Should You Partake of the Grape?

Walter Armstrong

Red wine can increase physical endurance, headlines are shouting this week. And just last month we heard that the red stuff can keep fat off and stop you from aging, too. Is "Red wine can enlarge your penis" on tap for the holidays?

Your inner wino may want to cancel his gym membership and head to happy hour to toast the health benefits of the fermented grape, but remember what Grandma warned: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

So here's the story, straight up: A chemical called resveratrol, which is found in wine, has been shown to double the distance that lab mice can run on a treadmill before collapsing. While "exercising," the critters also have a lower heart rate and muscles that are charged with energy—two characteristics of highly trained athletes, according to an article published online in "Cell" by French researchers.

"Resveratrol makes you look like a trained athlete without the training," the lead author, Dr. Johan Auwerx, told the "New York Times," sounding like the perfect pitchman for a product. His enthusiasm is understandable, however. If resveratrol were ever to be approved for even one of its possible indications—anti-fatigue, anti-fat, anti-aging—it would be the biggest-ever blockbuster drug. Of course, the actual studies required to get it out of the laboratory and into drug stores are likely to take so long that Dr. Auwerx will likely be a very old man before he sees a return on his research.

The French study reinforces results announced last month by Harvard Medical School scientists that resveratrol protects mice from the dangerous effects of a high-calorie diet. Though the poor little creatures did not lose weight, they lived far longer than their undosed peers.

What's so hot about resveratrol? Put on your thinking caps, jocks! The theory is that resveratrol, which is being touted as a kind of all-purpose wonder chemical, triggers the body's production of mitochondria, the energy-producers in cells. The more mitochondria you have, the more fat you burn—and this, my friends, not only keeps you from gaining weight, but may actually transform your muscle fibers into those typical of elite athletes.

Further, during this chemical process, an enzyme called sirtuin is also stimulated. Scientists believe that sirtuin plays a key role in protecting the body from degenerative diseases and, in essence, aging itself. For this reason, sirtuin is fountain of youth at a molecular level.

The unfortunate irony to this biochemistry lesson is that red wine has only miniscule amounts of resveratrol. To reach dosing levels comparable to those that turned normal lab mice into marathoners, you would have to down many gallons a day. Even the concentrated form available in capsules from a company called Longevinex contains only 40 mg, while Dr. Auwerx's mice were getting as much as 400 mg.

Still, according to the "New York Times," Longevinex's president reported that sales of his product have increased have skyrocketed since the red wine and resveratrol headlines last month. And the Harvard researchers studying resveratrol at a much lower dose for anti-aging also take the capsules.

M. Auwerx and his French buds would be well advised to quit smoking, pop some R and get on those treadmills if they hope to be around to see profits from their lab labors.