01.02.2005 Naturopathy

Here's to Good Health! - by Jeremy Hill

Jeremy Hill says research suggests that a little alcohol is beneficial for most people

The purposeful brewing of alcoholic beverages has been around for a long time, with scientists recently unearthing evidence that 9,000 years ago Chinese villagers were sipping a fermented drink made of rice, honey, grapes and hawthorn berries. And while it has adopted a commonplace mantle in most societies throughout the world, alcohol has also gained notoriety through both social and physical disruption.

As well as the terrible problems of alcoholism, drink driving and violence, excessive alcohol consumption has long been recognised for its propensity to induce severe health consequences, such as liver cirrhosis, pancreatitis, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, diabetes, impotence, nerve damage, obesity and cancers (an incomplete, yet formidable list indeed). And yet, there may be a healthy flip side to this toxic, strongly flavoured, but highly favoured, organic solvent - a little alcohol could be good for you!

Over recent years, there has been a steady stream of studies linking moderate alcohol consumption to a variety of health benefits, including the reduction of heart disease, diabetes, blood pressure and stroke. Paradoxically, these conditions are all worsened by excessive alcohol. These benefits appear to be forthcoming with all types of alcohol, but there are other particularly exciting benefits to be gleaned from the thick skinned red wines like the cabernet sauvignons and merlots, often highest in grapes that have been grown in warmer (and harsher) climates such as the Chilean, Californian, South African and Australian reds. Scientists discovered that these wines offer increased longevity potential, via an active chemical known as resveratrol which possesses the ability to activate an enzyme called SIR2. This has stabilising effects on DNA, slowing down the ageing process, thus extending longevity. This is the same enzymic pathway that is tweaked through the other known longevity inducer, caloric restriction. Both caloric restriction and resveratrol reduce oxidative stress, which may be the major factor in the DNA protection.

Resveratrol belongs to a large family of antioxidant compounds known as polyphenolics and is part of the plant's coping mechanism by developing within the grape in response to various stressors, such as dryer seasons and infections. So, bountiful seasons or spraying grapes to control fungal infections can significantly limit the development of the healthful resveratrol.

Beer and white wine also contain high levels of beneficial polyphenolic chemicals, although their levels are generally much lower than that of red wine.

So it seems the social drug of choice, alcohol, is tentatively, with a pile of studies under its arm, attempting the unexpected crossover into the realm of health food. Now, just before all of you keen health buffs out there get too carried away and rush off to hit the bottle, toasting your good health, let's examine a few more facts to achieve a balanced perspective to just how much is too much.

New research published recently in the Annals of Internal Medicine indicated that stroke risk is increased by 42 per cent in men who consume more than two alcoholic drinks a day. And while several past studies have shown some stroke protective actions from moderate alcohol consumption, in this large study of over 38,000 participants, the options of having one to two drinks every other day or none at all both equally offered the lowest stroke risk. This study and many others have generally come to similar conclusions, namely any more than one or two drinks a day and you are counteracting whatever health benefits you may have been gleaning from a little tipple.

Further studies may well prove that the alcohol itself actually does us no good at all and, instead, it is the mix of various antioxidants such as resveratrol and many other flavonoids that abound in alcoholic drinks that confer upon us their goodness. Alcohol is, after all, a toxin and while there are many other toxic impurities to be found in the different types of alcoholic drinks, the main problem with drinking them all is that the alcohol is oxidised within the liver into the highly toxic and inflammatory chemical, acetaldehyde. Acetaldehyde seems to have no beneficial effects upon our health at all. It won't be as much fun, but we may be better off without the alcohol part after all.

But don't go thinking that you can just bypass the bottle either and simply start scoffing down the grapes and hope to live forever. They are much less concentrated in resveratrol than wine, and with their high fructose content, too many grapes may push up your insulin level, causing you more health problems than a nice glass of red wine ever would.

Even small amounts of alcohol can cause problems for many people, such as alcoholics, allergy sufferers, certain medication takers and those with various digestive disorders, and alcohol should be totally avoided during pregnancy.

For now, most research suggests that a little alcohol is beneficial for most people. So I suggest that if you like a drink, exercise a little control, drink in moderation (one to two glasses a day or less) and perhaps a nice Hunter Valley red might be a fine choice.

Good Health, Jeremy Hill.

Jeremy Hill

Jeremy Hill AdvDipNutMed, AdvDipWHM, NDAdv is a Perth-based naturopath