Raise a Glass to Health. The Wine & Medicine Marriage

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Doctors and scientists have done battle on whether wine (in moderation) is good or bad for one’s health. Risks of some diseases like cancer and the reduction of life expectancy by ten years for alcoholics is weighed against more positive benefits for health and wellbeing. Our forebears were more enthusiastic particularly in times when drinking water was far more a danger to health than wine. In 1873 Louis Pasteur wrote, “Wine may be considered the most beautiful and most hygienic of beverages.”

Today, the world’s oldest man, a Spaniard of 113 years says a secret to his long life is a diet of vegetables washed down with a glass of red wine. Wine has long been used as a form of medication. It was used as an antiseptic for treating wounds, a digestive aid and to cure everything from child birth pain to lethargy and diarrhoea. Documentation dating back to 2200 BC in Egypt describes wine’s role in medicine making it the world’s oldest man made medicine. 

The Greeks’ more systematic approach to medicine still relied much on wine. Hippocrates considered it part of a healthy diet, as well as a disinfectant and as the base for mixing with other drugs to give a patient. The Romans continued the custom. In the first century a long list of Greek and Roman wines were listed for medicinal usage. A Roman physician Galen who treated wounded gladiators in Asia Minor used wines as a disinfectant for all wounds even soaking exposed bowels in wine before replacing them in the body. He worked with the gladiators for four years during which time there were only five deaths compared with 60 under the previous physician.

Various religions also promoted the use of wine for health, even Islamic doctors who used wine as a disinfectant as did the Catholic monasteries in the Middle Ages. The first printed book on wine in the 14th century was written by a physician who thought wine suitable to treat ailments from dementia to sinus problems.

Consumption was always intended to be moderate, although there is much disagreement about what moderate consumption should be. Women absorb alcohol more quickly than men due to their lower body water content so are advised to drink less than men, that is, a glass of wine a day compared with two for men. Moderation in wine was outlined as early as 360BC when the Greek poet Eubulus declared three bowls were the ideal amount. Three bowls is roughly equivalent to today’s 750ml bottle! Although the Greek cups would have been filled with diluted wine.

Eubulus in his play of 375BC entitled, “Dionysus” has his hero sum up in a delightful, and all too true, description the effects of drinking too much wine. ‘Three bowls do I mix for the temperate: one to health which they empty first, the second to love and pleasure, the third to sleep. When this bowl is drunk the guests go home. The fourth bowl is ours no longer but belongs to violence; the fifth to uproar, the sixth to drunken revel; the seventh to black eyes, the eighth is the policeman’s, the ninth belongs to biliousness, and the tenth to madness and hurling the furniture.”

Wine continued to be important in the treatment of ailments until the 19th century when changing opinions, research on alcoholism and the emergence of temperance groups cast doubt on its efficacy as a cure-all. Today, drinking in small quantities is seen as good for a wide range of medical problems. A recent study of 90,000 civil servants in London found those who drank wine within recommended limits in middle age were significantly less likely to develop dementia in later life than those do did not drink wine.

Other research studies have shown that wine may improve long term memory. Grapes contain numerous antioxidant compounds: polyphenols with one type resveratrol found in red wine which can help to keep the brain young making red wine the best for medicinal improvement. Red wine has been linked to an improved immune system and can ward off colds. The University of California’s work in 2013 found a glass of wine a day could help fight infection. 

A Swedish study found that women who drink at least three medium sized glasses of wine a week were up to 52% less likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis. Resveratrol can also boost heart health, protect against some kinds of cancer and prevent some types of vision loss. 

Although resveratrol protects the vines against attack by fungi and grape diseases, its production and concentration is not equal in different grape varieties. The Muscadinia vine family, which has adapted over time through exposure to North American diseases such as phylloxera, has one of the highest concentrations of resveratrol among wine grapes. In Europe, grapes derived from the Burgundian Pinot family have more resveratrol than those from Bordeaux’s Cabernet family of vines. Wine regions with cooler, wetter climates and at risk of fungal diseases, produce grapes with higher concentrations of resveratrol than warm dry climates. 

Even those whose health problems are no more serious than losing weight, can benefit from wine drinking. Alcohol stimulates the appetite so it is better to drink it with food. Mixed with food, alcohol can slow the stomach’s emptying time and potentially decrease the amount of food eaten. A glass of wine contains a moderate number of calories compared to many beers and non-diet sodas. A standard five fluid ounce (150ml) glass of red wine at 13% alcohol content contains about 106 calories and 2.51g of carbohydrates. White wine contains 100 calories and 1.18g carbohydrates, making it more popular with dieters. 

In comparative studies between beer and wine drinkers, wine is also seen as a beneficial drink psychologically, showing wine drinkers had a higher IQ! So all round it seems a good thing to raise a glass of wine and say “to health”.

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