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Here's a Twist: Red Wine Bad for Heart

Component Blocks the Effects of Estrogen in Women

WebMD Health News

Sept. 30, 2002 -- Just when women were getting ready to toss the hormone replacement pills and uncork a bottle of red wine as part of heart-healthy living, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh are saying, "No so fast."

Red wine, says Raghvendra Dubey, PhD, may actually be heart "un-healthy" for women because a component of the wine works at a cellular level to block the beneficial effects of estrogen.

"Estrogen [is beneficial to the heart because it] blocks the growth of ... cells inside arteries," Dubey tells WebMD. These cells can accumulate and lead to blockages in the arteries that cause heart disease and heart attack.

Some postmenopausal women taking estrogen have a lower risk for heart disease and stroke, while other women not only get no benefit from estrogen but actually increase their risk for heart attack and stroke. That was seen in the recently halted hormone replacement study called the Women's Health Initiative. But scientists could not explain the difference.

"I thought there must be some lifestyle difference that can explain this discrepancy," Dubey says. That's when he decided to look at red wine -- the drink that is the toast of every heart-healthy meal.

In a laboratory experiment, he added estrogen to heart artery cells that were being grown in a test tube. As he expected, estrogen shut down the cell growth, but when he added red wine, the cells again began to grow. The red wine blocked estrogen's effect, says Dubey, who presented his findings at an American Heart Association meeting of high blood pressure researchers.

Dubey, who is an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, says the culprit in red wine is a substance called resveratol, which is found on the skin of the grape and thus makes its way into all red wines.

Based on his studies, he says a single glass of red wine contains enough resveratol to block any benefit of estrogen.

That, says Tufts' University nutritionist Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, is too big a leap to make based on "a study in a mouse" and test tube studies. Though Lichtenstein says that Dubey's study is an "interesting observation that deserves additional study," she says that very often experiments that "work in the laboratory or in mice don't translate well into humans."

Nonetheless, she says it is still not clear if red wine really protects the heart and it is not "at all clear what the role is for alcohol, red wine in particular, in terms of risk for either heart disease or breast cancer in women." She noted that some studies suggested that red wine may increase breast cancer risk. She said Dubey's theory is certainly interesting and deserving of more study, but the take-home message for women is just not there yet.

Lichtenstein advises women to keep a cork in the wine bottle and discuss both hormone replacement and wine consumption with their doctor.

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