In recent times, scientists have unequivocally established a link between certain human diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, and the effects of aging, and a group of chemicals known as free radicals. These free radicals act as instigators, causing oxidative inflammatory damage in various tissues, including blood vessels (leading to clogged arteries), joints (resulting in conditions like Rheumatoid Arthritis), and localized cells (contributing to the development of benign growths or fully-blown cancers).
In this battle against free radicals, a hero emerges: Antioxidants. Acting like knights in shining armor, antioxidants come to the rescue by neutralizing these harmful free radicals, preventing them from causing widespread damage.
To simplify, our bodies undergo oxidation, a crucial process for health that allows us to extract energy from food. However, an excess of free radicals can be harmful. Although our bodies possess natural defenses in the form of enzymes, external factors such as x-rays, cigarette smoke, and exposure to toxins can lead to an overwhelming surge of free radicals, surpassing our body’s defense mechanisms and resulting in various illnesses.
The connection between oxidation, free radicals, and heart disease lies in the impact on low-density lipoprotein (LDL), often referred to as “bad” LDL. When LDL particles accumulate against the inner walls of arteries, they can form fatty streaks and plaque under certain conditions. While LDL alone isn’t extremely dangerous, when attacked by free radicals, it transforms into aggressive cells capable of penetrating and harming the smooth inner walls of arteries, leading to localized inflammation. Oxidized LDL is identified as the culprit in stimulating atherosclerosis, heart disease, and stroke.
Enter antioxidants: these compounds help halt the oxidation process, the result of free radicals wreaking havoc. While most antioxidant research has focused on vitamins like A, E, and beta-carotene, considerable work has also explored the health benefits of red wine.
Research on red wine, especially in relation to coronary heart disease, has uncovered a range of flavonoids, the chemicals responsible for the wine’s taste, color, and character. Many of these flavonoids act as antioxidants.
Pioneering wine research, including the renowned French Paradox, suggested that wine played a crucial role in protecting people in southern France from the adverse effects of high-fat diets and, consequently, coronary heart disease. Even though these individuals consume substantial amounts of high-fat foods like cheese, pâté, and salami, they exhibit some of the lowest heart disease rates globally.
Studies comparing coronary heart disease mortality rates in different regions and antioxidant levels in blood samples have shown that high antioxidant levels, particularly vitamin E, correlate with low death rates from heart disease. Surprisingly, vitamin E levels were found to be 94% more accurate in predicting coronary heart disease rates than cholesterol levels or blood pressure figures.
One intriguing observation is the difference between two cities with similar characteristics but varying heart disease rates: Glasgow in Scotland and Toulouse in France. Despite both populations consuming high-fat diets, engaging in minimal exercise, and drinking alcohol, Glasgow has one of the highest rates of heart disease, while Toulouse boasts one of the lowest. The key difference lies in their beverage choices — beer and spirits in Glasgow versus red wine in Toulouse.
Moderate wine consumption, particularly with meals, has been associated with health benefits, while binge drinking has been linked to harmful effects. Southern Europeans, it seems, appreciate wine not for its alcohol content but as a pleasant accompaniment to meals.
Initially disregarded by major heart institutions, antioxidants and wine faced skepticism. However, as evidence mounted, these factors gained recognition in contributing to overall health. Despite this acknowledgment, major health organizations still refrain from explicitly promoting wine consumption as a replacement for conventional health measures.
While direct comparison trials specifically evaluating the effects of wine or alcohol on the risk of heart disease or stroke are lacking, the emerging understanding of antioxidants and free radicals underscores their significance in disease prevention.