These days, it's true, the French are not so well liked by some. But, pardonnez-moi, let's give credit where it's due. It is the French, after all, who helped inspire Grace and Albert Sun to pursue a line of research that could lead to big improvements in the way doctors treat patients with strokes. The key to that improvement turns out to be that old French favorite, red wine.
The Suns are a husband-wife team of MU biochemists who have been studying how substances in red wine may have important health benefits. In the process they've shown that red wine has the potential to protect against damage both to the brain and liver caused by chronic drinking.
More recently, the Suns have become the first researchers to demonstrate that one of the antioxidants in red wine, a substance called resveratrol, may play a role in limiting the destruction of brain cells that follows a stroke. It's a discovery that has the potential to enhance the recovery and subsequent quality of life for the thousands of Americans who survive, or are threatened with, strokes.
The Suns were not always so keen about things alcoholic. They began their career in alcohol research back in the 1970s looking at drink's harmful effects. Now, moderate wine consumption is something they no longer caution against. "The lifestyle of French people, you can use that as an example," Grace Sun says. "They drink two glasses of wine at dinner."
What drew the Suns to red wine was the famous French Paradox: How is it that the French can devour all that cheese and foie gras and butter and pastry with unrestrained joie de vivre yet have lower rates of cardiovascular disease than people in many other Western countries, including the United States? The question has perplexed the world's scientists for more than a decade. Some have proposed that it might be the olive oil in the French diet that makes the difference, or perhaps even the onions and garlic.
Researchers have now focused their attention on the wine the French are so fond of drinking. Some have suggested that it is the alcohol in wine that provides the benefits. And indeed, studies have found that moderate consumption of any alcoholic beverage is associated with lower blood pressure.
Wine, particularly red wine, also contains an abundance of compounds called polyphenols that can't be found in a can of Bud or a dry martini. Polyphenols, such as resveratrol, quercetin, catechin and proanthocyanidins, are potent antioxidants that occur naturally in a variety of fruit, vegetables and teas. Grape skins and seeds contain substantial quantities.
Antioxidants scavenge chemicals called oxygen free radicals that can injure tissues. Scientists believe antioxidants might slow aging and help prevent a number of diseases. Other researchers looking into the French Paradox already had demonstrated that the polyphenols in red wine could benefit heart health in a number of ways, such as inhibiting the aggregation of blood platelets into clots.