The Problems With Resveratrol Research: Lessons from Mary Jane

Before we all flip our lids and make wild and shockingly conclusive results based on one individual study (for example, this hullaballoo), I want you all to repeat this to yourselves over and over again:

“One study does not a scientific conclusion make”.  –Lewis Perdue

It is important for us to take into consideration a plethora of studies, in order to get a better understanding of the system that on which we are focusing.  If there are countless studies showing one kind of result (example: positive health benefits), then a new study comes out showing more conflicting results, it does not mean that every single scientist up until that point has been full of doggy dung.  No, it means you should think to yourself “huh, now that’s interesting.  Let me take a closer look at the paper to determine what exactly this might mean in terms of HOW the study was actually performed and WHAT is was designed to test, instead of jumping to extremely broad conclusions based off of a sentence or two in the discussion section of that scientific paper”.

You might be able to guess by now that I’m talking about the recent paper concluding that resveratrol did not have any influence on health status or mortality risk in older adults.  Many of the media headlines read “Red Wine Health Benefits Are A Myth!”, and the like.  Again, let’s repeat our mantra:

“One study does not a scientific conclusion make”.  

Sure, the results of this study might be important and might actually mean something, but to basically call out the many studies showing positive benefits as being wrong is a little far-fetched.  Let’s keep collecting information before jumping to generalized conclusions.

Stop picking on poor little Resveratrol!

I also wanted to mention this:  Focusing on one individual compound is not the way to go, considering the complexities of our physiology and the thousands of chemical reactions that can occur in our bodies.  In other words, by putting one compound into your body, you initiate a series of chemical reactions. By adding additional compounds into the body, these new compounds are now dealing with a markedly

Photo from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Resveratrol.pdb.gif (Public Domain)

Photo from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Resveratrol.pdb.gif (Public Domain)

different chemical environment than they were prior to the first compound being ingested.  Thereby, the chemical reactions that take place might be significantly different (and possibly more dangerous) than those that would have taken place had the second compound been ingested alone.

Let’s look at drug interactions as an example (see a drug interactions finder here).  A lot of people take SSRI’s for anxiety and/or depression.  For many, these SSRI’s, like Prozac, interact with the chemistry of the brain and decrease the symptoms of anxiety and/or depression.  Now, all is fine and dandy right?  Well, what if all of a sudden that person gets a massive headache requiring some hard-core prescription pain medications?  “Oh hey!  I still have a few of those Vicodins left over from that surgical procedure I had a while ago, I’ll pop a couple of those and then “sayonara headache!”’  What this person fails to realize is that just because something is effective and beneficial by itself (that Vicodin kicked butt for that pain due to surgery!), combining it with certain drugs inside the human body can be a recipe for disaster.  In particular, when someone takes Prozac AND Vicodin, there is the possibility of major health problems, including Serotonin Syndrome, the symptoms of which include restlessness, euphoria, dizziness, diarrhea, and oh, death.

Now think about another system, such as a medicinal plant.  Plants contain both active and inactive compounds that play many different roles in the organism.  For some plants, the combinations of these compounds act “as a team” in order to provide certain benefits to those that consume it.  Let’s use cannabis as an example that, along with red wine, has recently been in the news for having

Photo By ParentingPatch (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By ParentingPatch (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

some medicinal benefits for humans.  For a long time, scientists were focused primarily on one compound: Tetrahydrocannabinol (otherwise known as THC), since it had been isolated in 1964 by Raphael Mechoulam.  It was found to have many beneficial effects, including the alleviation of pain and reduced aggression.  Later on, it was discovered that THC does not act alone to provide these benefits, but interact with HUNDREDS of other compounds within the plant by a phenomenon referred to as “the entourage effect”.  Briefly, the “entourage effect” relates to a group of compounds that act together to be beneficial to a significantly greater degree than the individual compounds by themselves.  So, taking cannabis as an example, THC working together with dozens if not hundreds of other compounds is responsible for producing the desired effects than just the THC isolated all by itself.

“The Entourage Effect”: What can we learn from weed that we can apply to wine?

If you’ve read anything I’ve written above, you can probably see where I’m going with this.  What can we learn from the “entourage effect” research that has been done in THC/weed/marijuana/Mary Jane/whatever you want to call it and apply it to wine and in particular, resveratrol?

Basically, trying to isolate resveratrol is one problem.  Sure, some studies are going to find positive effects while others will find no effects.  Resveratrol all by itself is not the smoking gun!  Resveratrol acts in concert with dozens if not hundreds of other compounds in grapes and wine resulting in benefits that are greater as a whole than just the individual parts alone.  We’ve seen it already – other polyphenols in red wine have significant benefits, including anthocyanins, other stilbenes, and flavonoids, all of which are known to be great antioxidants in addition to a plethora of other things!

Why do we keep pressuring resveratrol to carry the whole team to victory?  Good health is a team sport, not a popularity contest.

Concluding Thoughts

If we keep studying resveratrol in its isolated form, we’re going to continue to see some studies that see positive results while other studies see no effect.  To that end, even studying resveratrol in combination with other compounds will probably result in variation across studies in regards to the benefits found, or lack thereof for that matter.  Why?  Oh, because of genetic variability!  We are all different!  Our bodies are going to react differently to different compounds because our individual chemistries are all different!

We’re not going to find a “magic pill” with resveratrol, just as much as we aren’t going to find a “magic therapy” with cannabis or any other “magic pill” that you find in the health food section of the grocery store.  For some people, sure!

These compounds may very well be beneficial for certain people, but for others, there may be no effect at

Photo By United States Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo By United States Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

all.  The moral of my little rant here today is to stop treating resveratrol as the “be all end all” of red wine health benefits.  You’re giving the poor thing a complex, for goodness sake!  I mean, come on guys, if the stoners have it figured out with the “entourage effect”, then why can’t we start looking at this “bigger picture” in regards to wine?

Let’s all just chillax, treat our bodies right, and enjoy that glass of wine because dammit, it’s delicious, it’s not a miracle worker!

Cheers!

Sources/Further Reading:

Ben-Shabat, S., Fride, E., Sheskin, T., Tamiri, T., Rhee, M.H., Vogel, Z., Bisogno, T., De Petrocellis, L., Di Marzo, V., and Mechoulam, R. 1998. An entourage effect: inactive endogenous fatty acid glycerol esters enhance 2-arachidonoyl-glycerol cannabinoid activity. European Journal of Pharmacology 353: 23-31.

Hoaken, P.N.S., and Stewart, S.H. 2003. Drugs of abuse and the elicitation of human aggressive behavior. Addictive Behaviors 28(9): 1533-1554.

Russo, E.B. 2011. Taming THC: potential cannabis synergy and phytocannabinoid-terpenoid entourage effects. British Journal of Pharmacology 163(7): 1344-1364.

Semba, R.D., Ferrucci, L., Bartali, B., Urpí-Sarda, M., Zamora-Ros, R., Sun, K., Cherubini, A., Bandinelli, S., and Andres-Lacueva, C. 2014. Resveratrol levels and all-cause mortality in older community-dwelling adults. JAMA Internal Medicine. Doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2014.1582.

Medscape Drug Interaction Checker.  Accessed 06/04/2014. http://reference.medscape.com/drug-interactionchecker

1 comment for “The Problems With Resveratrol Research: Lessons from Mary Jane

  1. August 5, 2014 at 6:09 pm

    Becca, I agree that it’s a stretch to say that this one study invalidates the others. But the JAMA article study used resveratrol metabolites as a proxy for wine consumption. Participants with higher levels of resveratrol metabolites presumably drank more wine — and so would be expected to show general health characteristics associated with greater wine consumption, I assume. It wasn’t just looking at resveratrol for the sake of examining that compound.

What do you think about this topic?