Resveratrol—the hype continues


Former Executive Editor, Harvard Health

ARCHIVED CONTENT: As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date each article was posted or last reviewed. No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician. 

Oh, the giddy abandon that overtakes some headline writers when crowning a story about resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine. Here’s a sampling of the latest:

  • Scientists May Be Closer to Developing ‘Red Wine’ Drug
  • Secret of Resveratrol, Red Wine Health Benefits Spilled
  • How Red Wine Keeps Us Healthy
  • Red Wine Good For Health, Could Be Used To Cure Diabetes And Dementia
  • Pill To Uncork Red Wine’s Benefits

All that for an article published today in the journal Cell suggesting that resveratrol blocks the action of a muscle enzyme called phosphodiesterase 4 in mice. Don’t get me wrong: it’s interesting research, that could—emphasis on “could”—open the door someday to new treatments for heart disease, diabetes, memory loss, and other chronic conditions. But it doesn’t merit the hype that comes with almost any new research on resveratrol.

Resveratrol basics

Resveratrol is a compound that various plants make to fight off bacteria, fungi, and other microbial attackers, or to withstand drought or lack of nutrients. It has been found in red and purple grapes, blueberries, cranberries, mulberries, lingonberries, peanuts, and pistachios. Resveratrol is also abundant in the roots of Japanese knotweed, a plant that has become a hard-to-eradicate invader in the United States.

In 1992, two Cornell University plant scientists suggested that resveratrol might be responsible for the cardiovascular benefits of red wine. Since then, hundreds of reports have indicated that resveratrol may—emphasis on “may”—protect against cancer, cardiovascular disease, vascular dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease, and extend the life span.

Exactly how resveratrol might do all this is still a mystery. One possibility is that it turns on genes that make sirtuins, ancient proteins found in virtually all species. Activating sirtuins kicks off a response that fights disease and prolongs life. The Cell researchers were trying to figure out just how resveratrol might turn on sirtuin genes.

A long way to go

Virtually all of the positive studies on resveratrol have come from cultures of cells or laboratory experiments with yeast, roundworms, fruit flies, the short-lived turquoise killifish, or mice. The few human studies have looked at specific intermediate markers, such as levels of antioxidants, heart rate variability, blood flow to the brain, and amounts of cancer proteins. None have measured long-term health or survival.

Another big unknown is side effects. Resveratrol acts on many different tissues in the body. It is chemically related to estrogen. In some situations, high doses of resveratrol boost the activity of estrogen, in others they block estrogen. That makes resveratrol supplements iffy for women with cancer of the breast, ovary, uterus, or other estrogen-sensitive tissue, those trying to become pregnant, or those taking an oral contraceptive.

Resveratrol makes platelets in the bloodstream less “sticky,” and so could increase the risk of bleeding in people who take warfarin (Coumadin), clopidogrel (Plavix), aspirin, ibuprofen, or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs.

Another cloud: a company called Sirtris Pharmaceuticals, which was established to develop drugs from resveratrol, pulled the plug on the program in 2010 when a clinical trial showed that one of these drugs might be linked to kidney damage.

Go natural

If you believe that resveratrol will help you live longer and healthier, get it from food or wine, not by choking down resveratrol pills. Why? Eating red grapes, blueberries, and pistachios, or having a glass of your favorite red wine, are pleasurable ways to take in resveratrol. Plus you get all the other healthful plant products that come with the resveratrol. Getting it via supplement is dull, and you can’t always trust what you are getting. If you choose to take a supplement, shop carefully. A review by the independent ConsumerLab found that one brand cost just 15 cents per 100 milligrams of resveratrol, while another cost $2.76 per 100 milligrams.

It’s worth keeping an eye on resveratrol research. But it’s far too soon to be promoting it as a fountain of youth or wonder drug.


  1. Janna

    Wouldn’t you also want to consider the other aspects of drinking wine that affect your health, i.e. alcohol and calorie intake? I would much prefer to get a balanced nutrition through healthy and fresh foods that are enjoyable, but only to the extent that they don’t poison our bodies. We most prefer alkaline foods

  2. Rich

    I am a fan of the thought process that says we should enjoy pleasures like Wine, etc. and I still often do.

    But I do think at the same time that a Raw and Alkaline Foods Diet allows you to naturally not want Sugary Fruits, Wines, etc. Even though the overwhelming trend in our society is to not allow this diet to happen and thus we still have a TON of desire for these foods, fruits and wines.

    I work with a Pro Chef that experienced this – he used to have wine every night in his fine-dining restaurant and lost his taste completely when he went on a Raw and Alkaline Diet. That Website is

    Mainstream Health is unfortunately still catching up with this.

  3. Rob

    So we are advised to “go natural” and not use supplements because:
    1) drinking wine etc. is pleasurable
    2) taking supplements is dull.
    And this is medical adivice according to the Editor.
    No much to comment I guess ?

  4. Lorence

    For those who an connect the dots, and even read published studies, it is clear that resveratrol supplementation is a good way to ward off the ravages of aging.

    For those who pander to the phamaceutical industry – an industry that kills many people per year with its drugs – the case is not so clear.

    We are on the verge of a health revolution. Prevent disease, dont treat diseaes.

    FYI, in the glaxo study you are referring to, they gave 5000 mg. of micronized resveratrol in an emulsion per day….THIS IS AN ABSURD AMOUNT.

  5. david george

    Resveratrol pills are a wonder drug. There are no reported adverse side effects. Read up.

    • Claudiana

      The only viable rtleanative to the health care we have now would be a single payor system, but that would mean closing down approximately 1,000 health insurance companies and would add tens or hundreds of thousands of workers to the unemployment rolls, to replace all of them with a single federal government payor and inefficient civil service workers.To spend over one trillion dollars to just add a government option is fiscally irresponsible and will cost more annually than the system we have now.If our system is so bad why do people from around the world, in particular England and Europe, come here for treatment which they can’t get or would take too long with their free government health care?

  6. Dr Sullivan

    This author’s pro pharma bias is clear in the misleading headline he chose for this article. At this point in its evolution resveratrol has become a serious threat to the earnings that derive from the sale of drugs such as Metformin, Lipitor and the related very unsafe and only marginally effective cholesterol drugs, and even certain of the anti-inflammatories, whose adverse effects have resulted in several of them being taken off of the market last year.

    In the recent month or so there have been a steady stream of misleading and, in my opinion, deceptive articles disseminated in the press which have unfairly cast doubt of the validity of resveratrol’s health benefits. On the other hand, studies such as the one recently published in a top medical journal by Albert Einstein Med. College, in which transmax resveratrol produced effects similar to that of Metformin without any observed adverse effects, have been aggressively ignored by the US media. Another very large scale, long term extremely important human study in which the statin drugs were associated with very serious health hazards was barely covered at all and disappeared from the news radar within days.

  7. Manika

    Superb and valuable information

  8. Conrad Roland

    We should be very happy and grateful about the new study by Park et al., published in Cell on February 3, 2012:
    “Resveratrol Ameliorates Aging-Related Metabolic Phenotypes by Inhibiting cAMP Phosphodiesterases” (Cell 148, 421-433, Feb.3,2012)
    No “…hype continues” there ! It is enlightenment about resveratrol pure and simple.
    This study under the leadership of Dr. Jay H. Chung seems to be an excellent new look at resveratrol with quite unexpected results and explanations for previous findings – explaining the activation of SIRT1 and AMPK and the (new) role of PDE4 inhibition in the observed beneficial effects of resveratrol.
    BTW, PDE4 and other PDEs are also inhibited by other polyphenols such as curcumin,
    epimedium sagittatum (Viagra mimic!), etc. Resveratrol may not be that unique, and the new study by Park et al. may shed light on and be applied to such other polyphenols
    (e.g. grape seed extract, oligomeric proanthocyanidins), especially to the highly potent
    – pluripotent – curcuminoids that show similar effects like AMPK activation etc.
    We have to agree with Dr. Skerrett that many questions remain (appropriate dosing, side effects – such as the kidney problems observed by the Sirtris researchers) until sufficiently powered clinical studies have been completed.
    I have taken a resveratrol + other red wine polyphenols supplement for the last six years
    in the range of 150 – max. 300 mg of trans-resveratrol per day plus one glass of
    high-altitude red wine (Malbec), in addition to several other phytonutrients in/as food and as supplements, in particular a high dose of approx. 3500 mg curcumin and
    daily dietary isothiocyanates/sulforaphane from cruciferous vegetables, especially
    broccoli and daikon sprouts. After all, I am 77 years old, in good health after having smoked 3 packs of cigarettes a day for 42 years and quit 14 years ago after a well-deserved heart attack. Every reason to consider resveratrol and other polyphenols for prevention of premature degenerative diseases – mostly as food, but some necessarily as supplements. 30 bottles of red wine every day to obtain (presumably beneficial)
    150 mg of resveratrol may be a bit too much . . .
    I certainly agree with Howard Glenn’s comment.

  9. Howard Glenn

    Over 6,000 published studies on resveratrol’s biokinetic, epigenetic, metabolic, anti-carcinogenesis and other beneficial properties is not hype. Only a pro-pharma toady could make this conclusion.

  10. PC slow

    Should we drink ‘Red Wine’ ?

    • Eman

      How is it a rip off? This is a natural iderenignts called RESVERATROL.. You can get it in red wine, grape seed or you could buy it in any food store.. How is it a rip off?

  11. Bill Sardi

    Resveratrol in wine is highly variable, maybe about 1 mg per glass of the best aged dark red wine. When combined with the other polyphenolic molecules found in wine in a dose of 3-5 five-ounce glasses per day, this will achieve optimal heart protection. The problem is that this is the inebriation intake level. Red wine pills should provide about the same dose of total polyphenols found in 3-5 glasses of wine, about 60 mg per glass, or 180-300 mg of resveratrol or resveratrol + other molecules. Dose is critically important as too much resveratrol negates its protective effect in the heart and worsens a heart attack (animal studies). High-dose resveratrol pills (300-1000 mg) should be avoided. At this dose resveratrol promotes oxidation, whereas at lower doses it is an antioxidant. Many people do not consume alcohol and a red wine resveratrol pill is an option. -Bill Sardi (Disclosure: I am a formulator of red wine pills)

    • Ian Liberman

      First of all, the recent study with Resveratrol and diabetes and metabolic syndrome had a dosage between one to two grams and was effective. A high dose was needed. That was mentioned by Dr. Sullivan. Second, is your suggestion about low dose resveratrol based on on the discredited studies of Dr. Dipak K Das ? Thirdly, all the talk about estrogen being a problem for women as far as I know a major study last indicated that resveratrol destroyed breast cancer cells.

Commenting has been closed for this post.