French Paradox catchup – the heart of the matter

by Alison Benney
Irish Eyes, February 1997

When dining out with your loved one this Valentine’s Day, lift a glass of red wine in a toast to your heart’s desire: Good health and clean arteries. Ever since 1991, when the news hit the stands that red wine could offset the sclerotic effects of high-fat diets, vintners and imbibers the world ‘round have been gratified to know that the “French Paradox” is still valid. That label was coined in an attempt by epidemiologists to explain why the French, despite their high-fat, high-cholesterol diet, have such a low death rate from heart disease. Studies showed a direct association between red wine intake and a heart attack risk that was 25-40% lower than the American rate. Thus the French Paradox, which boosted American wine sales by more than 20%.

Furthermore, a 1995 study in Copenhagen found that teetotalers were at twice the risk of dying from heart disease as were their moderately drinking counterparts. Dr. Curt Ellison of Boston University went so far as to say: “Abstinence from alcohol is a major risk factor for coronary heart disease.”

The problem is, these are only studies: the scientists haven’t yet proved what mechanism or component in red wine or alcohol reduces heart disease or incidence of heart attacks. Is it the wine, or is it the alcohol? Alcohol is thought to lower heart attack risk by reducing the “stickiness” of platelets, cells that play a key role in blood clot formation. But a Brazilian study released in 1996 showed that red wine, with or without alcohol, still prevented plaque formation. The study speculated that “flavonoids, substances that are present in fruits and vegetables of the so-called Mediterranean diet, and that are also present in wine, may be responsible for some of these effects.”

Dr. Serge Renaud, a French pioneer in alcohol research, suggests that the antioxidants in wine help prevent damage to blood vessels and htat the alcohol plus various chemicals in wine raise the level of HDL or “good” cholesterol, which helps keep arteries open.

On the other hand, study results comparing French drinkers, whose alcohol intake consisted mostly of wine, and Northern Irish drinkers, who didn’t tend to drink wine, found that “alcohol consumption displayed a protective effect against heart attack, the magnitude of which was comparable in both countries.”

Whatever the final answer, wine is becoming known as quite the wonder product. Claims have been made for its ability to help fight off harmful bacteria found in shellfish; reduce risk of strokes and incidence of kidney stones; retain mental sharpness; and perhaps affect the risk of contracting hepatitis.

One French author takes it a step further. Dr. E.A. Maury’s book, Soignez-vous par le vin, describes characteristics of all wines and their therapeutic virtues. According to Maury, the wines of the Médoc, for instance, are recommended for convalescents, and for those who have a tendency to bruise easily. Beaujolais, in particular Juliénas and Moulin à Vent, is indicated for respiratory infections, and Chablis “favourably accompanies the treatment of arthritis and depression.” Champagne is prescribed for fatigue, and as for the flu, Morgon or St. Emilion are suggested as preventatives. Once afflicted, try the following recipe: “Warm a bottle of Côte Rôtie to 60 degrees and stir in 5 grams of cinnamon and 5 chunks of brown sugar. Add a twist of lemon and drink 4 to 5 glasses per day.”

However, one man’s medicine may be another’s poison. It has been show that in certain people, wine may increase blood pressure, trigger migraine headaches and contribute to nasal and gastric disturbances. And we all know the toxic dehydrating effects of over-indulging. The American Heart Association warns that while there is indubitably an association between red wine and reduced heart disease, it holds only for moderate drinking. The Association’s recommendations for health alcohol consumption is the equivalent of one ounce of pure alcohol per day, i.e. 2 ounces of 100-proof whiskey or 3 ounces of 80-proof whisky, 8 ounces of wine or 24 ounces of beer.

There are those who think the miracle comes simply with the lift in the libation. A study by British psychologists concludes that laughing is good for you because it can stimulate the body’s immune system; drinkers laugh more, so drinking must be good for you. There is a curve involved in the equation, however, as Dr. Geoffrey Lowe said in a Reuters interview: “If you look at the ones who had the heaviest drinking scores, they did not have the heaviest laughter scores.” The message is, maybe people shouldn’t use alcohol as a medicine but only as a facilitator for fun.

Some California vintners want to label their bottles with health claims, such as “A glass of wine keeps the heart doctors away.” But why drink when you can just take a pill? According to the American tabloid, The Examiner, “Men and women can now get all the healthy heart benefits from drinking two glasses of red wine in a convenient one-a-day capsule, without alcohol, and without side effects.” It’s called – what else? – French Parad’ox.