On June 1st, 2017, Florence Bearse celebrated her 100th birthday, making her one of the very few people who experience a full century of life. When asked what the key to her health was, Florence responded without hesitation.
“I like my wine,” she said.
Florence isn’t alone. Spanish vineyard owner Antonio Docampo Garcia, who was still overseeing his vineyard at 107 years old, credited daily red wine consumption as the key to his prevailing mental fitness. Same with 104-year-old Eileen Ash, who gave this prescription for staying sharp well into old age: two glasses of red wine every night, plus plenty of yoga.
A lot of centenarians (people who live to be 100) consider wine the key to their extraordinary healthspan. They may be onto something: moderate daily alcohol consumption is a cultural staple in almost every single Blue Zone – the regions of the world where people live the longest and healthiest (for more on the Blue Zones, check out my article “12 Basic, Natural & Easy Habits To Enhance Longevity.“)
Yet paradoxically, alcohol is also well-established as a brain toxin. A large body of research shows that drinking damages your brain cells and can contribute to dementia, stroke risk, brain inflammation, and more.
So, is alcohol healthy or harmful for your brain? Almost all of us have heard both sides. As it turns out, there’s a fair amount of nuance when it comes to alcohol and brain health.
This article offers an honest look at how drinking alcohol affects your brain and how the right alcohol can fit into a healthy lifestyle.
Excess Alcohol Damages Your Brain
First things first: alcohol is a toxin. It can be very dangerous, and can certainly damage your brain, especially when you drink too much of it.
Drinking to excess contributes to brain damage in a variety of ways:
Dementia: Heavy drinking kills brain cells, and drinking too much over a long period of time can cause alcohol-induced dementia and significant brain shrinkage. Drinking too much also increases your risk of Alzheimer’s.
Impaired focus and memory: Alcohol affects your prefrontal cortex, the part of your brain that controls rational thinking and short-term memory. A single night of binge drinking strongly inhibits your prefrontal cortex, which leads to questionable decision-making and a spotty memory the next morning. Drinking too much long-term can damage your prefrontal cortex more permanently. Consistent binge drinking can make it difficult for you to pay attention to challenging tasks. Chronic heavy drinking also impairs decision-making and increases impulsivity.
Brain inflammation: High doses of alcohol cause profound brain inflammation in mice, particularly in three parts of the brain: the prefrontal cortex, which controls planning and rational thinking; the hippocampus, which controls memory; and the nucleus accumbens, which controls addiction and reward. These are the same areas that are deficient in long-term heavy drinkers.
Risk of stroke: Excessive drinking has been shown to make you more likely to have a stroke.
As you can see, drinking too much damages your brain, both short-term and long-term. Everyone is different, but most research defines excessive drinking as four or more drinks a night for men and three or more drinks a night for women. Of course, it also matters what you drink: a few drinks of hard liquor is different from, say, 11% Italian red wine.
The Rise Of Alcohol In The US
Even though alcohol poses health risks, it certainly hasn’t stopped Americans from imbibing. A study in the American Journal of Public Health found alcohol consumption to be up 17% since 2005.
Reasons for this abound, the most compelling of which is stress. Alcohol is a well-known neural depressant, working to slow the central nervous system. Most of the Western world uses alcohol to calm nerves and combat anxiety.
Modern wine companies have noticed the trend and responded. Since the 1990s, wine alcohol levels have steadily increased. In 1992, the average was 12.7%. In 2009, it jumped to 13.8%. Today, it averages nearly 15% and climbing.
The modern commercial wine industry loves high alcohol. It’s addictive, it causes you to drink more, and higher alcohol produces the big bold wines preferred by the typical American drinker. High alcohol is good business.
(By the way, don’t trust wine labels for accurate alcohol content. By law, the alcohol stated on a wine bottle is not required to be accurate; it may be as much as 1.5% different from true levels. Since producers pay taxes for higher alcohol, many of them make higher alcohol wines but label them lower.)
You can learn more about the big issues with the modern wine industry in my articles and podcasts including:
- Wine Myths, Dark & Dirty Secrets of the Wine Industry, Wine Biohacks & More!
- How To Eat 1 Meal A Day, Drink A Bottle Of Hangover-Free Wine Every Night & Manifest Everything You Desire In Life.
- Dark & Dirty Secrets Of The Wine Industry, Four Ways To Make Wine Healthier, and What Kind Of Wine Fit People Should Drink.
Moderate Drinking Seems To Be Good For Your Brain
So most research suggests excess alcohol poses significant health risks. Where does that leave moderate drinking?
Roughly defined as 2-3 glasses of wine a night for men and 1-2 glasses for women, moderate alcohol consumption may actually improve brain health in a few different ways:
Longevity and dementia: People who have one to three glasses of alcohol a day are three times more likely than non-drinkers to live to age 85. Daily moderate drinkers are also twice as likely to be cognitively healthy at 85 – non-drinkers and heavy drinkers are much more likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s. Other studies have also concluded that drinking in moderation protects against cognitive decline. Red wine, in particular, contains antioxidants that decrease your risk of dementia.
Better waste clearance: Mice given small amounts of alcohol (equivalent to a couple of drinks a day) showed an increase in glymphatic function — their brain’s ability to clear waste products. Your glymphatic system clears out inflammatory waste and gets rid of the damaged proteins that contribute to Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other forms of dementia. Improved toxin clearance could explain why moderate daily drinkers are twice as likely as non-drinkers to be cognitively healthy at 85.
Decreased stroke risk: A study of 5400 people found that those who had two to three drinks a day (one to two drinks a day for women) were significantly less likely to have a stroke than non-drinkers were.
Lower inflammation: Moderate alcohol consumption decreases inflammation, including brain inflammation. Wine is especially good for your brain, thanks to its rich variety of anti-inflammatory polyphenols and antioxidants.
Stress relief: Moderate drinking relieves mental stress and normalizes your cortisol (stress hormone) response after a psychologically stressful experience. You don’t want to become dependent on alcohol to manage your stress, of course, but a glass or two of wine can turn off your stress response and help you relax at the end of a long day.
So enjoying a couple of glasses of wine a night could decrease your risk of cognitive decline and help you live a longer, less stressful life.
As a matter of fact, four of the Blue Zones engage in moderate and regular alcohol consumption, which most likely contributes to their robust mental health and overall longevity. Take the Sardinians, for example. They are famous for their regular consumption of a regional red wine called “Cannonau”, a type of dry wine that contains two to three times the flavonoid content of other wines. Not familiar with the term “Cannonau”? It’s actually known elsewhere and more popularly as Grenache!
Consuming wine with or before a meal can assist the body with the absorption of the artery-scrubbing flavonoid antioxidants in the wine, and studies have shown that consumption of wine as part of a Mediterranean diet can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancers. Regular low-level physical activity boosts these benefits even more. According to a study in the European Society of Cardiology, moderate wine drinking combined with regular physical activity is a potent combination for cardiovascular disease prevention. As a matter of fact, Sardinian shepherds often walk up to five miles a day to tend to their flocks – and often carry along a lunch of unleavened bread, fava beans, Pecorino cheese, and a local Cannonau wine.
You’re no doubt also familiar with resveratrol, a polyphenol found in the skin of grapes that may protect the body against oxidative damage that places it at higher risk for cancer, heart disease, and dementia, and can also combat the formation of plaque found in the brains of dementia patients. This may also be why weekly consumption of alcohol is also associated with better cognitive function in old age. Plenty of additional research backs up the link between wine intake, low stress, and longevity.
This type of frequent, moderate alcohol consumption, as you learned in this article, one of my own nightly habits – most often accomplished via a digestif and bitters rich Moscow Mule (usually made with Zevia sugar-free ginger beer), a shot of gin or vodka over ice with a squeeze of lemon and a generous portion of bitters (a drink I affectionately call “Ben & Jitters”, or, of course, an organic, biodynamic glass of red wine. As a matter of fact, I have one drink just about every night, very rarely have two or more drinks, and – since I began this practice six years ago – have never once been drunk or experienced a hangover (aside from my very brief holiday stint of immersive journalistic investigation of hangover pills for this Men’s Health magazine article).
Don’t care for alcohol, or have a sordid history with the beverage that makes it something you need to be careful with?
The good news is that tannin-filled, anti-oxidant rich beverages such as coffee and tea may also confer similar benefits. Sardinians, Ikarians, and Nicoyans all drink copious amounts of coffee (you can read about all the anti-aging benefits of coffee here), and people in every Blue Zone drink tea, including Okinawans, who nurse green tea for much of the day, and Ikarians, who thrive on frequent consumption of rosemary, wild sage, and dandelion tea.
The Importance Of Microdosing With Alcohol
It’s not just the number of drinks you have that matters; it’s also the amount of alcohol in each drink. A glass of 11% alcohol wine is very different from a glass of 16% alcohol wine.
Similarly, taking a shot of liquor and having 40% alcohol by volume in your system immediately is not the same as sipping and savoring a drink, the latter giving your liver time to process the alcohol without overwhelming it.
It’s important to drink less alcohol to fully enjoy it and protect your brain. That’s why low alcohol is a core component of most wines that I enjoy, including one of my favorites: Dry Farm Wines. All of their wines are less than 12.5% (some as low as 6% alcohol by volume) because they want you to have wine that you can enjoy in good health throughout an evening.
When it comes to brain health, quality also matters. A pure, sugar-free natural wine will be different than a high-sugar, additive-filled commercial wine. Dry Farm Wines uses an independent certified enologist to lab test all their wines to be statistically sugar-free and to ensure every wine meets their strict standards of health and purity. This includes verifying the presence of lower alcohol and sulfites.
Dry Farm Wines also exclusively works with small family farmers to offer you a pure natural wine experience grown the way nature intended. They financially support small organic natural wine growers with fair trade pricing and believe this is important to financially support the farmers who are protecting the soil and earth. You can learn more about Dry Farm Wines in my in-depth podcast interview with their founder Todd White, which you can listen to here. You can also try a bottle of his fantastic wine (which I receive a personal shipment from every month via a wine subscription) by clicking here.
Three Additional Tips To Make Your Wine Tastier And Healthier
Of course, sometimes I don't have access to a good, biodynamic, organic wine. If I'm out at a restaurant or traveling, or someone brings a bottle of wine to my house that I'm unfamiliar with, there are a few other little “hacks” I'll use. Here are my top three:
#1. Purify Your Wine To Get Rid of Sulphites
Purifying your wine is an especially good idea if you get headaches from the sulfites in wine, and this trick can be a lifesaver if wine consumption results in headaches, migraines, or brain fog for you, especially the day after. If you pay attention to #4 below, you probably won’t need to use the purification method, but nonetheless, it’s a good strategy to have on hand.
Purification is necessary because preservatives have been used in the production of wine for many decades, for three primary purposes:
- To control undesirable microbial growth;
- To inhibit browning enzymes;
- To serve as an anti-oxidant (grape juice behaves like any other fruit in that when it is exposed to air, it begins to deteriorate due to oxidation).
So to preserve the fresh fruity flavor of the grape (and hence the wine), winemakers add preservatives immediately after the grape skin is broken in the making of the wine, and these preservatives are continuously used throughout the winemaking process until the final bottling. The most commonly used preservative is added either as a sulfur salt such as potassium metabisulphite (which releases sulfur dioxide gas) or sulfur dioxide gas itself, which unfortunately is well known as an undesirable pollutant.
Exposure to sulfur dioxide gas is very unpleasant even at quite low concentrations, and typical reactions to exposure to sulfur dioxide are headaches, shortness of breath, sneezing, watery eyes, wheezing, sinus congestion, and dizziness. Asthmatics are particularly susceptible to sulfur dioxide, and the level of free sulfur dioxide in most wines at bottling is definitely high enough to trigger a reaction.
Unfortunately, the use of preservatives (particularly sulfites) has been a concern for food consumers for many years and many producers have removed them from their products. But it is nearly impossible to produce high-quality wine without their use.
Enter purification. A few years ago when I was competing in a triathlon in Thailand, one of my Australian friends introduced me to Pure Wine, which is available mostly in Australia, but still something you could get shipped anywhere, and is now available on Amazon. After you add five drops of Pure Wine to a glass of wine or use the special stirring wand mechanism to stir your wine, the level is sulfites is dramatically reduced, but the wine stays nice and fresh for up to 24 hours after opening. Pure Wine basically produces a blast of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) that eliminates the active wine preservative of sulfur dioxide gas, without sacrificing the taste and quality of the wine.
And by the way, I do indeed realize that there are sulfites in other things too, such as broccoli, prunes, and other vegetables, but as this article from Lifehacker points out, it’s really a combination of the sulfites, the sugar, and another addition called “amines” in wine that makes sulfites in wine such a particularly big problem for many folks compared to sulfites in vegetables.
#2. Beat the Sh*t Out Of Your Wine To Improve The Flavor
Let’s say you use some of the tips in this article to get healthy wine, but you just want more freaking flavor. Then read on. Full credit for this trick goes to Tim Ferriss, who introduced this method in the article “Age Your Wine 5 Years In 20 Seconds”. Tim learned it from Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft, French chef, and creator of the iconic cooking encyclopedia, Modernist Cuisine.
You may be familiar with decanting wine, and beating your wine is essentially based on a similar concept, specifically the idea that exposing your wine to more air than the wine gets exposed to in the bottle with improving the flavor of the wine. But decanting can take hours and hours.
Pour 1–2 glasses of the wine into a large mixing bowl, a wine glass, or a carafe. Leave plenty of room at the top. The first time you do this, take a sip so you can see what the wine tastes like before. Then, lower an immersion blender or a latte frother into the bowl and blend the wine for 20-30 seconds. Tip the bowl, glass or carafe or move the blender in circles to enhance the foaming effect.
This aeration exposes more of a liquid surface area to air and increases the number of flavorful molecules that reach your palate and your smell receptors. If you do this correctly, your wine should now have a nice heady froth on it, just like Guinness beer. The froth will disappear in about 1-2 minutes.
If you have kids, they’ll love this trick. These days, I actually have my twin boys pour and froth my wine for me. Yet another useful reason to keep children around.
#3: Use A Small Glass
I have to admit that the video below, which comes from my article “5 Powerful Calorie Control Tricks To Help You Eat Less Food” makes me feel a little old. When I watch it, I realize that I’ve been podcasting, producing videos and writing articles for nearly eight years, and the video is certainly dated. Notice the cool, green-screen background effect. But it’s still chock full of good advice.
In the video, I show you how the size of the bowl, plate, or spoon that you use can significantly influence how much food and how many calories you consume. In the study “Ice cream illusions bowls, spoons, and self-served portion sizes,” 85 nutrition experts who were attending an ice cream social were randomly given either a smaller (17 oz) or a larger (34 oz) bowl and either a smaller (2 oz) or larger (3 oz) ice cream scoop. After serving themselves, they completed a brief survey as their ice cream was weighed.
Even when nutrition experts were given a larger bowl, they served themselves 31% more without being aware of it. In addition, their servings increased by over 14% when they were given a larger serving spoon.
In another study, from the University of Pennsylvania, psychologists conducted an experiment in an upscale apartment building in which they left out a bowl of the chocolate candies with a small scoop. The next day they refilled the bowl with M&Ms, but used a much larger scoop – and when the scoop size was increased, people took 66 percent more M&Ms!
And then there’s the infamous bottomless bowl of soup study. In this study, using special self-refilling soup bowls, researchers examined whether visual cues related to portion size can influence intake volume without altering either estimated intake or satiation. Participants who were unknowingly eating from magical, self-refilling bowls ate way more soup than those eating from normal soup bowls. However, despite consuming 73% more, they did not believe they had consumed more, nor did they perceive themselves as more sated than those eating from normal bowls. The takeaway message is, of course, to use smaller plates, bowls, and utensils even if somebody laughs at you for eating your soup with a teaspoon.
As a matter of fact, my wife often gives me a hard time when I grab a small plate for dinner and awkwardly try to place just the right amount of food on my tiny plate. Of course, for the same reason, I typically grab a very, very large bowl for vegetables and salad, and – you guessed it – a reasonably sized glass for my wine (although for special few-and-far-between occasions I will still employ my fancy, fish-bowl size wine glass).
Finally (and perhaps this serves as a fourth tip), if you are at a restaurant and surveying the wine list while scratching your head to figure out if any of the wines are as organic or biodynamic as Dry Farm Wines, you're often pretty safe ordering a glass or bottle from Italy, France or New Zealand – three regions that tend to still use relatively “old world” wine preparation methods.
So that's it!
How about you?
What's your favorite “healthy” cocktail?
Have you tried the switch yet to organic, biodynamic wine?
Do you have any other “hacks” for hangovers, alcohol, wine, cocktails or anything else?
Leave your comments, questions, thoughts or feedback for me below, and remember that you can click here to try an organic, biodynamic bottle of Dry Farm Wines for one penny!