Dear Matt-o-matic: Unable to resist the lure of a good fad, I stopped drinking alcohol several years ago. Now, since I still enjoy at least the illusion of wine with a meal, I sip the best nonalcoholic brand I can find. My question: Does nonalcoholic wine offer the same cardiac health benefits as those claimed by researchers for wines with alcoholic content? Tell me it’s so. I’d hate to have found the only real reason for a bender ten years too late. — Dry Dock, Hillcrest
Red wine is the oat bran of the mid-’90s. Pretty soon it will be in everything— Cabernet Crunch cereal, Pinot Noir and jelly sandwiches, Zinfandel-on-a-stick.... Already there’s a red-wine pill available in health-food stores for people too busy to waste time actually drinking the stuff. When it comes to longevity, we’ve all gone a little batty, I think. We strip the skin off our chicken breasts and endure miserable fake bacon and cheese and sour cream but then get in our cars and drive 80 on I-5. I guess we want to have really clean arteries (as well as underwear) when we bash into that bridge abutment. Well, let’s deal with this fast, before the next live-longer craze comes out of some lab in Sweden.
Recently there have been more than three dozen major studies of the effects of wine on our hearts and arteries. Some also included comparative effects of white wine, beer, and hard liquor. In general, the results seem to show that any type of alcoholic drinks, in moderate quantities, will help ward off heart disease. So many researchers conclude (tentatively) that ethyl alcohol is one component of this idea of booze as medicine. Moderate drinkers have higher “good” cholesterol (HDL) levels than teetotalers, and ethanol is involved in glucose and insulin metabolism that cuts down on the amount of fatty acids dumped into the bloodstream.
But before you switch back to the hard stuff, consider some other findings. A second component, phenols, abundant in red wine, but absent in liquors like vodka and gin, are effective antioxidants. They may prevent “bad” cholesterol (LDL) from oxidizing and coating blood vessels with plaque and may have some anticlotting powers as well. Studies of grape juice and nonalcoholic wine versus regular wine show that the real thing works best, but there’s still some health benefit from the juice and zipless claret, perhaps because of the phenols. I should add that researchers really aren’t sure why moderate alcohol drinking is beneficial to the heart. The ethanol/phenols explanations are their educated guesses.
Given all this testing, you’d expect that every frat rat passed out cold on the quad or every wino dragged into detox would be a paragon of vascular fitness. So here come the caveats. Researchers generally agree that the effects of one drink six days a week is vastly different from six drinks one day a week. Current medical recommendations are a maximum one five-ounce alcoholic drink per day for women (and some small, slightly built men), two for most men. Once you drink even 15 ounces of wine/whatever per day, you’re pressing your luck; there’s no argument about the research that shows that binge drinking and a high daily intake of alcohol are both physically harmful. And though ethanol may increase HDL levels, exercise and weight loss do it better. Alcohol is also high in calories. Drinking even the recommended amount could add 20 to 40 pounds to your frame in a year. Finally, “a belt a day keeps the cardiologist away” applies only to men over 35 or 40 and women over 50. For younger people, there may be no benefits from drinking other than the traditional bragging rights and hangovers.
Lynette Perkes of Poway long ago sent in a possible origin for the term “the willies,” meaning “the creeps,” a question we tackled back in the Ice Age sometime. Most word-origin experts say the source is unknown. But after doing a bit of snooping around, I think Lynette may be on to something. “In European folk tradition, a willy or a wili is the spirit of a young girl who has died of disappointed love. In Britain the willys haunt remote lakes and streams, where they lure unwary travelers to their deaths. In Germany they rise from the ground at midnight and dance in a frenzy until dawn, forcing any man who encounters them to dance until he drops dead.” There is a chorus of wilis in the ballet Giselle. “So, Matthew, the wilis are malevolent spooks. If you’re spooked, you’ve got the wilis.”