Wine About It

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There is a phenomenon known as the “French paradox.” The French have a low risk of developing heart disease despite eating a rich diet. This discrepancy has been attributed to their high rate of consumption of red wine. Red wine contains phenolic compounds, which have antioxidant properties. A recent study explored this phenomenon. The study, done (naturally) in France, examined the blood and urine chemistry differences in two groups of non-smokers who smoked three cigarettes each. The aim was to explore the effects of “occasional lifestyle smoking,” aka social smoking. The control group drank no wine and the study group drank red wine (Chateau Haut-Ponet, Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2005, in case you were interested) one hour before smoking.  The end point of drinking the wine was a blood alcohol content of 0.075 percent (0.08 is the legal limit in NY).

Cigarette smoking causes the release of microparticles from blood cells and the endothelium (the inner lining of blood vessels). These microparticles damage the endothelium often leading to blood clots and atherosclerosis (narrowing of blood vessels). Cigarettes also cause oxidative stress and create free radicals (no, not Joanne Chesimard). Oxidative stress and free radicals can also damage telomeres. Telomeres, like so many words in science, is from the Greek words telos, meaning end, and meros, meaning part, and are found at both ends of chromosomes. When a cell divides, the DNA or chromosomes must be replicated, or copied. Chromosomal replication starts in the middle and proceeds out to both ends, except that it does not go to the very end of the chromosome, it goes almost to the end. The telomeres do not contain genetic material, they are sacrificial. They ensure that the entire chromosome is copied. The new chromosome then makes its own new telomeres. But telomeres shorten as we age, increasing the chance of a genetic copying error. Oxidative stress and free radicals also shorten telomeres, which may be one of the reasons cigarettes are linked to so many cancers.

Now back to our study. The control group had elevated levels of microparticles and shortened telomeres, whereas the study group did not, thanks to the antioxidants in red wine. Other sources of antioxidants are beta carotene and Vitamins C and E. Oxidative stress and free radicals are also caused by stress, physical inactivity, and a high sugar diet. This study was done on non-smoking volunteers and its results cannot be extrapolated to chronic smokers. If you do smoke, do not start drinking a lot of red wine to counteract the bad effects of smoking. You know what you need to do. At any rate, if it had been my study, I would have created a third group – those who just drank the wine and didn’t smoke anything. I would have volunteered for that group!

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