Every wine mom, spiritual or literal, knows that wine is good for you. It's one of those factoids that comes up any time a bottle of wine is produced, usually as the speaker is in the middle of pouring themselves a glass. I mean, who doesn't like to be reminded that they're doing their future self a favor every time they bust out the zinfandel? The well-documented health benefits of moderate wine consumption range from the cardiovascular to the neurological — and recent research just took us one step closer to figuring out how our bodies actually reap these benefits.
For several years, studies have suggested that wine can protect against neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's or dementia. Usually, this is attributed to resveratrol, an anti-inflammatory compound found in grape skins, but a new paper in Frontiers in Nutrition took a different tack: investigating the molecules left behind after wine is digested. (In science-speak, these are called "wine-derived human gut metabolites.") In the study, researchers took waste samples from regular and moderate wine drinkers and selected the wine-derived metabolites for further investigation. Meanwhile, they also grew human cell cultures, placing them in stressful conditions known to cause neuronal cell dysfunction and death — basically, researchers induced the early stages of some neurodegenerative disorders.
Here's the good news: When the wine-derived compounds were added to these cultures, researchers found that some did protect against cell death.
Before you start popping bottles of champagne to celebrate, though, there's a catch. Certain metabolites were better at preventing neuronal death than others, and not everyone produced the beneficial kind. According to the study, different intestinal flora — the community of microorganisms chilling out in your digestive tract — created different metabolites. In other words, participants' gut bacteria influenced whether or not wine broke down into protective compounds, suggesting that drinking a glass of merlot might not guarantee that you'll experience the neurological benefits.
Take all the time you need to digest this bombshell — I don't know about you, but I feel like my world has been turned upside down.
On the other hand, even if it isn't always as beneficial as we'd like to hope, wine does have plenty of other benefits. It might prevent heart disease and help burn fat, and there's evidence that moderate consumption is associated with a longer lifespan. Phew.
Lead author Dr. Adelaida Esteban-Fernandez also concluded that the study's results demonstrate the importance of diet in maintaining your health, even areas you might not associate with food, like brain function. "This individual difference is a factor not to be neglected to understand the health effects of certain foods," she said, according to Science Daily, adding that she is "really aware about the importance of a healthy diet enriched in vegetables, fruits, and reduced industrial saturated fats." Wine might hog the spotlight, but other foods can protect your health as well.
So, to recap: Your intestinal bacteria can break wine down into certain compounds that prevent neuronal cell death, and your best bet for maintaining helpful gut bacteria is to eat healthily. I can drink to that.