Good spirits: Some alcoholic beverages provide antioxidants and others may reduce cholesterol.

By Sara Reistad-Long
Updated January 20, 2009
Miha Matei (Illustrations: Andrew Rea)

A Little Red Wine Helps Your Heart

Previous studies have shown the benefits red wine may have on the heart, but a groundbreaking study published by the University of Wisconsin, in Madison, this year revealed that it might not take that much drinking to achieve them. When lab mice were fed small amounts of resveratrol, a polyphenol antioxidant found in red wine, they aged more slowly. Their hearts, in particular, stayed younger for longer. New research from the Endocrine Society, an organization devoted to the clinical practice of endocrinology, also found that resveratrol reduces fat-cell formation and can slow fat storage, indicating a role in weight control.

Although animal experiments are still preliminary, given these favorable results, experts see every reason to be encouraged: “Resveratrol is just the first of these red-wine ingredients that we’ve really done a deep dive on,” says Richard Weindruch, Ph.D., professor of medicine at the University of Wisconsin, in Madison. Note that drier red wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir, contain the highest levels of resveratrol.

A Little Wine Can Protect Your Liver

This year, researchers at the University of California School of Medicine, San Diego, found that, compared with teetotalers, people who drank one glass of red or white wine a day were half as likely to develop nonalcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), the most common liver problem in this country. Conversely, people who drank the same amount of beer or hard liquor were four times more likely to get NAFLD. Experts have yet to pinpoint the reason, but they suspect an additional healthful compound in wine is at work.

Moderation May Lower Cholesterol

Many studies have linked the consumption of any kind of alcohol in moderation to high levels of good (HDL) cholesterol, but scientists initially theorized this outcome had more to do with the sorts of people who drink in moderation than with the alcohol itself causing physical changes. However, a study published in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism in 2007 suggests otherwise. Researchers examined the bloodstreams of older moderate drinkers (people who had one to six drinks a week) and saw that they had larger particles of good and bad (LDL) cholesterol in their bloodstreams than did those who drank more. Why is bigger better? Larger HDL particles fight heart disease, while sizable LDL particles are less likely to cause it.

Alcohol Boosts the Benefits of Fruit

A 2007 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that adding fruit to alcoholic drinks―plopping strawberries in Champagne or sliced apples in sangria―may help to increase the already beneficial antioxidant potency of the fruits. The effect you get depends on the fruit you use (berries tend to be the most antioxidant-rich) and how much you include in your drink. So a fresh-raspberry margarita, for example, offers more nutrients than one made with a juice concentrate or mix. Also, “the latter two often contain more refined sugars, so more calories, and less fiber,” says Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., a nutritionist and the author of The 150 Healthiest Foods on Earth (Fair Winds Press, $25).