To Our Health: The Pros and Cons of Drinking Wine
Author: Becca Edwards
Since the oldest winery was founded in ancient Armenia in 4100 B.C., people have raised a gourd, glass or jug of fermented grape juice. Wine flowed through the rise of the Greek empire, serving as a symbol of trade, religion and health. It spilled into the New World by the conquistadors and converted over 100,000 Japanese citizens to Catholicism in 1543. It intoxicated California in 1769 with the arrival of the grape-loving Spanish missionary Junípero Serra; and in 1805, Franciscan monks established Sonoma’s first winery. Wine then invited other nations like South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and even Algeria and China to the party, and now people across the globe have a reason to toast to life and the wine industry.
I know I do. Whether it is a crisp rosé on a summer afternoon or a full bodied cabernet on a chilly winter night, there is a wine for all seasons and occasions. In my repertoire of memories, wine has stood beside me like a faithful friend. There was that house red in Valencia with my then-boyfriend-now-husband that we sipped as we designed our dream house on a napkin and waited for a train to Madrid. There was that epic champagne that bubbled to the rim of our flutes after giving birth to our first child. And then there was that soul-soothing pinot noir we poured when dad’s cancer proved non-life-threatening.
Yet, as I age and examine not only my overall health and wellness, but also my clients’ and my readers’, I have started questioning the role wine plays in looking and feeling our best. On one hand, a glass or two (or four) paired with good friends and food can make us feel great—especially at the onset. One of my absolute favorite things to do on a Friday is pop open a good bottle of wine and cook, with my husband and kids, while listening to music. I feel like it releases me from my week of to-dos and daily stressors and lets me savor life. But on the other, non-stemware holding hand, some medical researchers suggest wine could be splashing us with some health risks.
According to Dr. Sara Gottfried in her book The Hormone Cure, “Consumption of alcohol raises estrogen levels and slows down fat burning. In postmenopausal women, drinking one or two servings of alcohol a day raises estrone and DHEAs, another hormone that can be converted into estrogen.” Dr. Gottfried continued with, “In one study, estrone was elevated by 7 percent with one serving (15 grams) of alcohol per day, and by 22 percent with two servings (30 grams) per day, within four weeks. In the same study, DHEAS increased by 8 percent with one portion and 9 percent with two portions of alcohol per day.” Though Dr. Gottfried concedes one glass of wine has been attributed to lowering our risk of heart disease and stroke she warns, “Excess estrogen can increase your risk of breast cancer” and “the proven safe threshold for women in general is two or fewer servings of alcohol per week.”
Per week? Per week! If you are anything like me, this quote really uncorked some questions. I thought I was good only having two glasses per night. (Note: I do not mean having two glasses of wine every night of the week, but when we go out or engage in our Friday cooking/music reverie.) Should I really only consume two glasses of wine per week? Was I inadvertently throwing my hormones off? Was I setting myself up for breast cancer?
The hormone question in particular sparked my interest. At 37-years-young and with three cortisol-inducing little cuties, I do not need one more factor influencing my hormone levels or, God forbid, raising my estrogen levels. In addition to increasing our risk of breast cancer, estrogen is like an air pump for that spare tire around our mid sections—the more estrogen we have, the more we inflate. Plus high estrogen causes swelling and tenderness or fibrocystic developments in the breasts, decreased sex drive, irregular menstrual periods, headaches, mood swings, hair loss, lethargy, decreased sleep and memory loss—all of which are total buzz kills when it comes to feeling vibrant.
As I looked into wine and hormones more, I found more Debbie downer information. In It Starts with Food, Whole30 founders Dallas and Melissa Hartwig write, “From a hormonal perspective, alcohol consumption interferes with glucose function in the body and with the actions of regulatory hormones like insulin and glucagon. Even in well-nourished people, alcohol can disturb blood sugar levels… causing temporary hypoglycemia. Furthermore, alcohol can impair glucagon’s normal function, leaving your blood sugar levels too low for too long—a very stressful situation for the body.”
You might be thinking, “Wait a merlot minute. Doesn’t wine have some health benefits?” I know this thought crossed my mind. In addition to lowering our risk of heart disease and stroke, moderate wine consumption has been linked to some good health news like increased longevity. Citing a 2007 Finnish study of 2,468 men over a 29-year period, Food and Wine magazine reported, “Wine drinkers have a 34 percent lower mortality rate than beer or spirit drinkers.” Food and Wine also stated that a research on 369,862 individuals, studied over an average of 12 years each, found that moderate drinkers have 30 percent less risk than nondrinkers of developing type 2 diabetes; a study of 1,379 individuals found that moderate drinkers are 32 percent less likely to get cataracts than non-drinkers; and a study of 2,291 individuals over a four-year period found that moderate consumption of wine (especially red) cuts the risk of colon cancer by 45 percent.
And then there’s the powerful antioxidant resveratrol. This magical compound found in red grape skin has been the reason French people say they can smoke cigarettes and eat high fat food without worrying about the health consequences. But our ultra-health buddies Dallas and Melissa Hartwig point out, “A fluid ounce of red wine averages 160 micrograms or resveratrol (with a wide range of variability between bottles and sources). Most research on resveratrol has been done on animals, not people—and to get the same dose of resveratrol used in mice studies, a person would have to drink more than 60 liters (that’s 80 bottles) of red wine every day.” Liver damage aside, even the greatest winos couldn’t accomplish this, and truly the best way to get a healthy dose of resveratrol is in the supplement form.
As a health coach, most of my clients express a desire to lose weight, and I have found limiting alcohol consumption often means the difference of at least five pounds. For starters, on average, one glass of wine is roughly 123 calories—and that’s a reasonable six ounce pour, not a glunk, glunk, glunk pour. We often vilify soft drinks as empty calorie beverages causing obesity, but one 16-ounce serving of Coca Cola is 128 calories. So, ounce-for-ounce, soda is actually less fattening than wine. Adding to the weight issue, alcoholic beverages like wine reduce our inhibitory mechanisms, making us more likely to make poor food decisions. Sober Becca knows not to eat the kids’ leftover pizza from Local Pie before bed, but buzzed Becca opens that refrigerator door and the angels sing when she spies a slice.
Since researching for this article, I have been experimenting with moderation (as in only one glass of red wine or two white wine spritzers) and even abstinence, which in addition to improving my sleep and the shedding of a few unwanted pounds has led to such questions as, “Are you pregnant?” and “So, did you find Christ or something?” At social events, I am reminded of the funny Holiday Inn commercial where three co-workers are standing beside the breakfast buffet and one says, “I don’t have to have a hot breakfast to have a good time” and another retorts, “Yeah, but you’re more fun when you do.”
At home, I have found other ways to unwind like kava tea or making a faux glass of white wine with club soda and fresh lemon. Don’t get me wrong, I still imbibe; but there is something more nectar-of-the-Gods-ish when I moderate my intake of vino. Wine has become a treat, and I am reminded of those fabulous Phoenicians who cultivated it and used it for special occasions and not that obligatory five o’clock liquid chill pill. I am also reminded of the fact that finding a balance is timeless—no matter what we are consuming.
Becca Edwards is a wellness professional, freelance writer and owner of b.e.WELL+b.e.CREATIVE (bewellbecreative.com).