The Resveratrol Bust
Disappointing, but unsurprising, I say. At this point I’m willing to stake my bet that the wonderful promise of resveratrol isn’t going to pan out. What’s resveratrol? Let’s take a little journey back in our time machine
It goes back at least 70 years, to the discovery by Japanese investigators of the active ingredient in a plant used in some traditional healing practices, the white hellebore. It was then learned that grape vines, when attacked by a particular fungus, also secreted this substance, which was named resveratrol. It was speculated that resveratrol might be a natural defense agent for the grape vines, and protect them from rot and blight. And, who knows, it might be good for humans as well.
The French Paradox
Now, also going back quite a few years, we Americans began to look enviously across the pond at the French and the Italians. We were worried about cholesterol, and the Word was that we needed to cut way back on butter and eggs and bacon and well-marbled steaks. But those lucky French didn’t seem to fret too much about all those cholesterol-laden foods, and it didn’t seem to hurt them a whole lot. You would have thought they would be turning up daisies, but no, they enjoyed their filet mignon with sauce Bearnaise (butter, egg yolks, a splash of tarragon vinegar). Might it be because they washed it down with copious goblets of Chateau Margaux? In any case, the French had much lower heart disease rates than we did, and there had to be some reason for it.
In fact, there were beginning to be pretty rigorous studies that seemed to point to a clear benefit from consuming alcoholic beverages, especially in terms of heart disease and cardiovascular mortality. Not that those studies should have been all that surprising either!
Let me digress for a moment. Lots and lots of doctors knew that moderate alcohol consumption was, on the whole, beneficial. (Note, whenever I mention alcohol consumption, in this blog or anywhere else, please assume that there’s an autocorrect feature that inserts the word “moderate” in front of that phrase.) There was an English physician in the 18th century by the name of Anstey who observed that among his patients the drinkers outlived the teetotalers by a comfortable margin, and he proposed a rule – a drink before dinner and a couple of glasses of wine with dinner – as a formula for a long life.
The studies I’m talking about began hitting the peer-reviewed medical journals in the 1970s, and in 1996 there was a big review in the British Medical Journal that more or less clinched the case for moderate alcohol consumption. Overall, the studies this review cited concluded that drinking alcoholic beverages, mostly wine, lowered heart disease risk by about 30%.
However, the mainstream medical establishment was not about to recommend alcoholic beverages to ward off heart disease. Alcohol – excessive alcohol – was known to cause all manner of health problems, not even counting all the other problems associated with alcohol. So it had to be something else!
The Resveratrol Promise
Might it be resveratrol? If it protected grape vines from rot and blight, might it not have beneficial effects in humans? From my perspective, as an initial assumption, that was quite reasonable. After all, as I said in a previous offering, many, many natural substances are the source of our most valuable drugs – and by drugs, I mean substances that we take that have curative powers. Also, resveratrol is present in red wine, and red wine is what the French and Italians mostly drink.
So they did tests in laboratory animals, mostly mice. They gave mice the mouse equivalent of filet mignon with Sauce Bearnaise, and, predictably, the mice became obese. Then they gave the mice resveratrol, and the obese mice that got resveratrol survived longer than the ones that didn’t get resveratrol.
At this point the researchers began to get very, very cheerful. Down the road, perhaps, here was a drug that would not only counteract the adverse effects of the American cholesterol-laden diet, but also, possibly, increase longevity. If this drug got approved, not only would it be hugely beneficial for lots of people, but the developers would reap unimaginable gains.
A little problem with these tests in mice, however, was that the smallest amount of resveratrol that had any beneficial effect in mice was many, many times larger than the amount of resveratrol in the amount of wine that any human being could possibly drink in a day. To get the amount of resveratrol equivalent to the lowest effective daily dose of resveratrol in the mouse studies, a person would have to drink 60 liters of wine per day, and in some mouse studies, the daily resveratrol dose was equivalent to 900 liters of wine. Impractical, to say the least!
That should have made it pretty clear that it wasn’t the resveratrol in the wine that was counteracting the evil eff