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Health Watch: Red Wine Compounds Fight the Common Cold

Plus, promising news about resveratrol-based cancer therapies

Esther Mobley
Posted: June 3, 2015

Employee-lounge snack purveyors, take note: People who consume flavonoids—compounds found in red wine and other plant-based foods—take fewer sick days from work, according to new research from New Zealand.

"We had seen data in animal studies that suggested flavonoids may assist immune function, and we wondered if we could find the same type of outcomes in human studies," lead study author Andrea Braakhuis, a nutrition researcher at the University of Auckland, told Wine Spectator. "We decided to pool all the available human data and see if this was a possible nutrition intervention worth investigating further."

Braakhuis, who presented her research at the Dieticians Association of Australia National Conference in May, wanted to investigate whether flavonoids, with their anti-viral, anti-inflammatory and antioxidative properties, might be linked to getting fewer colds. She and her colleagues collected data from a large number of randomized controlled trials, analyzing patterns of upper respiratory track infections (URTIs), the number of days people experienced cold symptoms, changes in key immune biomarkers and total flavonoid intake.

The results were striking. When people consumed flavonoids, they cut their risk of URTIs by 33 percent. "What this means is that if someone typically experiences three colds a year, if they take flavonoids this could be reduced to two a year," said Braakhuis.

How high would one's flavonoid intake need to be to achieve this protective result? "Actually, not very high," she said. Whereas an average Western diet contains about 1 gram of flavonoids per day, an improvement to immune function was found with an additional 0.2 to 1.2 grams per day. According to a USDA database, a 5-ounce glass of red table wine may contain about 0.2 grams of flavonoids.

"We think [this effect] is mediated through the gut microbiota," said Braakhuis. "Some byproduct of gut activity is probably being absorbed and supporting immune function." It has been established previously that flavonoids can affect microbes in the digestive system.

The study did not examine the effects of wine in isolation. The next step, Braakhuis said, will be to establish the specific effects of flavonoid intervention and ideal doses in clinical trials. "We are also interested in looking at an at-risk population [for URTIs], like athletes," she said. Research has shown athletes suffer a higher risk of catching a cold after a competition. More research is needed though, before anyone recommends wine during cool down.

Resveratrol may prevent head and neck cancers

Approximately 46,000 Americans will be diagnosed with oral cancer in 2015, according to the American Cancer Society. But there may be good news for wine lovers: Researchers at the University of Colorado School of Medicine have found evidence that red-wine polyphenol resveratrol may help prevent and treat cancers of the head and neck.

"We're looking at resveratrol as a purified compound to treat and prevent cancer," said Robert Sclafani, a professor of biochemistry and molecular genetics at Colorado, who recently published his findings in Advances in Experimental Medicine and Biology. He hopes that resveratrol can be used as a natural cancer therapy, gentler on the body than hard-hitting cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. "Resveratrol is ideal for [this], because it has very low toxicity and is inexpensive," he told Wine Spectator.

In his lab, Sclafani found that resveratrol can kill cancer cells both in lab-grown cell cultures and in mice. "It can also prevent oral cancer in mice when given as a supplement in their food," he said. For one experiment, Sclafani fed mice a cancer-causing agent, then gave some of the mice resveratrol-spiked food. Those who consumed resveratrol had both fewer and smaller lesions.

"We suggest resveratrol can be used to prevent cancer in high-risk populations like heavy smokers and drinkers, who get oral cancer," said Sclafani. "We want to move to a clinical trial with patients who had oral cancer and were treated with conventional radiation and chemotherapy as a way to prevent recurrence, which is about 30 percent in this population."

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