By now virtually everyone has heard about the French Paradox, and how the French might be protected against heart disease by their consumption of red wine despite diets relatively high in fat. Certainly the alcohol in wine plays an important role, as it raises the levels of the protective HDL. But then that can also be said for other alcoholic beverages.
Red wine, however, contains a treasure trove of beneficial plant substances collectively termed flavonoids. They are potent antioxidants, they have anti-inflammatory properties, and they protect the health of the endothelium, the lining of the arteries.
Many authorities believe that the flavonoids are the reason a diet rich in fruits and vegetables has been associated with a lessened risk of heart disease. Getting back to the red wine, flavonoids come from the skins and seeds included during fermentation. Skins and seeds are removed when making white wine, removing the source of flavonoids.
Flavonoids are also concentrated in grape seeds and grape seed extracts are widely available as dietary supplements, as are grape skin extracts. But should these products be a part of your heart-healthy regimen? Research has been building to indicate that these supplements are, indeed, beneficial.
The May 2005 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, for example, contained a report showing how grape seed extract, rich in particular flavonoids called proantho-cyanidins, can protect the heart after periods of oxygen deprivation. The investigators worked with rabbits, simulating the effect of such oxygen deprivation and subsequent flow of blood. That scenario occurs when a person might have angina pains or, more dramatically, a heart attack or bypass surgery. Rabbits given grape seed extract were protected against the damage done by free radicals during that experimental period.
Coincidentally, that same issue of AJCN published a study showing how flavonoid intakes associated with regular tea drinking reduce the risk of heart attack. There's no question that we can all benefit from increasing our intakes of flavonoids on a daily basis.
But not everyone drinks tea; most Americans prefer coffee. Many consume no alcohol at all, or prefer other beverages than red wine. Four tablets of grape seed extract (200 mg) provide the equivalent of one four-ounce glass of red wine.
You may remember the ORAC method of measuring antioxidant potency of various foods I reported on previously. ORAC stands for Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity. Foods high on the list include raisins and blueberries. And grape seed extract levels absolutely soar.
Moreover, the proanthocyanidins of grape seed extract work with vitamins C and E to maintain a higher level of those antioxidants in the blood over time.
Certainly the foundation of a heart-healthy diet and life-style rests on a high consumption of fruits and vegetables. Red wine, grape juice and tea provide additional protective flavonoids. Grape seed extract tablets can substantially supplement total intake.
I've gotten a number of letters asking about grape seed extracts. The bottom line is that I believe they can play an important role in protecting our hearts.