Is Resveratrol Just an Excuse to Get Drunk, or Will It Turn You Into the Highlander?

“Every man would live long,” Jonathan Swift famously observed, “but no man would be old.” 

There’s some reason to believe that resveratrol can give you just that–not just a longer lifespan, but a longer healthspan.  More time spent as an active, young to middle-aged adult, and more time overall, without spending more time in the nursing home.  In studies, resveratrol has been shown to greatly extend the lifespans of yeast, worms and flies, as well as protecting against age-related diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s in mammals.

Maybe you’ve read articles about how resveratrol might be the reason why wine is good for you (it isn’t), or maybe you’ve just heard about it from some wine snob who used it to explain why drinking an entire bottle of 2009 douchenozzle reserve every evening is, like, tooootally healthy.  Regardless, it’s something you should know about. 

Resveratrol has fallen somewhat off the radar since it was all the rage a few years ago.  but the research on it keeps piling up.  Short answer: Yes, resveratrol may very well help you live longer and stay younger.  The long answer is a bit more complicated. 

We’ll start with the basics.  Resveratrol is a phenol–a sort of naturally occurring compound–produced by certain plants as an immune response against stress and fungal infections.  It’s produced by a variety of berries, as well as peanuts and cocoa plants, but the highest concentrations are found in the skins of red grapes, as well as in dry red wines. 

It naturally occurs in two forms, called trans-resveratrol and cis-resveratrol.  These forms are isomers–mirror images of each other, sort of like your left and right hands.  Trans-resveratrol is the one that purportedly confers health benefits, and a glass of red wine will typically have anywhere between .15 and 1.5 mg of it. 

Resveratrol appears to exert most of its effects by inducing cell apoptosis and autophagy, a pair of mechanisms by which the body kills off and recycles old, damaged or non-functioning cells, organelles, protein and bits of RNA.  In effect, it works by some of the same mechanisms as caloric restriction and fasting, but without requiring you to do either of those things. 

For a while in the 2000’s, it really looked like resveratrol was some kind of miracle drug.  Every year, a few more studies would come out demonstrating benefits to longevity, cardiovascular fitness, and brain health.  But then three things happened that changed the narrative. 

First, more research started coming out on autophagy, and as it turns out, autophagy isn’t always good for you.  Specifically, while autophagy can extend your lifespan and prevent cancer, autophagy within cancer cells can help them survive the onslaught of both the body’s natural immune response and medical cancer treatments.  So the benefits of resveratrol could be a double-edged sword, although autophagy is certainly helpful far more often than it’s harmful. 

Second, a 2011 meta-analysis concluded that while resveratrol had proven highly beneficial in animals, there was insufficient justification for recommending it for human use at that time.  The study did however say that resveratrol seemed promising, suggested several avenues for further research, and concluded that the scientific community should definitely be spending a lot more money on resveratrol research.

You may have noticed that I didn’t link to that study.  Well hold onto your dicks, because shit’s about to get cray.      

In 2012 an investigation found that Dr. Dipak Das, a cardiovascular researcher and author of dozens of resveratrol studies, had been falsifying lab tests and misrepresenting the data in almost every study he was involved in since at least 2005.  You heard that right: many of the great things you’ve heard about resveratrol are based on fake studies.  

Funny enough, he was also a co-author in the 2011 meta-analysis which had suggested spending more money on resveratrol research.  Who’d have guessed?  Following this revelation, most of the most positive studies on resveratrol had to be retracted, as did that meta-analysis.  Then in 2013, Dr. Das died of undisclosed causes– I’m going to go ahead and guess heart disease. 

Since then, more (apparently legit) research has been done on resveratrol by other (apparently honest) scientists.  So what’s the deal?  Is resveratrol bullshit? No. Is it a miracle drug? No. Is it worth looking at?  Hell yes it is, so let’s go over its purported benefits one by one. 

Let’s Dive Into the Research, Shall We?

Longevity

This may come as a surprise to you, but no study has ever taken young adult humans, given them resveratrol, and followed them until they die to see how long they live.  Human longevity is damned hard to study, which is why most longevity studies look at shorter-lived animals and then try to generalize those results to humans.  A lot of skepticism is warranted here.

First off, resveratrol has been studied on drosophilia, better known as fruit flies.  Seriously.  Fruit flies.  Resveratrol was able to effectively prolong the lifespans of the fruit flies, but the effect varied a lot depending on the diet and gender of the flies.  It’s hard to say what to make of this, since flies have very different diets and hormonal profiles than we do.    

And then of course we have mice.  Mouse studies have shown that resveratrol is able to provide substantial health benefits as the mice age, helping to preserve the mice’s motor functions, energy metabolism, and insulin sensitivity, and increasing median lifespan.  The effects seem particularly strong when the mice are on a high-calorie diet, apparently because resveratrol mimics the effects of calorie-restricted diets

The benefits of resveratrol vary widely across species, with some seeing no benefit and others seeing an almost miraculous increase in lifespan.  Due to the huge inter-species variability in results, it probably isn’t the best idea to extrapolate from animal to human studies.

In humans, the evidence suggests that resveratrol doesn’t increase life span per se, but does protect against many age-related health problems, such as osteoporosis, heart disease, and cognitive decline. 

There’s no direct evidence that resveratrol directly fights aging itself, although it might- might- increase median age somewhat by reducing some of the causes of premature death, and the increase in autophagy does suggest a possible anti-aging effect.  In other words, resveratrol probably won’t let you live to 200, but it may well help you get past 100 and keep you out of the nursing home. 

Cardiovascular Health

There are strong indications that resveratrol can fight atherosclerosis, reduce blood pressure, and scavenge free radicals from your heart, preventing oxidative damage.  Again though, most of this comes from rat studies, and it’s also extremely dense reading. 

Human studies have had to use population data rather than the experimental method to investigate the relationship between wine/resveratrol intake and heart health.  A meta-analysis on these studies provides great news: consuming 2 glasses of red wine a day is associated with a 61% reduced risk of cardiovascular disease

Before you get too excited, remember that this is based on uncontrolled population studies.  Since red wine is associated with being in a higher social class compared to beer or liquor consumption, that could be the reason for the finding.  It also could be a self-fulfilling prophecy; once red wine got labelled healthy, it could just be that healthy people started gravitating towards it, biasing any uncontrolled studies.

The point is, there are several good reasons to switch from beer to red wine, but drinking red wine can’t substitute for the other fundamentals of diet and exercise. 

Insulin Sensitivity and Fat Loss

There’s tremendous evidence, in human, mouse and lemur studies, that resveratrol can aid glucose metabolism and insulin sensitivity- in other words, it can make more of the food you eat go to your lean tissues or get burned off for energy, and less of it go to fat.  One study even showed that it protected rats’ pancreatic beta cells from dying, meaning that it might protect against type 1 diabetes.  However, the dosage in this study was so high as to likely produce dangerous side effects. 

In humans, 150 mg/day of resveratrol has been demonstrated to improve energy metabolism in obese humans.  The benefits don’t seem to apply to non-obese humans, however, and they also disappear a few months after people stop taking resveratrol

This doesn’t mean, however, that any weight lost with the aid of resveratrol would come back–only that the direct effect on energy metabolism would be gone.In other words, resveratrol can probably help you lose weight, but you’d better actually be losing some weight when you’re on it, otherwise it’s a bit of a waste 

Effects on Brain Health and Alzheimer’s

Based on over a dozen studies, resveratrol appears to help brains stay healthy as they age.  It can cross the blood-brain barrier, and has been shown to boost cerebral blood flow, but this wasn’t shown to lead to improved cognitive performance.  In mice, resveratrol prevented some of the biomarkers associated with Alzheimer’s disease. In humans, at least one study has demonstrated a neuroprotective effect, synergistic with melatonin. 

Athletic Performance Enhancement

Resveratrol shows some very mixed effects on athletic performance.  On the one hand, it seems to increase muscular power and aerobic endurance, as well as helping the muscles absorb more glucose.  On the other hand, another study found that resveratrol does nothing to aid with performance adaptations over time. Worse still, this freaking study right here actually found that resveratrol reduced the long-term benefits of exercise, although the effect wasn’t very large in practical terms. 

So what’s going on here?  The issue likely stems from resveratrol’s anti-oxidative effects.  You see, exercises actually damages your body; the benefits occur when your body recovers from that damage, becoming even stronger than before.  By either protecting your body from exercise-induced damage, or possibly blunting the inflammatory signal caused by that damage, resveratrol may help you perform better at the time, but hinder your long-term results because the exercise is effectively less intense and provides less growth stimulus for your body.   

Effects on Testosterone and Estrogen

Resveratrol is similar in structure to estrogen, and thus can activate some of the same receptors that estrogen activates.  Higher doses of resveratrol have been found to increase testosterone production in both mouse ovaries and mouse testicles and testicular tumors.  Man, imagine being the person who has to study cancerous mouse balls.  That’d make for some fun cocktail party conversations. 

In humans, higher doses of resveratrol (around 500 mg a day) have been shown to inhibit aromatase.  Aromatase is the enzyme that converts testosterone into estrogen, so aromatase inhibition means more testosterone but less estrogen. Really high doses of resveratrol- one gram or more per day- also appear to act as an aromatase inhibitor for one week, but then there’s a rebound effect where high-dose resveratrol increases aromatization after the first week

Why would it have one effect for one week, and the opposite effect after?  There are two possibilities: first off, the high dosage might desensitize your receptors, causing them to eventually stop responding both to resveratrol as well as your body’s natural estrogen.  Second, testosterone levels could build up to the point where they overcome the aromatase inhibiting effect, cascading over into estrogen. 

Effects on Cancer

There are many, many different routes by which resveratrol might fight or prevent cancer.

The same aromatase-inhibiting properties that make resveratrol a potential testosterone booster also make it potentially useful for fighting breast cancer

Topical resveratrol is being investigated as a skin cancer drug.  Resveratrol also shows promise in fighting esophageal cancer; this is actually also a topical effect, is it seems to work by coming into contact with the cancer while being swallowed, rather than by being absorbed into the bloodstream. 

Finally, resveratrol appears to help prevent liver cancers from metastasizing.  All of this cancer research is in the early stage, and will probably take years to prove resveratrol’s usefulness as an anti-cancer drug, but it is promising.

Resveratrol is Pretty Good, I Guess

Resveratrol is very promising, probably is useful for reducing your risk of cancer and Alzheimer’s, and might even help people live a little bit longer.  Maybe.  That said, I would be wary of using anything with this kind of global effects until it has been very thoroughly researched.  Although it may seem like resveratrol has been studied to death, those studies have raised almost as many questions as they’ve found answers.

That said, if you’re set on trying resveratrol, here are a few guidelines. 

If you have cancer and think some resveratrol from Walgreens will help you, FOR CHRIST’S SAKE STOP!  Don’t take it without talking to your doctor first, as it may have interaction effects with whatever else you’re taking.  Not to mention the supplement industry is so unregulated, you can’t always be sure how much is actually in the pills you’re taking.  I’m not a doctor and don’t play one on the internet, so ask your real doctor. 

For longevity, cardiovascular, cancer prevention and neuroprotective benefits, 5-10 mg per day is the way to go.  Take it in the evening with .3 to 1 mg of melatonin, about 30-60 minutes before bed.

If you actually have cancer, don’t take resveratrol without talking to your doctor first.  It may be helpful, unhelpful or even counterproductive depending on the specific kind of cancer you have, and there may be interaction effects with whatever cancer medicine you’re taking.  I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV. 

For fat loss, take 100-200 mg while on a diet and exercise program geared towards fat loss.  You’ll probably want to divide this dosage between morning and evening.  I recommend using resveratrol for fat loss for only 3-4 months at a time, then taking at least a month off to avoid the estrogen-increasing effects. 

Finally, for athletic performance, you can take anywhere from 150 to 500 mg a day- however, I wouldn’t use this long-term since it seems to reduce adaptations to exercise.  If you’re training for a competition, consider taking resveratrol only for the last two weeks before the competition.

Okay, so does this mean your wine snob “friend” is right and red wine is actually good for you?  Well, no.  Even a 5 mg dose of resveratrol is equivalent to between one and three bottles of red wine, depending on which varietal you’re drinking, so you should probably take pills if you’re really interested in resveratrol.  Wine is certainly healthier than beer, but that isn’t saying very much. 

Science 2* – Wine Snobs 0

*One point for this article, and one for the time I gave a wine snob a glass of ten dollar CostCo wine and told him it was fancy French wine and he didn’t know the difference.