Unraveling the Mystery of Wine Compounds and Heart Health

According to many epidemiological studies, folks who drink lightly to moderately live longer and suffer fewer cardiovascular events than nondrinkers. But these studies are tricky, because of sloppy, interconnected confounding factors and self-reported data. Consider 10 kids who get chicken pox and eat ice cream everyday versus 10 pox-free kids deprived of a delectable, icy, summer treat. Does that mean that ice cream causes chicken pox? Of course not, but ice cream is a confounding factor. Most pro-wine studies also reveal that light to moderate drinkers are simply healthier overall- drinking with meals, consuming a higher proportion of wine than other spirits, sporting healthy BMI’s, exercising regularly, non-smoking…you get the idea. So now you are granting a life longevity boost to a population who already demonstrates a healthy trajectory. What gives? Is it the wine or the healthy lifestyle or both? That’s the macro picture. Today we are going micro. Strap on your scuba gear as we dive right into your bloodstream to observe your blood vessels firsthand. Much of this story is test tube data (“in vitro”) and may or may not be exactly what goes down in your body (“in vivo”). But researchers need to start at the beginning, which means bench trials in a lab. Your blood vessels are lined by very special cells, called endothelial cells. They are extremely sensitive. Endothelial cells are bothered by all sorts of stuff, including hormones, chemical signals from neighboring cells, inflammation, and even blood cells themselves. Sometimes red blood cells gang up in a cluster and attach themselves to an endothelial cell. It’s Occupy Wall Street on a cellular scale. The siren song of the microscopic mosh pit beckons, rounding up a tour bus of sticky platelets to adhere to their buddies. The endothelial cell, rightly upset, recruits angry inflammatory cells to sequester the mess and scratch the itch. Once the inflammatory cells and some cholesterol fragments jump into the fray, you’re on your way to a serious clot. The inflamed mob of cells clogs your blood vessel and obstructs traffic; your liquid blood struggles to flow past. Cardiologists have a fancy name for this, “plaque.” It’s a road sign screaming “heart attack risk factor.” Luckily, alcohol may be able to help.

Current scientific evidence suggests that chemical compounds found in red wine may curb this process at different steps along the way. First of all, wine compounds called flavonoids can decrease inflammation. Inflammation cells and their chemical signatures (called “an inflammatory milieu”) are recognized features of blood vessel disease and court plaque formation. Next, wine flavonoids make endothelial cells less sticky. The wine chemicals stop endothelial cells from poking and jabbing at the red blood cells rolling by. When the endothelial cells keep their Velcro fingers to themselves, red blood cells are less likely to congregate there in the first place. Why instigate a red blood cell riot when you can just be chill? The same wine chemicals also tell the platelets to stop hanging around and to attach someplace else, like to a paper cut or something. This is called “inhibiting platelet aggregation.” And this all happens on a microscopic level (Lotito, Anter).

So what is this miracle compound found in red wine, you ask expectantly? If you guessed resveratrol, you guessed wrong. It seems you’d have to drink some 5000-6000 bottles of wine a day to replicate the 5 gram/day of resveratrol fed to some very lucky rats. In fact, when you’re down at the cellular level, a minute concentration of a specific chemical is enough to nudge a gene or turn on a protein in a neighboring cell. Cells talk to one another with whispers; they don’t shout. And this makes sense physiologically. When you slug a gulp of vino, the tannins and phenols are pulverized and degraded in your stomach anyway. Then your liver gets involved cleaning up what’s left, and suddenly what’s coursing through your bloodstream doesn’t look like it did back in the glass (biochemically speaking). Despite the shape shifting, it appears that wine chemicals help your body not by doing the heavy lifting themselves but instead by altering inter and intra cellular communication (Williams, Qin). What I mean is that flavonoids might slink up to an endothelial cell and dock at a reserved parking spot. The very act of parking triggers a sequence of events that turn on genes which either crank up or dampen down protein production. Those proteins for example, may control the “pheromones” that attract inflammatory cells or grow the sticky fingers that trap red blood cells and/or platelets. They may even tell the blood vessel cells to just reeeeeelax, which in turn decreases your blood pressure. We docs call it “endothelial dependent vasodilatation (Corder).” In fact, we know which wine chemical is the most potent endothelial cell effector- the oligomeric procyanidin. Try that tongue twister at your local wine bar.

Works Cited

You can trust my unbiased summations or peruse the literature yourself. Many mechanisms have been drastically simplified.

Lotito SB, Frei B, Dietary flavonoids attenuate tumor necrosis factor alpha-induced adhesion molecule expression in human aortic endothelial cells. Structure-function relationships and activity after first pass metabolism., J Biol Chem. 2006 Dec 1;281(48):37102-10.

Lotito SB, Frei B., Consumption of flavonoid-rich foods and increased plasma antioxidant capacity in humans: cause, consequence, or epiphenomenon?, Free Radic Biol Med. 2006 Dec 15;41(12):1727-46. Review

Williams RJ, Spencer JP, Rice-Evans C., Flavonoids: antioxidants or signalling molecules?, Free Radic Biol Med. 2004 Apr 1;36(7):838-49. Review

Qin CX, Chen X, Hughes RA, Williams SJ, Woodman OL, Understanding the cardioprotective effects of flavonols: discovery of relaxant flavonols without antioxidant activity., J Med Chem. 2008 Mar 27;51(6):1874-84.

Corder R, Mullen W, Khan NQ, Marks SC, Wood EG, Carrier MJ, Crozier A., Oenology: red wine procyanidins and vascular health., Nature. 2006 Nov 30;444(7119):566.

Corder R., Red wine, chocolate and vascular health: developing the evidence base., Heart. 2008 Jul;94(7):821-3

Caton PW, Pothecary MR, Lees DM, Khan NQ, Wood EG, Shoji T, Kanda T, Rull G, Corder R., Regulation of vascular endothelial function by procyanidin-rich foods and beverages., J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Apr 14;58(7):4008-13.