"Long before it's in the papers"
January 27, 2015


Resveratrol found to fall short in health benefits

Oct. 25, 2012
Courtesy of Washington University School of Medicine
and World Science staff

Res­ver­a­trol—a chem­i­cal thought to re­duce risk of heart dis­ease and boost life­span based on an­i­mal tests—does­n’t seem to of­fer these ben­e­fits in healthy wom­en, new re­search in­di­cates.

The stu­dy, re­ported on­line Oct. 25 in the re­search jour­nal Cell Me­tab­o­lism, in­volved 29 post-menopausal wom­en de­scribed as rea­sonably healthy. For 12 weeks, half took an over-the-coun­ter sup­ple­ment of res­ver­a­trol, an in­gre­di­ent in red wine. The rest of the par­ti­ci­pants got a sug­ar pill.

Credit: Robert Boston

“Res­ver­a­trol sup­ple­ments have be­come pop­u­lar be­cause stud­ies in cell sys­tems and ro­dents show that res­ver­a­trol can im­prove met­a­bol­ic func­tion and pre­vent or re­verse cer­tain health prob­lems like di­a­be­tes, heart dis­ease and even can­cer,” said Sam­u­el Klein, sen­ior in­ves­ti­ga­tor in the stu­dy.

“But our da­ta dem­on­strate that res­ver­a­trol sup­ple­menta­t­ion does not have met­a­bol­ic ben­e­fits in rel­a­tively healthy, mid­dle-aged wom­en,” added Klein, who di­rects the Cen­ter for Hu­man Nu­tri­tion at Wash­ing­ton Uni­vers­ity School of Med­i­cine in St. Lou­is.

The re­sults were some­what sur­pris­ing, he added. “Few stud­ies have eval­u­at­ed the ef­fects of res­ver­a­trol in peo­ple,” Klein ex­plained. “Those stud­ies were con­ducted in peo­ple with di­a­be­tes, old­er adults with im­paired glu­cose [sug­ar] tol­er­ance or obese peo­ple who had more met­a­bol­ic prob­lems than the wom­en we stud­ied. So it is pos­si­ble that res­ver­a­trol could have ben­e­fi­cial ef­fects in peo­ple who are more met­a­bol­ic­ally ab­nor­mal.”

Klein said many who have heard about red wine’s health ben­e­fits want to take res­ver­a­trol pills to get those ben­e­fits with­out drink­ing a lot of al­co­hol; an­nu­al U.S. sales of the sup­ple­ments have hit $30 mil­lion.

Klein and col­leagues gave 15 post-menopausal wom­en 75 mil­ligrams of res­ver­a­trol dai­ly, the same amount they’d get from drink­ing 8 liters of red wine. The team meas­ured, among oth­er things, the wom­en’s sen­si­ti­vity to the hor­mone in­su­lin. That’s be­cause res­ver­a­trol has been found to im­prove this abil­ity, which is im­paired in di­a­be­tes—a dis­ease that has wor­ries health ex­perts be­cause it is in­creas­ingly com­mon and and linked to obes­ity. 

But “we were un­able to de­tect any ef­fect of res­ver­a­trol” on in­su­lin sen­si­ti­vity, Klein said. “In ad­di­tion, we took small sam­ples of mus­cle and fat tis­sue from these wom­en to look for pos­si­ble ef­fects of res­ver­a­trol in the body’s cells, and again, we could not find any changes.”

But if res­ver­a­trol does­n’t have a health ben­e­fit, then why are red wine drinkers less likely to de­vel­op heart dis­ease and di­a­be­tes? Klein said there may be some­thing else in red wine that pro­vides the ben­e­fit. “Res­ver­a­trol could have a syn­er­gis­tic ef­fect when com­bined with oth­er com­pounds in red wine,” he said.

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Resveratrol—a chemical thought to reduce risk of heart disease and boost lifespan based on animal tests—doesn’t seem to offer these benefits in healthy women, new research indicates. The study, reported online Oct. 25 in Cell Metabolism, involved 29 post-menopausal women described as reasonably healthy. For 12 weeks, half took an over-the-counter supplement of resveratrol, an ingredient in red wine. The rest of the participants got a sugar pill. “Resveratrol supplements have become popular because studies in cell systems and rodents show that resveratrol can improve metabolic function and prevent or reverse certain health problems like diabetes, heart disease and even cancer,” said Samuel Klein, senior investigator in the study. “But our data demonstrate that resveratrol supplementation does not have metabolic benefits in relatively healthy, middle-aged women,” added Klein, who directs the Center for Human Nutrition at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. The results were somewhat surprising because earlier studies suggested that drinking red wine lowers the risk of health problems, he added. “Few studies have evaluated the effects of resveratrol in people,” Klein explains. “Those studies were conducted in people with diabetes, older adults with impaired glucose [sugar] tolerance or obese people who had more metabolic problems than the women we studied. So it is possible that resveratrol could have beneficial effects in people who are more metabolically abnormal.” Klein said many who have heard about red wine’s health benefits want to take resveratrol pills to get those benefits without drinking a lot of alcohol; annual U.S. sales of the supplements have risen to $30 million. Klein and colleagues gave 15 post-menopausal women 75 milligrams of resveratrol daily, the same amount they’d get from drinking 8 liters of red wine. The team measured, among other things, the women’s sensitivity to the hormone insulin. That’s because resveratrol has been found to improve this ability, which is impaired in diabetes—a disease that has worries health experts because it is increasingly common and and linked to obesity. But “we were unable to detect any effect of resveratrol” on insulin sensitivity, Klein said. “In addition, we took small samples of muscle and fat tissue from these women to look for possible effects of resveratrol in the body’s cells, and again, we could not find any changes.” But if resveratrol doesn’t have a health benefit, then why are red wine drinkers less likely to develop heart disease and diabetes? Klein said there may be something else in red wine that provides the benefit. “Resveratrol could have a synergistic effect when combined with other compounds in red wine,” he said.