A trial pitching red wine against gin suggests that wine does indeed have heart health benefits over other alcoholic drinks.
The new study, published in the July issue of Atherosclerosis (175(1):117-23), found that both alcoholic beverages had anti-inflammatory effects but when people drank red wine levels of inflammatory substances were reduced to a much greater extent.
These 'inflammatory' substances are risk factors in the development of heart disease and stroke, the biggest killers in the western world.
The researchers from the University of Barcelona noted that red wine contains many complex compounds including polyphenols that are absent from gin.
"It's clear from these results that while drinking some form of alcohol lowers inflammatory markers, red wine has a much greater effect than gin," said Dr Emanuel Rubin, distinguished professor of pathology at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.
Red wine has long been associated with a lowered risk of heart attack and stroke - the so-called 'French paradox', but research into other alcohols including beer has also shown benefits to heart health.
The Jefferson-led team used inflammatory biomarkers in the blood to compare the effects of red wine and gin on heart health. High levels of c-reactive proteins and other markers of inflammation have been implicated in coronary artery disease and ischaemic stroke, but according to Dr Rubin, no trials have compared the anti-inflammatory effect of red wine to that of alcoholic beverages with low levels of polyphenols.
In the first part of the study, the researcher gave 40 healthy men, with a mean age of 37.6 years, two drinks a day of either wine or gin for 28 days. That was followed by a washout period of 15 days with no alcohol. In the second part of the trial, the groups crossed over to receive the other drink.
Both groups had reduced levels of fibrinogen, which clots blood but is not an inflammatory marker, although raised levels are a risk factor for heart attack. Both had reduced levels of IL-1, a marker for inflammation.
But red wine also dramatically lowered the levels of inflammatory molecules such as adhesion molecules, and proteins in monocytes and lymphocytes.
Dr Rubin confirmed that there is some degree of protection from heart disease and stroke by alcoholic beverages in general, adding that his results are only indirect evidence and cannot prove a protective effect against the development of atherosclerosis.
The study is far too brief to analyze a process that takes years to develop, he said. "There will have to be long-term epidemiological studies done."