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Red Wine and Your Health: The Good and the Bad

A wine glass being filled by a bottle.
Credit: iStock
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Read time: 3 minutes

Red wine is the “good” alcoholic drink, right? The one that’s integral to the life-boosting benefits of the Mediterranean diet?

That’s the common belief you may have heard gleefully espoused at a get-together, as another glass of Chianti was uncorked. The word “antioxidant” was invariably said.

But is there any truth to this conventional wisdom? Could the gains of any alcoholic beverage really outweigh the health costs? Let’s take a look at the research.

The good

The supposed health benefits of red wine are said to derive from one of the drink’s polyphenols, resveratrol. Depending on the grape variety, the average bottle of red wine contains between 0.2-5.8 milligrams per liter (mg/L) of the stuff. This compound is also found in the skin of other fruits like blueberries, raspberries and mulberries.

According to a 2020 review, resveratrol possesses strong anticancer properties and holds the potential to address diabetes, obesity, cancer, liver diseases, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease through various redox, inflammatory and immune signaling pathways.

In a 2019 experimental study on mice, researchers documented that the compound could lower blood pressure; mice with induced high blood pressure were given a dose of resveratrol, which seemingly caused their blood vessels to relax and their blood pressure to drop.

In another 2019 mouse study, researchers observed that resveratrol could temporarily inhibit a PDE4 enzyme, which in turn lowered corticosterone levels in the mice, reducing their stress.

Beyond this apparent wonder chemical, red wine also seems to benefit the body’s bacterial communities. In another 2019 study, when comparing the gut microbiomes of 916 twins who either regularly drank beer, cider, spirits, white wine or red wine, researchers found that the microbiomes of red wine drinkers were the most diverse – a finding they attributed to the drink’s polyphenols. The same study also found that red wine consumption was associated with lower levels of obesity and “bad” cholesterol (low-density lipoproteins).

Not only that, but other select studies have found that low-to-moderate levels of any alcohol consumption – surprisingly – may achieve the same kind of cardiac benefits. In a 1999 paper, a study of 490,000 people showed a 30-40% lower total cardiovascular disease mortality among both men and women who drank one or two drinks per day.

The bad

So, thanks to its resveratrol and other properties, wine seems like a super-drug. The more, the merrier, right? Pour yourself another glass of red!

The only thing is, you’d need to pour a lot of glasses to reach a beneficial level of resveratrol. Most of the above studies mentioned used supplements of the compound, which would have contained a much higher dose than one would typically find in a glass of merlot. In fact, to reach a strong dose of 1 gram of resveratrol per day, you’d have to drink 505 liters of pinot noir red every day – that’s equivalent to 673 bottles!

It goes without saying, then, that the negative effects of such a colossal intake of wine would outweigh any positives offered by resveratrol or light drinking.

Indeed, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the negative effects of alcohol – increased risk of cancer, diabetes, etc – outweigh any benefits the beverage could offer.

“There are no studies that would demonstrate that the potential beneficial effects of light and moderate drinking on cardiovascular diseases and type 2 diabetes outweigh the cancer risk associated with these same levels of alcohol consumption for individual consumers,” the WHO stated in 2023.

Alcohol increases the risk of developing at least seven types of cancer, including the most common cancers, such as bowel and female breast cancer. While the risk of developing cancer increases substantially the more alcohol is consumed, the WHO states that half of all alcohol-attributable cancers are caused by light-to-moderate consumption (less than 1.5 liters of wine or less than 3.5 liters of beer per week). This kind of drinking pattern is responsible for most alcohol-attributable breast cancers in women, with the highest burden observed in countries in the European Union (EU).

Also, red wine is known to give some drinkers a particular headache, which is thought to be due to a flavanol naturally found in wines that can interfere with the proper metabolism of alcohol. So, there’s that, too.

Final thoughts

When it comes to health perks, thanks to its polyphenols like resveratrol, red wine may have the edge over other alcoholic drinks. But this blood-pressure-lowering bonus seems destined to be offset by the health costs that come with any alcohol consumption. Ultimately, the standard medical/social alcohol advice still applies: drink responsibly. And maybe don’t believe everything you hear about red wine’s powers.