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Do Grapes or Alcohol Make Red Wine Good for the Heart?

Studies have long suggested that drinking red wine in moderation might be good for the heart. What’s been less clear is whether it’s the alcohol in wine or its antioxidants -- mainly from grape skins and seeds -- that may be responsible for those heart and stroke risk reductions. Now a new study has arrived at a surprising answer: It may be both.

Jan. 19, 2012 -- Studies have long suggested that drinking red wine in moderation might be good for the heart.

What’s been less clear is whether it’s the alcohol in wine or its antioxidants -- mainly from grape skins and seeds -- that may be responsible for those heart and stroke risk reductions.

Now a new study has arrived at a surprising answer: It may be both.

Spanish researchers asked 67 men at high risk for heart disease to try an experiment. After abstaining from alcohol for two weeks, the men were asked to drink about two glasses of red wine each day for a month. The next month, they had the same amount of red wine, but with the alcohol removed. For the last month, they downed the same daily measure of gin.

Researchers used blood tests to measure a host of chemicals related to plaque formation in their artery walls and inflammation before the men started drinking and at the end of each month.

“They measured a whole slew of these inflammatory markers,” says R. Curtis Ellison, MD, a professor of medicine and public health at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Ellison, who is also co-director of the university’s Institute on Lifestyle & Health, reviewed the paper, but was not involved in the research.

During the months the men were drinking red wine and gin, for example, levels of a chemical signal called interleukin-10, which turns down inflammation, went up, suggesting that alcohol alone was behind that benefit.

But, drinking red wine, with and without alcohol, also lowered levels of other chemicals that encourage the formation of plaques in artery walls, suggesting that the healthy antioxidants called polyphenols in red wine might be responsible.

“Thus, both grapes and [alcohol] are good for the heart,” researcher Ramon Estruch, MD, PhD, of the department of internal medicine at Hospital Clinic, Villarroel in Barcelona, says in an email to WebMD.

Estruch says he believes drinking the two together probably conveys a stronger benefit than having either alone.

Ellison agrees.

The study is published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

Advice on Imbibing

The American Heart Association says people who don’t have health conditions that can be aggravated by drinking alcohol -- like liver disease, pancreatitis, or heart failure -- may enjoy alcohol in moderation.

That means no more than two daily drinks for men or one drink a day for women.

Study researchers say if heart health is a concern, red wine may be your best beverage choice.

For people who don’t want to drink alcohol, Ellison says drinking grape juice, made from red Concord grapes, may also convey some benefits.

In either case, watch the calories, which come mainly from sugar. One cup of grape juice contains about 152 calories. A 5-ounce glass of red wine, the standard serving at restaurants, has 125 calories.

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