By Sandrine Cabut
PARIS - Researchers have long been fascinated by the benefits of moderate wine consumption, especially when it comes to healthy hearts. But these findings have also created a quandary for health authorities, knowing that high doses of alcohol have in fact been proven to be quite harmful to the body.
A French study recently published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) provides a new piece to the puzzle. By comparing two populations of French and Northern Irish men in their 50s, a team led by Professor Jean Ferrières, a cardiologist, at the University Hospital of Toulouse, has demonstrated that at equal dosage, it is the pattern of alcohol consumption that largely determines the health effects. Compared to moderate and regular wine drinkers (typically the French), weekend binge-drinkers (typically the Irish) who have the same annual alcohol intake have double the risk of suffering a heart attack. And, in both countries, the rate of stroke is much lower (about 40%) among wine drinkers than it is among abstainers.
The "French Paradox" confirmed
In 1991, the researcher Serge Renaud speculated that the "French paradox" -- the apparent contradiction between low cardiovascular mortality among the French and their diet rich in fats and sauces could be explained by their taste for red wine. Since then, epidemiological studies have confirmed his intuition, while basic research has explained why. The beneficial effects of a moderate consumption of red wine (about one to three drinks per day) can be partly attributed to the presence of ethanol and polyphenols in the drink. In moderate doses (less than 30 grams per day), ethanol, which is common to all alcoholic beverages, can act as an anti-atheromatic and platelet anti-aggregant. Also, polyphenols promote cardiovascular health, and have been shown to possess anti-cancer and anti-aging properties.
However, several studies, particularly one published in 2004 by Professor Ferrières, have suggested that these effects may be indirect. While they do benefit from ethanol and polyphenols, regular consumers of wine often have a healthier lifestyle, eating more fruits and vegetables and exercising more often than their non-wine drinking counterparts.
This new French study, which followed nearly 10,000 male subjects between the ages of 50 and 59 over a 10-year period, is quite striking. During this time, new incidences of heart attack were twice as likely among the Irish men than the French. There was also a strong contrast between the two populations relationships with alcohol. In Ireland, 40% of the subjects were abstainers, while in France only 10% refrained from drinking alcohol. Among drinkers, weekly alcohol intake was comparable in both countries but the patterns of consumption differed greatly. Irish subjects drank predominately during the weekends while the French drank their alcohol at an even pace throughout the week. The drinks they toasted with also differed: over 90% of the French men drank wine while in Belfast beer and spirits were more popular.
Prof. Ferrières explains: "The difference between the French and the Irish vis-à-vis their risk of myocardial infarction (heart attack) can be explained by three factors, each accounting for one third of the effect. First, whether or not individuals drink regularly or engaged in binge drinking; second, the type of alcohol, whether red wine or other; and third, their conventional risk factors of cardiovascular-hypertension, diabetes, tobacco. The research continues as the two groups are still being monitored in order to determine cancer risks for each population.
The issue remains sensitive in France. In recommendations published in 2009, the French National Institute of Cancer stated that the risk of cancer increases with an average consumption of one drink per day. "No alcoholic beverage, even wine, has a protective effect on the human body," says the document, which angered many French researchers.
Several large studies, including one by Dominique Lanzmann-Petithory, a student of Serge Renaud, have in fact reached the opposite conclusion. Lanzmann-Petithory, who worked with a database of 100,000 records spanning a period of 25 years, observed that men who prefer wine are 15% less likely to die of cancer than men who drink other types of alcohol.
At the end of the day, what are we to believe? All doctors agree that high levels of alcohol consumption can be harmful to the heart. Moreover, it is not recommended to start drinking in order to improve ones health, while the cardiovascular benefits of small daily wine intake have only been proven to affect individuals in the second half of their lives. Still, says Bordeaux neurologist Prof. Jean-Marc Orgogozo: In light of the apparent protective property of red wine, it would be paradoxical to encourage prohibition."
Read the original story in French