Wine may calm inflammation in blood vessels

NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Adding to evidence that a little wine can do a heart good, a new study suggests that women who drink moderate amounts may have less inflammation in their blood vessels.

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Spanish researchers found that after four weeks of drinking two glasses of wine per day, women showed lower levels of certain inflammatory substances in their blood. The findings, reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, suggest a mechanism by which wine -- particularly red wine -- may protect the heart.

Numerous studies have found that wine drinkers tend to have lower rates of heart disease than teetotalers do. Research also suggests that higher levels of “good” HDL cholesterol may be one reason, though not a full explanation of the benefit.

Figuring out exactly how wine may protect the heart is important in order to prove that the link between wine and heart health is, in fact, a direct one, according to Dr. Emilio Sacanella, the lead researcher on the new study.

Studies that show wine drinkers to have better heart health do not prove that wine is the reason, explained Sacanella, of the University of Barcelona. Wine lovers may, for example, have generally better diets, higher exercise levels or other heart-healthy habits, he told Reuters Health.

For their study, Sacanella and his colleagues focused on the potential effects of wine on inflammation. Inflammation is part of the body’s response to injury. It’s thought that chronic, low-level inflammation -- in response to stresses like smoking, high cholesterol and obesity -- contributes to the buildup of fatty deposits called plaques in the inner lining of the arteries.

Inflammation may also make these plaques more likely to rupture and create a blood clot that could then trigger a heart attack.

Sacanella’s team recruited 35 healthy women who regularly drank amounts of wine. Each woman spent four weeks on a heart-healthy, but wine-free, diet, followed by four weeks in which they had a glass of red wine with lunch and dinner. They followed the same pattern with white wine.

Overall, the study found, the women’s HDL levels climbed after four weeks of drinking, while their blood levels of a number of inflammatory substances, such as C-reactive protein, declined. Red wine had a more pronounced effect than white wine.

The greater benefit of red wine may be related to its higher concentration of polyphenols, according to the researchers. Polyphenols are plant compounds that act as antioxidants and may help reduce inflammation.

According to Sacanella, population studies have suggested that people who drink moderate amounts of wine -- about a glass or two per day -- may lower their risk of dying from heart disease by nearly one-third compared with non-drinkers.

“So a person who usually drinks up to this quantity of alcohol should maintain this healthy habit,” he said.

However, he added, doctors cannot recommend that non-drinkers take up the habit, as some people are vulnerable to drinking problems and the health consequences that come with that.

SOURCE: American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, November 2007.