Raise a Glass to Heart Health: Wine Boosts Omega-3s

Healthnotes Newswire (February 28, 2008)—It’s been a few decades since scientists told us the surprising news that moderate amounts of alcohol was good for the heart, but the reasons for its benefits have remained unclear. Findings from a new study suggest one possible reason: people who drink wine might have higher levels of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, even if they don’t eat many of the foods that contain them.

Omega-3 fatty acids from fish—EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)—are known to reduce cardiac risk. The fact that eating fish and drinking alcohol have similar cardiovascular effects has led researchers to wonder if these substances might be working together.

The new study, published in the American Heart Journal, included 353 men. About half of the men were instructed to eat a Mediterranean-style diet, rich in the plant omega-3 fatty acid known as alpha-linolenic acid or ALA, some of which the body is able to convert to EPA and DHA. The other half were instructed to eat a Western-style diet, which is typically very low in ALA. Men in both groups ate approximately the same amount of fish.

The men were divided into four groups based on their alcohol intake. Alcohol accounted for between zero and 17% of their total daily calories, and almost all of the alcohol they drank was wine.

After 27 months, EPA and DHA levels were higher in the men on the Mediterranean-style diet, and alcohol drinkers from both diet groups had higher levels of EPA and DHA than nondrinkers. Men who ate the Mediterranean-style diet and drank alcohol regularly had the highest levels. The findings suggest that alcohol, and particularly wine, might enhance the conversion of ALA to heart-healthy EPA and DHA.

Eat to boost your dietary ALA

According to Dr. Michel de Lorgeril from the School of Medicine at the Université Joseph Fourier in Grenoble, France, and lead author of the study, the Mediterranean diet has many important characteristics, one of which is that it is rich in ALA. He cited several sources of this heart-healthy fatty acid:

• British walnuts

• Canola, flaxseed, and walnut oils

• Animal products such as eggs, meat, and milk products, from animals fed with nonindustrial foods (meaning no corn or wheat)

Other characteristics of a Mediterranean-style diet, Dr. de Lorgeril points out, include eating a diet that is:

• Low in saturated fat and omega-6 fatty acids

• Rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, fermented milk products (preferably from goat), wine, monounsaturated fatty acids from olive oil, and fatty fish, such as salmon, tuna, and mackerel

Higher levels of EPA and DHA fatty acids in the body lead to lower blood pressure, lower total cholesterol and triglycerides, higher HDL (“good”) cholesterol, normal heart rhythms, and reduced risk of sudden cardiac death.

Drinking wine moderately may offer comparable benefits to eating fatty fish, according to the study’s authors. “The fish-like effect resulting from the combination of an increased ALA intake and moderate wine drinking may represent a useful alternative to fish consumption in areas with low fish availability or in [people] that cannot consume fatty fish for any reason.”

(Am Heart J 2008;155:175–81)

Maureen Williams, ND, received her bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and her Doctorate of Naturopathic Medicine from Bastyr University in Seattle, WA. She has a private practice in Quechee, VT, and does extensive work with traditional herbal medicine in Guatemala and Honduras. Dr. Williams is a regular contributor to Healthnotes Newswire.

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