Is Drinking Wine to Relax Really a Good Idea?

Dr. Frank Shallenberger, MD

December 2, 2019



You probably know that having a glass of red wine helps many people relax. You may even be one of those who enjoys a glass or two before bed. And there’s nothing wrong with having some wine to relax. But we all know what drinking too much can do.

While the health effects of alcohol are mixed, there is some good news. New research is shedding light on red wine’s ability to relax us. And you don’t actually have to drink to take advantage of it.

“Drink red wine and get XYZ benefit” has been a popular headline for years. After all, many people appreciate the excuse to indulge. I generally don’t think there’s much harm in the occasional glass. But drinking red wine isn’t going to solve your health problems. However, the compound that’s actually driving these headlines just might.

You probably know that red wine, dark chocolate, and many berries contain resveratrol. This powerful plant compound has a number of benefits. Of course, to get the resveratrol benefits that drive study headlines, you’d have to drink cases and cases of red wine. That’s not good for anyone. But people have been enjoying the benefits of resveratrol in supplement form for over 20 years. The only problem with the supplement is that we didn’t know if it helped us relax like wine does.

Well, researchers have discovered that one benefit of resveratrol is particularly important for anyone who uses red wine to relax.

Many people think it’s the alcohol itself that helps them relax. But this research from the University at Buffalo indicates that resveratrol may deserve much of the credit. That’s because it seems to affect an enzyme that causes the brain to experience stress.

Resveratrol and Stress

This enzyme, phosphodiesterase 4 (PDE4) responds to corticosterone, a stress hormone. Too much corticosterone turns on PDE4. And that in turn can trigger depression and anxiety.

This happens because PDE4 lowers the expression of cyclic adenosine monophosphate. This molecule serves as a messenger, helping the brain regulate important changes to its cells, like division, migration, and even death. When this molecule can function properly, the brain physically changes.

So, to recap: stress leads to elevated corticosterone. That turns on PDE4. PDE4 inhibits messenger molecules. And the brain’s cells don’t get important messages, leading to brain changes that increase anxiety and depression.

Resveratrol stops the dominos from falling by intervening between corticosterone and PDE4, helping your brain relax. This is an exciting finding because most antidepressants currently available focus on serotonin or noradrenaline. And they work really effectively for only about one-third of patients.

Targeting a different channel could bring relief to more of the 16 million and 40 million people suffering from depression and anxiety disorders, respectively, in the U.S. Plus, I prefer using natural solutions rather than drugs when addressing the delicate environment of brain chemistry.

Resveratrol and the Brain

Resveratrol has a pretty great track record as a natural health support – including in the brain. Researchers have also studied it in relation to dementia, particularly Alzheimer's disease. But until a few years ago, the results were rather inconclusive. However, since doctors and researchers currently consider Alzheimer's incurable and resveratrol has shown so much potential, researchers continued to investigate whether it could help after all. And it's a good thing they did.

What stands out about this study is how much you have to take to see results for Alzheimer's. Many health experts have said for years that you don't need to take resveratrol supplements because you can get enough of it from foods like grapes, pomegranates, and even red wine. Those foods do contain resveratrol. But they don't have enough to help Alzheimer's patients.

Researchers divided 119 participants with mild to moderate Alzheimer's into two groups. One group received a placebo. The other group started with 500 mg of resveratrol per day and worked their way up to 1,000 mg twice a day. (For comparison, an entire bottle of red wine contains about 8 mg.) The researchers found two important things. First, the resveratrol mimicked the effects of calorie restriction, which research has shown to delay and even prevent Alzheimer's in the long term.

They also found that resveratrol helps move amyloid-beta plaques out of the brain and decreases brain inflammation. A follow-up study found that high levels of resveratrol helped keep proteins that can break down the blood-brain barrier out of the brain. The resveratrol did cause some side effects, including nausea, diarrhea, and weight changes, in some of the participants. But they were a small price to pay for the brain-defense benefits the participants received.

If you want to prevent Alzheimer's, you need to take in quite a bit of resveratrol. A glass of red wine or a handful of grapes won't cut it (though these are fine if you enjoy them). But you can take a resveratrol supplement. It will give you much more resveratrol than you can get from your diet alone, in addition to several other beneficial polyphenols to protect your brain and your mitochondrial function.

Resveratrol Helps Prevent Falls and Perhaps Even Parkinson’s

And Alzheimer’s isn’t the only neurodegenerative disease to consider resveratrol for. We have compelling research that this super nutrient can help improve your mobility. The evidence is so strong it suggests that it might even help prevent falls in seniors and offer protection for people with Parkinson’s disease.

For this study, the researchers fed older and younger lab mice a diet with resveratrol for eight weeks. They had the mice cross a steel mesh balance beam. At the study outset, the senior mice had problems navigating the course. But, by the fourth week, they were doing better. They were doing so much better, in fact, that they were able to navigate the beam with the speed of young mice. 

Then the researchers turned to how it might work. They found that resveratrol modulates damage done to neurons from high levels of dopamine. Dopamine, a key neurotransmitter in Parkinson’s disease, when normally detoxified in the brain, can lead to free radical damage to cells.

This is a wonderful report on how you might be able to make your brain operate on a more youthful level. I think anyone on conventional Parkinson’s treatment should consider supplemental resveratrol. Allopathic treatment increases dopamine availability in stressed brain structures. It’s possible that too much of the stuff could backfire. And resveratrol might be like adding some extra padding to a thin catcher’s mitt.

As Parkinson’s progresses – and for those with weak muscles – falling is a serious threat to your health and your life. Many people hit their heads when they fall or break their hips. It’s a good idea to take anything that can help your mobility and your balance. And resveratrol can definitely help.

Yet another study found that resveratrol may even be able to help counter the effects of a high-sugar diet on your muscles. For this project, a group of researchers at Georgetown University evaluated the effects of diet and resveratrol supplementation on a group of rhesus monkeys. They wanted to see how various combinations of diet and resveratrol would affect their leg muscles.

They started with the soleus muscle, a large muscle that stretches from the heel to the knee. The monkeys use it for standing and walking. It typically falls in the "slow" muscle category. But when the monkeys ate a low nutrient, high-sugar diet, it began acting more like a "fast" muscle, making it less effective. However, the researchers found that giving the monkeys a resveratrol supplement helped reverse this change.

Then they checked the plantaris muscle, a shorter muscle found along the back of the calf. The diet didn't seem to have any effects on the muscle. However, a resveratrol supplement still proved beneficial, helping the muscle shift from "fast" to "slow" more effectively.

The researchers speculate that resveratrol could be beneficial in humans as well, particularly in elderly individuals who rely on the "slow" skeletal muscles for balance, stability, and mobility. They note that it's much better to include resveratrol as part of a healthy diet than use it as an excuse to eat poorly.

I agree. An added benefit is that using resveratrol to strengthen muscles may make it easier to exercise. And that in turn can help with mood and anxiety issues. Plus, resveratrol can even help your brain use oxygen more effectively when you’re busy and active.

A study found that single doses of resveratrol enhance blood flow to the brain during task performances. This was a randomized double-blind placebo controlled crossover study on 22 healthy adults. Most people consider this the very best kind of medical study.

What's remarkable is that the researchers actually measured oxygen uptake. Fully oxygenated blood (arterial) is bright red. That's due to oxyhemoglobin. But, when your tissues extract oxygen from the hemoglobin, and burn it, the returning blood is darker. Why? Because the hemoglobin is now stripped of its oxygen (called deoxyhemoglobin). So it takes on the darker color of venous blood. The color difference is easy to measure.

The researchers used doses of 250 mg and 500 mg of oral trans-resveratrol. The authors didn't find changes in cognitive function in this short study. But that's not what they were looking to find. They were looking for resveratrol's instant effect on your brain's ability to uptake oxygen. They wanted to know if resveratrol can increase your brain's circulation when you need it most – when you're active.

Since the returning blood was darker, it means that the tissues (brain) pulled off more oxygen from the hemoglobin. That directly translates to more oxygen consumption. And that means greater energy production within the brain. I can't tell you how resveratrol accomplishes this, but it's fantastic news to me. A number of degenerative brain conditions out there could be helped by greater neuronal energy production, including Alzheimer's.

Resveratrol is one of the best nutrients you can take. The scientific research behind it – and the clinical proof – supports its daily use. But be sure to get it from a supplement, not from a bottle (or a case) of red wine a day. That’s sure to do more harm than good to your brain.

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