Uh, guys? I think the entire health community might soon take back everything good it’s ever said about red wine and heart health: A huge new study out of Penn Medicine, published today on BMJ.com, found absolutely no cardiovascular benefits to drinking even moderate amounts of alcohol, including red wine.
A collaborative effort by researchers at a laundry list of institutions, but co-authored by the Perelman School of Medicine's Michael Holmes, the study reviewed findings from more than 50 studies that looked at drinking's impact on cardiovascular health, a data cull of over 260,000 subjects. Instead of doing a typical observational study, which doesn't take into account other factors that could cause people to drink more or less or to have better or worse overall health (thereby skewing results), Holmes told me, "we did the closest thing we could to a randomized clinical trial." After all, you can't just pump a bunch of people full of alcohol—which is known to cause things like depression and increase a person's risk for cancer—and cross your fingers and see what happens.
The next best thing, his team decided, was to look at DNA. "The way we inherit our DNA is independent from other factors, so it means we can group people in the population according to a gene variant," he says. "Then we can make causal deductions based on that."
In this case, the gene they looked at is called the "alcohol dehydrogenase 1B" gene, a mouthful of a gene that causes carriers to metabolize alcohol faster and feel its ill effects, like nausea and vomiting, more quickly. As a result, people with the gene tend to drink less—making them the perfect group to compare to everyone else.
His team found that the people who drank less tended to have better cardiovascular health in the long run than cohorts who drank even moderately. Those with the gene in question consumed 17 percent less alcohol each week and had a 10 percent reduced risk of coronary heart disease, as well as lower blood pressure and lower BMI to boot.
"The biggest takeaway is that people who drink less alcohol have lower risk of heart disease," says Holmes. "In other words, if you want to reduce risk of heart disease, drink less alcohol."
But, wait! Does the type of alcohol you consume make a difference? Red wine has got to be better for you than beer or a tequila shot, right? Nope: "The gene variant acted as a proxy for any alcohol," says Holmes. " While it wasn’t specific for beer or wine, it told us is that any exposure to alcohol—it doesn't matter if it's beer or wine—will increase the risk of heart disease."
Drat. He also adds that the team didn't see any protective effect from alcohol and that, in terms resveratrol, the antioxidant in red wine that everyone speaks about in hushed, reverent tones, "the data is not robust, so I would be cautious to place too much faith in that evidence given these findings."
He wouldn't go so far as to say everyone should swear off alcohol for good—"It's up to the individual," he told me—but he did say this: "If you’re worried about your heart health, reduce your alcohol consumption." Period.
Do with that information what you will.
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