Researchers have found that a certain polyphenol present in red wine, resveratrol, has numerous health benefits on offer for drinkers.
Red wine contains a complex mixture of bioactive compounds, including flavonols, monomeric and polymeric flavan-3-ols, highly coloured anthocyanins, as well as phenolic acids and the stilbene polyphenol, resveratrol.
Lindsay Brown, an associate professor in the School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Queensland and corresponding author for the study, says that some of these compounds, particularly resveratrol, appear to have health benefits.
"The breadth of benefits is remarkable - cancer prevention, protection of the heart and brain from damage, reducing age-related diseases such as inflammation, reversing diabetes and obesity, and many more," said Brown.
He added: "It has long been a question as to how such a simple compound could have these effects but now the puzzle is becoming clearer with the discovery of the pathways, especially the sirtuins, a family of enzymes that regulate the production of cellular components by the nucleus.
'Is resveratrol the only compound with these properties?' This would seem unlikely, with similar effects reported for other components of wine and for other natural products such as curcumin. However, we know much more about resveratrol relative to these other compounds."
One of the main points of the review included that resveratrol exhibits therapeutic potential for cancer chemoprevention as well as cardioprotection.
"It sounds contradictory that a single compound can benefit the heart by preventing damage to cells, yet prevent cancer by causing cell death.
The most likely explanation for this, still to be rigorously proved in many organs, is that low concentrations activate survival mechanisms of cells while high concentrations turn on the in-built death signals in these cells," said Brown.
The study suggests that resveratrol may aid in the prevention of age-related disorders, such as neurodegenerative diseases, inflammation, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.
"The simplest explanation is that resveratrol turns on the cell's own survival pathways, preventing damage to individual cells. Further mechanisms help, including removing very reactive oxidants in the body and improving blood supply to cells," said Brown.
The researchers also said that low doses of resveratrol could improve cell survival as a mechanism of cardio- and neuro-protection, while high doses increase cell death.
"The key difference is probably the result of activation of the sirtuins in the nucleus. Low activation reverses age-associated changes, while high activation increases the process of apoptosis or programmed cell death to remove cellular debris.
Similar changes are seen with low-dose versus high-dose resveratrol: low-dose resveratrol produces cellular protection and reduces damage, while high-dose resveratrol prevents cancers," said Brown.
She concluded that current scientific research is starting to explain reports from the last 200 years that drinking red wine improves health.
However, the researchers added that low to moderate drinking - especially of red wine - appears to reduce all causes of mortality, while too much drinking causes multiple organ damage.
The findings will be published in the September issue of Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.