High blood pressure is one of the leading causes of life-threatening medical conditions such as heart attacks and strokes. And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it's experienced by roughly one in three adults in the United States.
For more than a decade, scientists have found links between resveratrol, the red-wine compound that's been widely researched for its various health benefits, and lower blood pressure. A new study by researchers from King's College London has shed light on why the polyphenol may be good for your cardiovascular health.
The study, published in the American Heart Association's medical journal Circulation and funded in part by the British Heart Foundation, tested resveratrol on mice with high blood pressure, and observed its effects on a molecular level. The researchers found that resveratrol lowered blood pressure in the mice, consistent with prior studies. But they also recorded the surprising way in which it did so.
"We showed that, under conditions that reflect heart and circulatory diseases, resveratrol acts [as an] oxidant to lower blood pressure," the study's researchers wrote in a statement. In simple terms, they saw that resveratrol added oxygen to proteins, thus triggering "vasorelaxation," meaning the blood vessels expanded, allowing for blood pressure to go down.
This finding is particularly interesting because resveratrol is frequently praised for its properties as an antioxidant—essentially, the opposite of what is described here. Antioxidants have long been lauded because theoretically they help defend your cells from damage caused by potentially harmful molecules known as free radicals that trigger oxidative stress in cells.
The new study suggests resveratrol and other "antioxidants" may actually help by adding oxygen. "Our findings question the idea of ‘antioxidants,'" the researchers wrote. "We think this might be the same story for many other drugs and compounds we currently think of as antioxidants."
This discovery could lead to a shift in the understanding of how resveratrol works, and the researchers believe their findings could help create new and improved treatments for high blood pressure.
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Though the study was carried out in mice, the researchers suggest that the results would look similar in humans, pointing out that resveratrol can act on the same pathway in human cells. "The next step will be altering resveratrol, or developing new drugs which target this pathway, to help lower blood pressure," they wrote, noting that other studies have tested high doses of resveratrol in humans to mixed results. "If we’re to successfully use resveratrol in the future, it would probably be an altered form which is more potent and gets to blood vessels better."
That form won't be wine. Despite past studies linking moderate drinking to heart health, the researchers warn that their observed benefit of resveratrol would not be achieved through moderate drinking, explaining that the amount of resveratrol one would need to consume in order to decrease blood pressure is equivalent to more than 1,000 bottles of wine a day—clearly not a recommended dose.
"Until more is known, a well-balanced diet is the best dietary choice to help to lower your overall risk of heart and circulatory diseases," the researchers said. "You can drink wine because you enjoy it, not for your health."