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Scientific studies, the media, and even some doctors tout the heart health benefits of red wine. But if controlling blood pressure is important to you, consider this the next time you raise your glass: A new study published online in Circulation Research suggests that non-alcoholic red wine may be better at lowering blood pressure than regular red wine. Powerful antioxidants in red wine called polyphenols may be more effective when there's no alcohol to interfere with them.
"It is a very interesting study with provocative findings," says Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a cardiologist and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. I would like to believe the results. Of course, it is a small study with a limited duration of follow-up, so the findings do need to be confirmed in other, larger studies that follow patients for a longer period of time."
In vino veritas
In wine there is truth, said Pliny the Elder in the first century AD. One truth about red wine is that too much can raise blood pressure and increase the risks of cancer, liver disease, and car accidents if you get behind the wheel after drinking.
In moderation, however, drinking red wine increases HDL ("good" cholesterol). It also protects against artery damage, which may lower blood pressure and help prevent heart disease. Polyphenols, in particular, may protect the lining of blood vessels in the heart. But most studies about red wine's antioxidants have been conducted on animals, and were not able to sort out the contribution from alcohol.
A team of Spanish researchers recruited 67 men between ages 55 and 75, all with diabetes or cardiovascular risk factors. Each man drank red wine daily for four weeks, then drank non-alcoholic red wine daily for four weeks, then drank gin daily for four weeks. The daily amounts were moderate: 10 ounces of wine or three ounces of gin. That's about two drinks a day.
When the men drank non-alcoholic red wine, their systolic blood pressure (the top number of a blood pressure reading) decreased on average by 6 points. That's enough to reduce heart disease risk by 14% and stroke risk by as much as 20%, according to the researchers. There was no change in blood pressure when the men drank gin, and only a small reduction in blood pressure when they drank regular red wine.
Researchers also found that the men's plasma nitric oxide levels went up when they drank non-alcoholic red wine. That's a good thing, because nitric oxide relaxes blood vessel walls, allowing better blood flow. The NO levels went up only slightly when the men drank regular red wine, and not at all when they drank gin.
The results of the study look like something to toast: you can get polyphenol and nitric oxide benefits without having to drink alcohol and risk the dangers that come with it. Not so fast, says Dr. Bhatt. "It makes scientific sense, but these findings really need to be confirmed in other studies," he reminds us.
What the study doesn't tell us is how non-alcoholic red wine stacks up against regular red wine for preventing heart attacks or other cardiovascular problems. An excellent discussion of the benefits and risks of drinking red wine and other alcoholic beverages is available on The Nutrition Source, a website published by the Harvard School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition.
What you should do
If you're interested in lowering your blood pressure, Dr. Bhatt says drinking non-alcoholic red wine won't hurt. "I wouldn't ever make a clinical recommendation based on just one small study. However, if you happen to like non-alcoholic red wine and drink it anyway, it might be worthwhile to see if it helps your high blood pressure," he says.
But don't count on non-alcoholic red wine to lower high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, cautions Dr. Bhatt. Most people need a combination of exercise, a healthy diet, and medications to control high blood pressure.
Moderate exercise for 150 minutes per week and following the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet can powerfully lower blood pressure, sometimes making medicines unnecessary. DASH is an eating plan featuring more fruits, vegetables and whole grains; foods with nutrients known to help reduce blood pressure, like calcium, potassium and magnesium; and reduced sodium and saturated fat intake.
High blood pressure is a big problem. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last week that a third of all Americans have high blood pressure, and the majority of them don't have it under control.
Those are sobering facts. If the Spanish study pans out, one possible solution won't be too hard to swallow.