Resveratrol (aka Red Wine Pills) - Too Soon To Tell

Monday, July 7, 2008 - 4:51pm

By: Stephanie Clarke, MS, RD and Willow Jarosh, MS, RD

The idea of a pill that can prevent Alzheimer’s, prevent and treat cancer, slow aging, decrease inflammation, reduce the risk of stroke, and even reduce the negative effects of a high fat diet is incredibly exciting.  These are some of the claims that manufacturers of red wine pills and resveratrol pills are making.  Over the past year, resveratrol pills have made a surge into many stores and all over the internet, following several studies that indicated that mice fed resveratrol lived longer, healthier lives.  These pills may seem too good to be true – and for good reason, little is known about the effects of resveratrol on humans.  Read on to get the facts on resveratrol and resveratrol pills.

What is resveratrol?
Resveratrol, while often associated with the health benefits of red wine because of its presence in the skin of red grapes, is found in a variety of plants including raspberries, peanuts, white pine, and cranberries.  It’s actually produced by these plants as a defense against bacteria or fungal infection.   The amount of resveratrol in food varies greatly.  In fact, Spanish red wines can have more than twice the resveratrol of Pinot Noir because of the difference in grapes used.

What the studies say
Several major studies conducted in the past couple years have created quite a buzz about resveratrol.  One study found that middle aged subjects fed a high fat diet were less likely to die early (or develop diabetes) if they took large doses of resveratrol.  Another study found that subjects eating a high fat diet along with large resveratrol doses had lower insulin levels (associated with lower risk of heart disease and diabetes), could run twice as far, and weighed nearly the same as subjects on a regular diet who did not receive resveratrol.   The big catch is, the “subjects” in all the resveratrol studies so far have been mice.  There is no data available as to how taking resveratrol affects humans.

Resveratrol supplement recommendations
The potential health benefits of resveratrol are exciting – and could hold promise in the future.  However since there aren’t studies in humans, it’s impossible to say how much resveratrol is needed to create health benefits… or even IF resveratrol supplements will have health benefits in humans at all.  Another thing to consider is that while we don’t have studies to show the benefits of resveratrol in humans, we also don’t know if there are any dangers to taking high doses of resveratrol in the short or long terms.   For instance, it’s recommended that women with a history of estrogen-sensitive cancers not take resveratrol supplements because they could have an estrogen-like affect on the body. 

Wine vs. resveratrol pills
Originally, scientists began looking at resveratrol’s potential health benefits because of its existence in red wine.  Red wine had been linked to The French Paradox (French people have lower rates of heart disease even though they eat relatively high amounts of saturated fat and smoke more than Americans) that pointed out that moderate consumption of alcoholic beverages may be associated with a decreased rate of heart disease.  But, it’s still unclear exactly what about moderate alcohol consumption, or specifically wine consumption, provides the health benefits.  And if you look at the amount of resveratrol the mice in the studies were given, it translates to a 130 pound person drinking about 650 bottles of red wine daily!

The bottom line
The potential of resveratrol supplements is exciting – but it’s too early to tell if they’re safe or not and in what doses.  Until there are more human studies and concrete recommendations, it’s best to steer clear of resveratrol supplements.  If you already drink red wine, do so moderately (2, 5-ounce glasses a day for men, 1 glass for women) and if you don’t, there’s currently no indication that taking up drinking will bring health benefits.  And, of course, protect your heart with a healthy diet and daily physical activity.