Friday, September 9, 2016

Should colleges teach drinking 101?

A quick glance at statistics on alcohol abuse in American colleges and universities reveals a huge problem, and I believe that tackling the issue will require a new and perhaps controversial strategy. Various approaches have failed, so in this “back to school” edition I take a look at the question and offer a sensible, if counterintuitive, alternative. The majority of young people who choose to drink need to be taught that there is such a thing as healthy drinking. The drinking 101 curriculum has to include “how drinking can be healthy” and not just “don’t drink.”
First the numbers: According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, as many as 1800 students die each year from alcohol-related causes. More than a half million more are injured while drunk, and tens of thousands become victims of sexual assault attributable to alcohol.  Tellingly, more than half of the 80% of students who consume alcohol engage in binge drinking, and this lies at the heart of most of the problems.

Party Culture Reinforces the Role of Alcohol as a Drug

Cultural factors make the problem of college drinking intractable to the usual approaches based primarily on enforcement of drinking restrictions. As the song goes, students are willing to fight for their right to party, and it’s the party culture that reinforces the role of alcohol as a drug. According to a 2014 New York Times article, the nation’s #1 party school Syracuse University faced a revolt over efforts to curtail drinking on campus. Students labeled the school a police state, and officials backed off. On many campuses, problem drinking is endemic to the Greek system, not directly under university control.
One clue hidden in plain sight is that the abuse is almost entirely in the form of beer and liquor. This reflects a trend in how we view beer and liquor consumption as a society. A 2015 study analyzing content of beer and liquor TV commercials revealed that “partying” has become the primary theme, while not identified in ads from 20 years ago. (1) Even Dos Equis, the last holdout of a mature approach to beer marketing with their “most interesting man in the world," just replaced  him with a younger jock in order to appeal to more youthful consumers.
There is evidence-based guidance on reducing problem drinking on college campuses, but the efforts are still narrowly focused on overall reduction rather than type of alcohol. The NIAAA’s “College Alcohol Intervention Matrix” rates 60 strategies on their effectiveness, with skills training in the top tier. None of this training appears to include a discussion of wine as healthy part of a meal. Alcohol is alcohol, be aware of how much, and drink less or none. Other recommendations include higher taxes on alcohol, banning Sunday sales, and limiting happy hour promotions.

Wine Offers a Positive Alternative Model

Aside from political campaigns, negative messages generally don’t move the needle on human behavior as much as positive ones. Offering a positive healthy way to consume (at the appropriate age) seems likely to work better than stronger enforcement of prohibitions. Perhaps I was lucky in this regard; my wine “epiphany” came during a summer when I was doing a research project at UCLA, when someone brought a bottle of Chambolle-Musigny to a pre-concert picnic at the Hollywood Bowl. It enlightened me to the aesthetic virtues of drink over the anesthetic properties of alcohol. It would be years before I had the budget for good wine on a regular basis, but I saw immediately that there could be a positive and healthy approach to drinking. Obviously we can't expect to create an entire student body of wine snobs, but it is also obvious that we need a different approach. We need to promote a culture of healthy drinking.

"The dipsomaniac and the abstainer make the same mistake: They both regard wine as a drug and not as a drink."
G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

1. Content Themes of Alcohol Advertising in U.S. Television-Latent Class Analysis.
Morgenstern M, Schoeppe F, Campbell J, Braam MW, Stoolmiller M, Sargent JD.
Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2015 Sep;39(9):1766-74.

Monday, August 1, 2016

This is your brain on wine: an update on cognition, Alzheimer’s, and wine

Even as the silent epidemic of Alzheimer’s disease grows, wine’s positive if seemingly unlikely effects on brain health continue to offer a map toward a solution. It’s long been known from lifestyle surveys that wine drinking is a defining characteristic of the lowest risk group for Alzheimer’s (AD).* In fact, without exception regular wine consumption is the only factor that features in every study across the board. But given that alcohol is neurotoxic, it just didn’t seem to make sense.

The resveratrol promise tested

Resveratrol, the anti-aging miracle molecule in wine, offered a plausible explanation. Laboratory and animal studies showed that resveratrol works in several specific ways to counteract the noxious effects on brain cells of protein plaques called ß-amyloid, a marker for AD. While the role of ß-amyloid in the pathogenesis of AD is still not completely clear, it is evident that with enough resveratrol the formation of the plaques can be suppressed, and health of the neurons enhanced, at least in lab studies. No other product, whether a drug, vitamin, or nutraceutical, has shown such promise.
These findings led to several clinical trials of resveratrol as a supplement. Most are still are underway, with only one having published results (1); however this study produced more questions than answers. For example, after one year levels of one type of ß-amyloid in the fluid around the brain (CSF) declined more in the placebo group, and brain volume shrunk more in the resveratrol cohort. The authors pointed out that the “etiology and interpretation of brain volume loss observed here and in other studies are unclear, but they are not associated with cognitive or functional decline.” One take-away message was that only tiny levels of resveratrol in the brain were required to have an effect.

More to wine’s benefits than just resveratrol

So there must be something more to wine’s unique association with brain health than resveratrol and AD. It is likely that there is synergy between resveratrol and other polyphenols in red wine, for example, and alcohol may help absorption of these compounds making them more bioavailable. And we cannot discount the fact that moderate daily consumption of wine is a lifestyle marker for other healthy behaviors. Maybe wine drinkers are just smarter to begin with!
*Studies on lifestyle factors and cognition/dementia

  • Canadian Study on Health and Aging: Cohort study of >6000 subjects; wine, coffee, NSAID use, regular exercise (Am J Epidemiol 2002)
  • Copenhagen City Heart Study: 15-year case-control study of >1700 subjects; wine consumption but not beer or spirits correlated with lowest risk (Am Acad Neurol 2002)
  • Bordeaux Study: Cohort of ~4000 subjects age >65; 80% lower incidence in wine drinkers (European J Epidemiol 2000)
  • Catholic University of Rome multicenter study: cognitive testing of >15,000 subjects; highest scores in men drinking up to 1 liter/day, women 0.5 liters/day (Alcoholism Clin Exp Res 2001)

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Of reds, whites, and bluebloods: revolution and wine in America and France


Liberty and wine (apologies to Delacroix and Bartholdi for taking a few liberties  . . .)

How diminished access to affordable wine factored in to both the American and French revolutions

There are more than a few parallels between the French and American revolutions: Both are commemorated by holidays in July, (Independence Day on the 4th and Bastille Day the 14th), the same national colors, and similarly spurred by corrupt royal rule and unfair taxation. In both countries, access to affordable everyday wine played a significant role. Though not widely recognized, the liberation of the Bastille was not the first major act of the insurrection in France, but rather the storming of the customs offices at the gates of Paris where increased taxes on wine had been imposed. And while the Boston Tea party marked a significant escalation of protests against taxation without representation on British subjects in the colonies, it was wine they really relied upon for their day-to day existence. Tea was a luxury, wine a necessity.
Colonists were desperate to figure out how to make wine in the New World. Wine made trans-Atlantic seafaring possible, by decontaminating drinking water; the pilgrim ships carried more wine than fresh water. It was well understood that survival in the colonies depended on winemaking for the same reason.  A 1623 law in colonial Virginia underscored this urgency, mandating that “Every householder doe yearly plante and maintaine10 vines, untill they have attained to the arte and experience of dressing a vineyard, either by their owne industry, or by the instruction of some vigneron.” Winemaking was never successful in the colonies despite consultants being brought over from France, so the colonies remained dependent on imports. The British blockade during the Revolutionary War cut off access to imported wine, furthering discontent.


Is a tax on wine a tax on health?

In France wine was increasingly taxed toward the end of the Ancien Régime, under an elaborate system known as tax farming.  An important collection point was at the gates of Paris, where the taxes effectively tripled the price. Ordinary Parisians would circumvent this by going to taverns just outside the city for their daily quaff after a day’s labor, but as Paris expanded and the walls moved farther out this became impractical. The result was a lack of affordable wine for the average man, a situation that undoubtedly contributed to increasing unrest. On July 11, 1789, a series of dramatic attacks on the customs barriers began, continuing for the next 3 days; according to one historian, Paris was “encircled by a wall of flames.”
Addressing the wine tax issue was one of the first orders of business for the National Assembly after the revolution. Étienne Chevalier, a deputy from Argenteuil (and a winemaker) argued for abolishing the tax: “Wine is the basis of the survival of the poor citizens of Paris. When bread, meat, and other foods are too expensive, he turns to wine; he nourishes and consoles himself with it.” He held that the taxes were “unjust in their principles and unproductive, immoral and disastrous in their consequences.”
This same sentiment would be argued in the United States by Jefferson: “I rejoice as a moralist at the prospect of a reduction of the duties on wine by our national legislature… Its extended use will carryhealth and comfort to a much enlarged circle. And later: I think it is a great error to consider a heavy tax on wines as a tax on luxury.  On the contrary, it is a tax on the health of our citizens.”

A toast to freedom!

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Which came first: Beer or wine? (or something else?)

Actually neither beer nor wine was the first fermented beverage, and wine arguably has a closer connection to health, but recent evidence indicates that humans developed the ability to metabolize alcohol long before we were even human. The uniquely human ability to handle alcohol comes from the digestive enzyme alcohol dehydrogenase, or ADH4. A new science called paleogenetics identifies the emergence of the modern version of the ADH4 gene in our ape ancestors some 10 million years ago. Interestingly, this corresponds to the time when our arboreal forebears transitioned to a nomadic lifestyle on the ground. We went from swinging from tree limbs to walking upright, and the rest is history. Understanding the circumstances that led to perpetuation of the ADH4 mutation may contain clues to what made us human in the first place.

How the ability to metabolize alcohol made us human

Paleogenetecist Matthew Carrigan has an idea about how this happened. Arboreal species rely on fruit that is in the tree, but if you can digest fruit that has fallen, and partially rotted – meaning fermented and therefore alcoholic – then you could get by just fine with less effort or when other sources of food were scarce. One simple mutation was all that was needed to impart this enhanced ability to metabolize alcohol, and this characteristic remains a defining difference between humans and other primates.

Why I think wine was first

One argument in favor of the wine first theory is that wild grapes, which grew on vines climbing trees (not the neatly trellised rows in modern vineyards), simply had to be gathered. Since wine could easily come from fermented fallen fruit, it could possibly go back millions of years, requiring only the ability to collect and store liquids. Fermentation happened automatically, so winemaking was more of a discovery than an invention. Physical evidence for early winemaking includes pottery fragments with wine residue that have been carbon dated to around 7400 years ago.
There is no direct evidence for beer making until at least 1000 years later. However, it has been theorized that a taste for fermented grain products may have prompted humans to begin farming around 10,000 years ago, because harvesting wild grains in sufficient quantities for brewing would be much less efficient than gathering fruit.  No hard evidence to support that idea has appeared, so the debate remains an open question.

About the only thing that we can be certain of is that the gathering of minds around shared drinks would lead to spirited discussions for millennia.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

More evidence that resveratrol is not the same as wine (and may be worse)

It has become common to think of the antioxidant molecule resveratrol as the main beneficial ingredient in wine, but a new study sheds light on how resveratrol without the other components of wine might actually be a bad thing. Sure, resveratrol is a miracle molecule, providing a plausible explanation for many of the health benefits of moderate drinking: lower odds of diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, even longer life by activation of longevity genes. I leaned heavily on these findings in the book. But what I didn’t anticipate was that resveratrol would become such a hugely popular supplement, and in many people’s minds it became a proxy for wine. If a study showed some failing of resveratrol in a laboratory study, it was put out as a denunciation of healthy drinking. Or when it showed some positive effect in mice, it was hailed as proof that resveratrol had all the benefits of wine – without the alcohol. Both are oversimplifications.


Resveratrol works best when combined with other wine antioxidants



The first thorn in the roses is that in wine, resveratrol occurs in amounts usually much lower than those used in laboratory studies. Another is that in some studies it exhibits a phenomenon called hormesis, which means that different-and sometimes opposite-effects occur at different doses.  Consider also that resveratrol does not occur in isolation, but in combination with a range of antioxidant molecules called Wine-Derived Polyphenols (WDP). This latest study looked at the possibility that these are interrelated factors, by evaluating the antioxidant properties of resveratrol with and without WDP’s. The experiment used cells in culture that were subjected to ultraviolet light (in order to cause oxidative stress), with resveratrol added at varying doses with and without WDP’s.  They found that resveratrol had either pro-oxidant or anti-oxidant effects depending on dosage (confirming hormesis), but when WDP’s were added there was a synergistic antioxidant effect at all doses.


Whole wine better than resveratrol alone



The authors of this study concluded that resveratrol requires wine-derived polyphenols for optimum antioxidant efficiency, which implies that whole wine is a better choice than resveratrol supplements alone. The antioxidant properties of resveratrol are of course only a limited part of their repertoire, but given a choice I’ll go with the science on this one. To your health!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Biodynamic Wines: Űber Organic or Vineyard Voodoo?

Whenever the topic of biodynamic winemaking comes up, I can’t help but remember a line from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast: “They say the seeds of what we will do are in all of us, but it always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure.” Many consider biodynamics to be a joke, with its cultish origins and literal reliance on manure (packed into a cow’s horn, which must be precisely oriented to “preserve the etheric and astral force that the horn was accustomed to when it was on the cow,” buried over the winter, then sprayed on the vineyards in the spring). Nevertheless, biodynamics has been adopted by wineries worldwide including a few top labels, and some superb wines come from biodynamic vineyards. Is there a kernel of truth germinating beneath the pile of plop?

Biodynamic winemaking's controversial past


If biodynamics were as simple as using natural fertilizers and fostering a healthy ecosystem in the vineyards, and ditched the metaphysics and mysticism, there would be no debate. Its origins predate the organic food trend, dating to the early 20th century. It was founded by Austrian Rudolph Steiner, who created a movement he called anthroposophy, an attempt to synthesize science and spirituality. Critics point to some pretty far fetched notions from Steiner, including the concept of a “seed life force” that ancient Atlanteans used to power levitating cars. He wrote that “the heart does not pump blood” and that there are 12 senses corresponding to the signs of the zodiac. In practice, biodynamics appears to be not unlike a sort of agricultural homeopathy, employing a variety of preparations based on things such as oak bark placed inside the skull of a domesticated animal and buried, or dandelions stuffed into the mesentery of a cow and interred during winter then retrieved in the spring. Notably, Steiner had no experience in farming.
I first learned about biodynamic wines several years ago from Christophe Baron of Cayuse winery near Walla Walla. He was giving a rare tour of his vineyards, going on about the soil being a living thing, and the stones like “little ovens.” (The Cayuse are a Native American tribe whose name was derived from the French word “cailloux”—which means “stones.” Baron picked the site because the pomegranate-sized rocks were reminiscent of the southern Rhone in his native France.) Whether it is the biodynamic philosophy, the terroir, or something else, Cayuse wines have received critical acclaim and are highly sought after. Like Baron, they are unapologetically exuberant; I recall him describing one of his syrahs as being “like sex on a stick,” whatever that means.

Is there any science to biodynamics?


There is one study that applied some actual science to biodynamic winemaking. (1) Using a replicated, long-term, crossover design, a merlot vineyard in northern California was divided randomly into parcels for either biodynamic management or standard organic practices. Over 6 years, there were no differences in soil quality, nutrient analyses of leaf tissue, clusters per vine, yield per vine, or weight of the grapes. Biodynamically treated winegrapes did however have significantly higher Brix (p < 0.05) and marginally higher total phenols and anthocyanins (p < 0.1).
Whether or not the idea of biodynamics and the “seed life force” are little more than mental manure, biodynamic wines have acquired a following. Burgundy’s renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Chateau Pontet-Canet in Bordeaux, and California A-listers from Araujo to Quintessa tout their biodynamic credentials. Of course these are not inexpensive wines, and part of their appeal may be the emphasis on sustainability and connection to the earth, however fanciful. Great wines embody a numinous quality that transcends scientific scrutiny, so maybe it is sometimes best not to question but just enjoy. May the seed life force be with you.
“Drinking wine was not a snobbism nor a sign of sophistication nor a cult; it was as natural as eating and to me as necessary...” ― Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
1. Reeve JR,Carpenter-Boggs L, Reganold JP, York AL, McGourty G, McCloskey LP. Soil and Winegrape Quality in Biodynamically and Organically Managed Vineyards. Am. J. Enol. Vitic 2005 December 56 (4); 367-376.

Friday, March 25, 2016

New study suggests moderate drinking not so good after all – or is it?

     A very large review out recently has experts proclaiming that we had it all wrong in believing that moderate drinking was a good thing. As I so often do, I cast a dissenting vote on this one, and offer an alternative (and possible more accurate) interpretation.
     This latest study, from the University of Victoria in Canada, is impressive in scope and has been widely reported. In it, Tim Stockwell, study author and the director of the Center for Addictions Research of British Columbia, questions the long-established J-shaped curve which demonstrates that moderate drinkers are healthier and outlive nondrinkers and heavy drinkers. He cites what is termed the “abstainer bias,” meaning that people who choose to abstain from alcohol are different than people who quit drinking because of health reasons. Another term for this is the “sick quitter” hypothesis. The result of lumping sick quitters with never drinkers together is a skew toward poor health in the nondrinker group, resulting in a greater apparent difference between them and moderate drinkers. The study is a review of other published studies, called a meta-analysis, and it attempted to resolve the question by separating those that differentiate between never drinkers and sick quitters. In so doing, they found that the net benefit of moderate drinking vanishes.
     Or not. Meta-analysis can be a tool for teasing out subtle statistical trends, but it can also magnify existing biases. A better way to ask the question is “What happens to lifelong abstainers who start drinking, and what happens to healthy moderate drinkers who quit?” This was addressed neatly in a 2008 study from Australia, which prospectively followed more than 13,000 subjects for 12 years. The study substantiated the  J-shaped curve, with moderate drinkers enjoying a higher overall health score than nondrinkers, as expected. More importantly, when moderate drinkers changed their habits – either reducing or increasing their consumption – their health scores deteriorated. They further found that the health of recent abstainers and intermittent drinkers was the same as longer-term abstainers. This held true even after adjusting for chronic health conditions. In other words, no evidence for abstainer bias was found.

     Perhaps a bias not considered by the authors of the UVC study was the fact that the project was done under the auspices of an addiction center, presumably disinclined to promote healthy drinking. A commentary that accompanied the paper came from the Alcohol Research Group in Emeryville, California, whose mission “seeks to reduce alcohol-related harms,” lauded the findings. They said it could help fight back against “renewed calls from certain medical commentators to prescribe moderate drinking.” I count myself one of those certain medical commentators.