glasses. And always with food.
Red wine studies increased and it was found to have certain flavonoids that boost health. Flavonoid's beneficial effects come from their antioxidant properties. During natural processes our bodies produce free radicals. Just like political radicals, these free radicals favor drastic changes in their environment. These changes can cause a number of ailments from heart disease to cancer. It is theorized that free radicals are also responsible for the aging process. Antioxidants neutralize the free radicals, decreasing their harm on the body.
The current darling of the flavonoid family is resveratrol. The studies on resveratrol have shown some amazing results. Two men in particular have discovered a veritable fountain of youth in this flavonoid. David Sinclair first found that resveratrol extended the life span of yeast cells. Christoph Westphal was so encouraged by this news that he sought out Sinclair for a meeting. After speaking Westphal decided to help Sinclair obtain the necessary funds to continue his research.
The sirtuin gene is found in most life forms. This gene is usually inactive. It seems to be activated as a defense mechanism to certain conditions. For decades scientists have known that prolonged hunger can activate this gene. This gene when activated seems to extend the life span of these mammals 20% to 30%. It has been proven with mice, and more recently with monkeys.
When activated this gene not only appears to prolong life, but also decreases the inflammation that has been linked with several age-related diseases such as heart disease, neurodegeneration, arthritis and cancer. It also has an effect on fat cells and the regulation of fat storage. It has effects on insulin production. The combination of it's effects on fat and insulin shows promise in preventing or delaying the onset of Type II Diabetes.
Restricting caloric intake by 30% to 40% of the normal for the species activates this gene. So, it seems, does resveratrol. Rats fed a diet which included high doses of resveratrol not only lived 30% longer than the control group (fed no resveratrol), but also could run farther and were leaner.
Sinclair and Westphal, and their company Sirtris, are the foundation of the current research on resveratrol. They have developed a compound they call SRT501 that keeps resveratrol in it's active form and increases absorption by 5 times. They had studied many over-the-counter preparations of resveratrol and found many had no active resveratrol, (the kind needed by the body), while others had it in amounts insignificant to make a difference in humans.
Back to Red Wine
All of this data seems fabulous, but remember FDA testing usually takes a minimum of 7 years. And the FDA does not acknowledge aging as a disease. Long term studies have not been done to observe the effects of high-dose resveratrol treatment in humans, and side effects are unknown. The amount of red wine you would need to drink to get the required dose of resveratrol is about 200 glasses of wine daily. This is not really an option.
Red Wine has other cardiobeneficial effects when consumed in moderation. (Moderation means 1-2 glasses daily.) A glass or two of wine consumed with your meal will relax you. Relaxation is an effective means of lowering blood pressure. Red wine has also been shown to increase your HDL's (good cholesterol) while decreasing your LDL's (bad cholesterol). Finally, it also works on you blood to reduce the chance of blood clots and fatty build-up.
So even if you probably won't get the doses of resveratrol necessary to extend life, there are benefits to drinking a glass or two of red wine daily. These benefits don't seem to be enough to explain the French Paradox. There must be something more. This something more may very well be eating habits. Notice I do not say diet. The French do not diet!