Red wine, in moderation, has long been thought of as heart healthy. The alcohol and certain substances in red wine called antioxidants may help prevent coronary artery disease, the condition that leads to heart attacks.
Any links between red wine and fewer heart attacks aren't completely understood. But part of the benefit might be that antioxidants may increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the "good" cholesterol) and protect against cholesterol buildup.
While the news about red wine might sound great if you enjoy a glass of red wine with your evening meal, doctors are wary of encouraging anyone to start drinking alcohol, especially if you have a family history of alcohol abuse. Too much alcohol can have many harmful effects on your body.
Still, many doctors agree that something in red wine appears to help your heart. It's possible that antioxidants, such as flavonoids or a substance called resveratrol, have heart-healthy benefits.
How is red wine heart healthy?
Red wine seems to have heart-healthy benefits. But it's possible that red wine isn't any better than beer, white wine or liquor for heart health. There's still no clear evidence that red wine is better than other forms of alcohol when it comes to possible heart-healthy benefits.
Antioxidants in red wine called polyphenols may help protect the lining of blood vessels in your heart. A polyphenol called resveratrol is one substance in red wine that's gotten attention.
Resveratrol in red wine
Resveratrol might be a key ingredient in red wine that helps prevent damage to blood vessels, reduces low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the "bad" cholesterol) and prevents blood clots. Some research shows that resveratrol could be linked to a lower risk of inflammation and blood clotting, which can lead to heart disease. But other studies found no benefits from resveratrol in preventing heart disease.
More research is needed to determine if resveratrol lowers the risk of inflammation and blood clotting.
Resveratrol in grapes, supplements and other foods
The resveratrol in red wine comes from the skin of grapes used to make wine. Because red wine is fermented with grape skins longer than is white wine, red wine contains more resveratrol.
Simply eating grapes, or drinking grape juice, might be one way to get resveratrol without drinking alcohol. Red and purple grape juices may have some of the same heart-healthy benefits of red wine.
Other foods that contain some resveratrol include peanuts, blueberries and cranberries. It's not yet known how beneficial eating grapes or other foods might be compared with drinking red wine when it comes to promoting heart health. The amount of resveratrol in food and red wine can vary widely.
Resveratrol supplements also are available. Researchers haven't found any harm in taking resveratrol supplements. But your body can't absorb most of the resveratrol in the supplements.
How does alcohol help the heart?
Various studies have shown that moderate amounts of all types of alcohol benefit your heart, not just alcohol found in red wine. It's thought that alcohol:
- Raises HDL (healthy) cholesterol
- Reduces the formation of blood clots
- Helps prevent artery damage caused by high levels of LDL (harmful) cholesterol
- May improve the function of the layer of cells that line your blood vessels (endothelium)
Drink in moderation — or not at all
Red wine's potential heart-healthy benefits look promising. Those who drink moderate amounts of alcohol, including red wine, seem to have a lower risk of heart disease.
However, it's important to understand that studies comparing moderate drinkers to non-drinkers might overestimate the benefits of moderate drinking because non-drinkers might already have health problems. More research is needed before we know whether red wine is better for your heart than are other forms of alcohol, such as beer or spirits.
Neither the American Heart Association nor the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute recommends that you start drinking alcohol just to prevent heart disease. Alcohol can be addictive and can cause or worsen other health problems.
Drinking too much alcohol increases your risk of:
- Liver and pancreas diseases
- Heart failure
- High blood pressure
- Certain types of cancer
- Accidents, violence and suicide
- Weight gain and obesity
Avoid alcohol completely if you:
- Are pregnant
- Have a personal or strong family history of alcoholism
- Have a liver or pancreas disease associated with alcohol consumption
- Have heart failure or a weak heart
- Take certain medications or a daily aspirin
If you have questions about the benefits and risks of alcohol, talk to your doctor about specific recommendations for you.
If you already drink red wine, do so in moderation. For healthy adults, that means:
- Up to one drink a day for women of all ages.
- Up to one drink a day for men older than age 65.
- Up to two drinks a day for men age 65 and younger. The limit for men is higher because men generally weigh more and have more of an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol than women do.
A drink is defined as:
- 12 ounces (355 milliliters, or mL) of beer
- 5 ounces (148 mL) of wine
- 1.5 ounces (44 mL) of 80-proof distilled spirits