“A man too busy to take care of his health is like a mechanic too busy to take care of his tools.” — Spanish proverb

Not many of us will able to fully attain the goal of being “healthy, wealthy and wise.” I’m still aspiring to a couple of those attributes but have (wisely) given up on the whole “wealthy” thing. Still, pretty much all of us at least care about our health.

Especially at this time of year. After holiday bingeing and subsequent bulging, New Year's Day might well be the busiest of the year at fitness clubs.

We also tend to pay more attention to what we eat and drink, and that’s where wine comes in. Questions abound: Is it actually good for us (in moderation, of course)? Should I take a month off from the stuff? How fattening is it? Why do I get headaches with certain kinds of wine? And what about those pesky sulfites?

The answers can be many and varied, but here’s what we know:

Overall health benefits: Several studies have found an association between wine and a lower risk of dying from heart disease. Researchers say the primary factor is that red wine in particular is loaded with antioxidant compounds called polyphenols, which reduce inflammation throughout the body. Other studies indicate that red wine might be beneficial for gut health, which can improve digestion and immunity.

The star of this antioxidant show is resveratrol, found in the skin and seeds of grapes, which some studies suggest can lower blood pressure (by dilating blood vessels) and reduce cholesterol. White wine, meanwhile, contains two compounds, tyrosol and hydroxytyrosol (both also found in extra-virgin olive oil), that some say can be a defense against Alzheimer’s.

But — and you surely knew there was a “but” coming — debate continues on the amount of these compounds needed to provide real benefits (perhaps so much that it would involve heavy imbibing).

And of course, other factors could be in play. In particular, as noted by Dr. Robert Kloner, director of cardiovascular research at Huntington Medical Research Institutes, “It might be that wine drinkers are more likely to have a healthier lifestyle and a healthier diet such as the Mediterranean diet, which is known to be cardioprotective.”

Plus, it goes without saying, but I’m going to say it anyway: Moderation is the key. That means, by Mayo Clinic guidelines, up to one 5-ounce pour for women of all ages and for men over 65, and up to two glasses a day for men 65 and younger. “The limit for men is higher,” a Mayo report states, “because men generally weigh more than women and have more of an enzyme that metabolizes alcohol.”

Taking a break: I had a friend who took a full month off every year from drinking; he ended up in rehab anyway. Other acquaintances give up wine for Lent.

Is this helpful? Not so much, according to my friend Dr. Michael Apstein, who, in addition to being a great competition judge and wine writer, is a gastroenterologist (liver doctor). In a Decanter magazine article headlined “Is a dry January beneficial?” he wrote:

“Some people believe that ‘giving your liver a rest’ by abstaining from alcohol for a month or so is beneficial. In fact, there’s no science to support this practice, nor does it make sense physiologically. The liver can metabolize a small and steady amount of alcohol without difficulty.

“If you think you need to take a month off, you’re either drinking too much during the rest of the year or you have a guilty conscience.

“But giving up alcohol will, all other things being equal, result in a modest weight loss. Forgoing one 175ml glass of wine a day for a month will save you the caloric equivalent of 0.5 kg [1 pound] of weight.”

OK, about calories: Sparkling and still wines generally fall between 90 and 125 calories per 5-ounce pour. That’s a not insignificant but hardly daunting intake (again, in reasonable doses, not a whole bottle with 600 calories). In general, the higher the alcohol level, the higher the calorie count.

Most of the calories come from alcohol, but higher amounts of residual sugar in a wine can make a huge difference. So residual-sugar-loaded offerings such as Ménage à Trois and Apothic come in at about 200 calories per glass. Calorie caveat emptor.

Head cases: Let’s get this out of the way: Sulfites do not cause headaches—asthma symptoms, maybe, but not headaches.

While we’re at it, almost no one is allergic to sulfites. Otherwise, the approximately 1,000 milligrams of sulfites the body produces every day — about 100 times more than there are in a glass of wine — would lay waste to us. Only about 1% of us are actually allergic to sulfites, although the percentage might be higher for asthma sufferers.

But headaches can be the real deal, even though many if not most of those come from drinking too much wine with too little water.

Three factors can cause headaches. The first is tannins, and those who get headaches from red wine can test that possibility by drinking a heavily steeped glass of black tea, which has similar levels of tannins. The second is sugar, which can wreak cranial havoc when combined with alcohol; watch out for those heavy RS wines, along with sweet rieslings and the cheap stuff (wedding reception alert!); again, alleviation can come with simultaneous heavy consumption of water.

The final culprit is histamines, with recent research indicating that food and beverages that have been aged can release headache-inducing histamines. These might be averted by taking Claritin or another histamine blocker before quaffing.

So here’s to a healthy and wise 2020. The wealth can wait.


Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Twitter: @billward4.