Uncorked. Some of the reasons why a glass of red wine is good for your brain.

Now I do enjoy a nice glass of red wine occasionally and there is a lot of noise in the media about red wine being good for us.

Why? Because red wine contains resveratrol, an antioxidant with supposedly lots of health benefits such as protecting us from cancer, cardiovascular disease and perhaps cognitive decline.

Look in the health food shops selling memory enhancing supplements and many include resveratrol. You can even buy resveratrol in capsule form.

So should be we be taking these supplements or drinking more red wine?

Let’s have a look at what some of the research is saying about all this.

First off, resveratrol is not only found in red wine. It’s also found in a number of other plants and foods such as blueberries, mulberries, peanuts even eucalypt, lily and spruce. But it is grapes, which have drawn the most attention. The grape vines contain resveratrol in the roots, stalks, seeds and especially the skin of the grape. I think I’ll stick to the grapes and the skin. In the fermentation process to make red wine, the skins which contain a lot of resveratrol are included. This is what differentiates it from white wine fermentation where only the crushed berry juice is used, not the skins. Not all red wines are equal either. The highest concentrations of resveratrol are found in the Labrusca, Muscadine and Vitus Vinifera varieties. Dr Richard Hoffman and Mr Johansson at the University of Hertfordshire, UK have been looking at a number of different red wines to determine which have the highest concentration of resveratrol. So that one day we will be able to select which wine we wish to purchase, based on it’s resveratrol content.

So how does resveratrol exert it's health benefits in the brain?

Let’s look at a study on ischaemic stroke published in April 2010. Researchers from John Hopkins used resveratrol in mice studies and found that the resveratrol works to increase a neuro-protective enzyme (called haem oxygenase) Mice given resveratrol as supplements who then suffered an induced ischemic stroke, sustained less brain damage than those mice who had not received the supplement, because the resveratrol boosted the haem oxygenase levels.

Moving on to look at Alzheimer's disease where having higher blood markers of inflammation is known to be associated with a higher risk of developing the disease. In the Framingham Heart Study, 691 healthy seniors (aged 79 years and older) had their levels of cytokines (markers of inflammation) measured in blood tests. Over the next 7 years, 44 of the participants developed Alzheimer’s disease. The results showed that those with the highest levels of cytokine in their blood had twice the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease.

So what’s the link to resveratrol and inflammation?

Resveratrol has been shown in mice studies to protect them from acute inflammation. Researchers in the Medicine Faculty in Glasgow demonstrated that resveratrol supplements helped to prevent the body from producing substances called sphingosine kinase and phospholipase D, which are involved in triggering the inflammatory response.

So how does resveratrol help to protect us from Alzheimer’s disease?

In Alzheimer’s disease, the main brain changes are massive brain cell loss and the appearance of neurofibrillary tangles and plaques of beta amyloid. Ongoing studies indicate that resveratrol promotes the clearance of beta amyloid that has formed, by inducing the body’s proteasomes. The proteasomes are the body’s waste disposal units for getting rid of unneeded cellular proteins that can then be recycled. The mechanism for how resveratrol does this, as yet remains unknown. All that is known is that in those people with Alzheimer’s disease, the natural activity of proteasomes is reduced.

Thus much of the story remains untold. As yet we don’t know which are the best red wines to be consuming, or the quantity to produce the beneficial effects. It may be that resveratrol itself is the messenger, a stimulator of other protective enzyme systems, rather than the major player in the process.

What we do know now is that resveratrol

• Increases a neuro protective enzyme called haem oxygenase that will help protect us to some extent, in the event of a stroke. • Dampens down inflammation (a marker for increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease) in the body by reducing the amount of inflammatory enzymes that form. • Promotes the body’s natural protein waste disposers, the proteasomes, which help clear the brain of beta amyloid deposits.

Until the remaining pieces of jigsaw are found to explain all of how resveratrol works, it would appear that continuing to enjoy a small amount of red wine is unlikely to be detrimental to our brain health and might even be doing us some good.