How a Compound in Red Wine Does the Body Good

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You may be less interested to learn why red wine is good for you than to simply know that it is. But if you’re curious, researchers have now completed the most comprehensive study to date on the health effects of an ingredient in red wine. And the news is good.

The scientists focused their attention on resveratrol, a red-wine compound that has been linked to a lower risk of diabetes and heart disease and even to longer life in animal studies. These results have suggested that resveratrol may boost heart health by lowering cholesterol levels and functioning as an antioxidant, fending off dangerous free radicals that can promote blockage in heart vessels.

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Patrick Schrauwen, a professor of biology at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and his team decided to delve deeper into resveratrol’s metabolic effects. The researchers randomly assigned 11 obese but otherwise healthy men to take either a 150 mg resveratrol supplement or a placebo daily for a month. During that time, the researchers recorded a variety of health measures, including blood pressure, muscle activity and resting metabolic rate, as well as insulin, glucose and cholesterol levels.

After 30 days, men taking resveratrol showed the same kinds of improvements seen in previous animal studies. Indeed, their metabolic profiles looked like those of people who maintain calorie-restricted diets, a strategy in which people drastically cut the amount of calories they consume in order to improve their cholesterol and insulin levels and heart-related function — effects that some data have suggested that resveratrol can mimic.

“If we look at human subjects, there are only two interventions that can improve metabolic health, and those are exercise and caloric restriction,” says Schrauwen. “The nice thing we found in our study is that resveratrol activates the same pathways as caloric restriction.”

The finding could potentially point to a new way of improving metabolic health, without requiring a radical restriction of diet. While cutting calories can make us healthier — and, according to animal studies, potentially live longer — the extent of restriction required would be well beyond most of our abilities, not to mention dangerous, since eating so few calories can also lead to deficiencies in nutrients that are essential for bodily function. If taking a supplement could have the same metabolic effect, however, it could possibly help millions of people with diabetes- and heart-related health problems to benefit from calorie restriction without the same challenges or side effects. “More research is needed, but [these results] open up a promising area of research. This is a first step,” says Schrauwen.

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It’s also too early to speculate about how resveratrol supplements might affect human life span. Some previous studies have suggested that yeast and mice on heavy resveratrol diets lived longer than their non-supplemented counterparts, but some experts argue the data from those studies was flawed. And even if the effect is real, whether it holds true in people needs further study.

As for dose, how much resveratrol does it take to trigger the good-for-you benefits? The study participants took 150 mg daily, but trying to get that much by drinking red wine, everyone’s favorite source of the compound, would be unwise. Red wine contains 15 mg of resveratrol per liter, so you’d have to drink about 10 liters (or more than 13 bottles) of wine a day to reach the same blood levels of resveratrol as achieved by taking supplements.

The new study was published online by the journal Cell Metabolism.

Alice Park is a writer at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @aliceparkny. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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