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Can drinking wine really promote longevity?

Recent evidence shows the antioxidant resveratrol in wine does not offer a health boost.

Resveratrol has been touted as a longevity promoter—a natural way to slow aging and fight cancer, obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. But most studies have been conducted on animals and microbes. Now new evidence in humans shows that dietary resveratrol does nothing for health. So is it time to stop paying attention to resveratrol? What if you’re among the many Americans who shell out more than $30 million a year on resveratrol supplements?

Image: Thinkstock

Resveratrol is an antioxidant found in red wine as well as peanuts, grapes, blueberries, and even dark chocolate.

What we know

Resveratrol is found in foods such as peanuts, pistachios, grapes, red and white wine, blueberries, cranberries, and even cocoa and dark chocolate. The plants from which these foods come make resveratrol to fight fungal infection, ultraviolet radiation, stress, and injury. An army of researchers is scrambling to see if that power can be extended beyond plants. One of the first was Dr. David Sinclair at Harvard Medical School. He and his colleagues discovered in 2003 that resveratrol could increase cell survival and slow aging in yeast (and, later, in mice) by activating a particular “longevity” gene.

Since then, we’ve learned that resveratrol helps prevent skin cancer in mice; reduces the incidence of hypertension, heart failure, and heart disease in mice; improves insulin sensitivity, lowers blood sugar, and reduces diet-induced obesity in rodents; and has neuroprotective effects in lab animals.

New evidence

However, a study published online in JAMA Internal Medicine on May 12, 2014, found no link between dietary resveratrol levels and the rates of heart disease, cancer, and death in humans. Unlike the studies done on microbes and lab animals, this one was conducted on 800 Italian men and women ages 65 and older whose diets were naturally rich in resveratrol from food.

Dr. Sinclair wasn’t surprised by the results. He says the resveratrol given to lab animals is always a much higher dose than you’d normally consume in a daily diet. “You would need 100 to 1,000 glasses of red wine to equal the doses that improve health in mice,” he says. (He has never claimed that resveratrol in foods was likely to have any beneficial health effect.)

But that doesn’t mean that resveratrol and other molecules like it won’t help extend the life span or protect against the development of aging-related diseases. Dr. Sinclair points out that drug companies have now created thousands of new synthetic molecules “that are up to a thousand times better than resveratrol. They prevent cardiovascular disease and neurodegeneration. They also extend life span in mice.” The molecules don’t have catchy names yet—with current designations such as SRT1720 and SRT2104—but they’re showing promise. Dr. Sinclair is again helping to pioneer much of this research.

What you should do

If we can’t get enough resveratrol from food, should we try to get it from supplements? They’re certainly plentiful in health food stores. But taking resveratrol supplements comes with some risks: we don’t know the safe, effective dose for humans and we don’t know how long-term use will affect us for better or for worse. That makes taking resveratrol supplements a bit of an experiment—sort of like the tests on lab mice. But mice have researchers assessing their response to resveratrol, and we don’t. Alert your doctor if you take a resveratrol supplement, or plan to do so.

The bottom line is clear: research on resveratrol may someday lead to improved health and extended life. But if you’re looking for longevity from resveratrol, you won’t find it at the bottom of your wine glass or, at least for now, in a supplement bottle. 

Posted by: Dr.Health

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