Taking a bottle of red wine out of the cellar and putting it in the medicine cabinet may not be a bad idea come cold-and-flu season. A recent study conducted by a team of Spanish researchers found that wine drinkers are less likely to catch the common cold than teetotalers, beer drinkers and spirits drinkers.
"We found that drinking 14 glasses of wine per week, two a day, is a strong preventative against colds," said lead researcher Dr. Bahi Takkouche, professor of epidemiology at the University of Santiago de Compostela in Spain. "This effect is even stronger with red wine," he added. However, the benefits were not seen with other alcoholic beverages.
The study, called "The Intake of Wine, Beer and Spirits and the Risk of the Common Cold," was published in the May 1 edition of the American Journal of Epidemiology.
The research, which ran from October 1998 to September 1999, looked at 4,287 faculty and staff members at five universities in Spain's Galicia region and the Canary Islands. Every 10 weeks during that 12-month period, the participants, who ranged from 21 to 69 years old, filled out questionnaires regarding their drinking habits, smoking patterns and other medical and lifestyle factors.
The scientists excluded those with a history of allergies or asthma and those who already had a cold when the study began. The remaining 4,272 were asked to rate their symptoms, such as a running nose, sneezing, congestion, cough, chills and headaches on a scale of zero (no symptoms) to three (intense symptoms).
During the course of the study, the researchers diagnosed 1,353 cases of the common cold. The participants who drank eight to 14 glasses of wine a week were half as likely to show cold symptoms as nondrinkers, beer drinkers or spirits drinkers. Those who consumed one to seven glasses of wine weekly were roughly a third as likely to catch a cold. Drinkers who had more than 14 glasses per week also showed a reduction in symptoms, but the scientists said few participants consumed this much and therefore those results were imprecise.
The researchers found an even lower rate of colds among those who drank only red wine; however, they cautioned that "very few subjects drank red wine exclusively but did not drink any white wine. … Therefore, it was not possible to conduct a meaningful analysis of this group."
Beer and spirits drinkers were also looked at separately. "They showed no special protection from getting colds," said Takkouche. "The only protective effect was among wine drinkers; therefore it is probably due to the preventive effects of nonalcoholic compounds in wine."
According to their authors, their "results did not materially change after further adjustment for smoking, contact with children, psychological stress, vitamin C and zinc intake, university, and geographic location."
The researchers theorized that known anti-inflammatory compounds found in wine, such as resveratrol, could provide protection from the common cold, or flavonoids such as quercetin and catechin could be responsible. "If it is resveratrol, then will we get the same benefit by drinking grape juice, which has high concentrations of the compound?" mused Takkouche.
He added that the study is meant as "food for thought" and that the common cold is typically benign, where "alcohol drinking is associated with major risk factors," such as cirrhosis and violence. "I would never recommend to someone to start drinking or change drinking patterns," he said.
However, the study noted that the common cold results in a loss of 30 million work days per year in the United States and that preventive measures would help alleviate medical costs incurred for treatment.
For a comprehensive look at the potential health benefits of drinking wine, check out senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson's feature Eat Well, Drink Wisely, Live Longer: The Science Behind a Healthy Life With Wine
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