High cholesterol levels increase your risk for heart disease, and people with unhealthy levels of cholesterol should change their lifestyle — and perhaps take medication — to lower their cholesterol levels. Despite recent reports of the positive effects of red wine on heart disease, it is not clear that the effects are due to red wine itself. Although red wine increases high-density lipoprotein — or HDL, the “good” cholesterol — it does not lower total cholesterol.
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Cholesterol circulates in the blood bound to carrier molecules called low-density lipoprotein (LDL) and high-density lipoprotein (HDL). LDL, the “bad” cholesterol, deposits cholesterol in the blood vessels, encouraging plaque formation that causes atherosclerosis. HDL helps to remove cholesterol from the blood. Total cholesterol measurements include HDL, LDL, very low density lipoprotein (V-LDL) and triglycerides. Healthy cholesterol levels mean lower LDL and higher HDL.
Red Wine and HDL
The so-called “French paradox” — the observation that the French in general suffer from low levels of heart disease despite a diet rich in saturated fats — led researchers to test the possible protective effects of red wine, as opposed to other types of alcohol, on heart disease. One study, published by Dr. Anette Hansen and colleagues in the March 2005 issue of the “European Journal of Clinical Nutrition,” demonstrated that drinking red wine increased HDL level. After four weeks of drinking two glasses of red wine per day, subjects saw a small but statistically significant — 11 to 16 percent — increase in HDL levels.
Alcohol vs. Red Wine
In Hansen’s study, one group of subjects took red-wine extracts minus the alcohol to see if the effect was specific to the components of red wine rather than the alcohol. The extract did not have any effect on HDL, suggesting that the HDL declines due to the alcohol in red wine. Beneficial heart health effects in red-wine drinkers versus drinkers of other types of alcohol might be due to other lifestyle factors that tend to cluster in red-wine drinkers.
Red Wine and Total Cholesterol
Hansen’s study saw a slight increase in the HDL levels of red-wine drinkers. However, after four weeks of drinking two glasses of red wine per day, their total cholesterol, LDL, V-LDL, ratio of LDL to HDL, and triglyceride levels remained unchanged.
The American Heart Association strongly cautions against beginning to drink red wine for health reasons, because of the potential negative effects of too much alcohol on heart health and other aspects of health. For current drinkers, the association recommends not exceeding one to two 4-ounce glasses of wine per day.