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Alcohol and health:
Can drinking wine really be good for you?

By Chris Kissack* and Jamie Goode

"[wine] sloweth age, it strengtheneth youth, it helpeth digestion, it abandoneth melancholie, it relisheth the heart, it lighteneth the mind, it quickenth the spirits, it keepeth and preserveth the head from whirling, the eyes from dazzling, the tongue from lisping, the mouth from snaffling, the teeth from chattering and the throat from rattling; it keepeth the stomach from wambling, the heart from swelling, the hands from shivering, the sinews from shrinking, the veins from crumbling, the bones from aching, and the marrow from soaking."
According to a 16th century manuscript copied by a Joseph Lyons

"Drink a glass of wine after your soup, and you steal a rouble from the doctor."
Russian Proverb

I'd always assumed that anything as pleasurable as wine just had to be bad for you. There was a trade-off, I thought: you weigh up the fun you get from drinking against the inevitable health pay-back, and hopefully reach some sort of a happy balance. It was quite surprising to find out that this might not be the case.

Over the last decade there has been quite a shift in public opinion concerning the health effects of alcohol. Fuelled by TV documentaries and numerous reports in the press, most people now believe that alcohol—and red wine in particular—benefits health when drunk in moderation. And this proposed role of red wine in protecting from heart disease is credited as a major factor in the recent upsurge in popularity of red wines. As the quotes above shows, though, there is nothing new about the idea that drinking can be good for our health.

In the following articles, we examine the science behind the health effects of alcohol and attempt to answer several key questions. First, is the health benefit real? And if so, is it just red wine that protects against heart disease? What about other alcoholic drinks? What are the mechanisms behind this protective effect? And why is it that some of the scientific studies seem to give conflicting results?


*Dr Chris Kissack runs the winedoctor website (www.winedoctor.fsnet.co.uk); he also has a medical degree and works as a paediatrician in Liverpool.
Dr Jamie Goode runs the wineanorak website; he also has a PhD in biology and has edited a book on Alcohol and cardiovascular diseases (published in 1998 by John Wiley & Sons).
Both authors would like to emphasise that although their backgrounds have been useful in helping them interpret the scientific research on alcohol and health, this article is written purely from a journalistic perspective: the opinions here do not represent medical advice. If you are seeking medical advice on these issues, you should consult your GP or family doctor. Division of labour: Chris was responsible for the pieces on 'Wine, coronary heart disease and mortality' and 'wine and health other than coronary heart disease'; Jamie wrote the other bits. Article last modified August 2000.