Whether it’s a crisp pinot noir or a full-bodied shiraz, red wine can certainly be a treat for the senses. But did you know that the occasional glass of your preferred tipple could also be good for your gut? Yes, that’s right. New research suggests that these drinks can increase the number of different types of beneficial bacteria that live in your gut. So, while health experts would never condone overindulging, perhaps a glass of red from time to time could be good news for your digestive system.
More diverse gut bugs
The study, which was published in August 2019 in the journal Gastroenterology, looked at nearly 3,000 twins living in the UK, Netherlands and US who were enrolled in health research programmes. All participants were asked to provide details on their diets, as well as how much and what types of alcohol they drank.
It was discovered that red wine drinkers had more diverse gut microbes than non-red wine drinkers, and the more red wine that participants consumed, the greater the diversity of their gut bacteria. However, the research also showed that occasional drinking (a glass per week or fortnight) seemed to be sufficient to see these benefits, with none of the study’s participants being considered heavy drinkers.
The researchers stressed that heavy alcohol consumption isn’t recommended, and they suggested that drinking too much would probably have a bad impact on gut microbes - as well as a person’s overall health.
The power of polyphenols
It’s thought that the benefits for gut bacteria come from the polyphenols present in red wine. Polyphenols are compounds that occur naturally in plants, including in the skin of red grapes. These micronutrients are believed to have a range of beneficial properties and they provide a food source for useful microbes that live in the bowel.
Increasing the number of beneficial microbes in your gut can play an important role in keeping you healthy. For example, there’s growing evidence that a healthy balance of bacteria in the digestive system can help to protect people from conditions ranging from heart disease to irritable bowel syndrome and obesity. It’s even thought that these microbes may have a positive impact on our mood and mental health.
Commenting on the findings, lead author of the study Dr Caroline Le Roy said: "If you must choose one alcoholic drink today, red wine is the one to pick as it seems to potentially exert a beneficial effect on you and your gut microbes, which in turn may also help weight and risk of heart disease.”
She added that while the subject of gut bacteria is complex, we know that the more diverse these microbes are, the better this appears to be for our health.
Not an excuse to binge
However, Dr Le Roy went on to point out that the findings of this study are not an excuse to binge on red wine. She highlighted that alcohol should only be drunk in moderation, and that you don’t need to drink every day to experience the positive effects on gut bacteria. It’s important to be aware that excessive alcohol consumption increases the risk of health problems including certain cancers, liver disease and strokes.
The good news is, polyphenols are found in a whole range of foods, so it’s not hard to make sure you get plenty of them in your diet. Fruits including grapes, oranges, cherries, blueberries, plums, strawberries and apples are all major sources, and vegetables such as onions, spinach, broccoli, asparagus and carrots have lots of these nutrients too. Polyphenols are also found in whole grains including wheat and rye, and in a variety of nuts, seeds and legumes such as hazelnuts, almonds, black beans and flaxseed. Tea and coffee contain the compounds too, as do spices and seasonings including cinnamon, cumin and saffron.
So, if you want to up your intake of polyphenols, there are lots of healthy sources available.
More research needed
While this recent study might be welcomed by red wine lovers around the world, it’s important to be aware that more research is needed in this area. Dr Le Roy noted that although the findings are robust, they can’t prove that red wine improves the microbiome. They can only demonstrate that these two things are associated.
Clinical nutritionist Samantha Heller, who was not involved in the study, pointed out that drinking red wine could be a marker of a healthy lifestyle more generally, so the benefits may be due to other factors.
Tips to improve your gut health
So, red wine aside, what other steps can you take to improve the health of your gut? One tip is to make sure you eat a wide variety of plant-based foods, including foods that are high in fibre such as vegetables, pulses and nuts. Avoid highly processed foods where possible as these products often contain ingredients that can increase the bad bacteria in your gut and suppress beneficial microbes. Look out for probiotic foods as well, such as live yoghurts. These are foods that contain live bacteria that are beneficial to health. It’s useful to eat prebiotics too. These ingredients act as fuel for probiotics and they occur naturally in foods such as whole grains, honey and bananas.
Also, if you have to use antibiotics to treat an infection, make sure you eat plenty of foods that boost healthy bacteria afterwards. This is because as well as killing harmful bacteria, antibiotics kill good microbes and this can upset the balance of these organisms in your gut.
Finding effective ways to make sure you have a healthy balance of bacteria in your digestive system is important for your wellbeing, so it pays to be in the know on this topic.