on taming 'drunken vikings' with red wine
Feb. 27, 2010 2:30 pm
Updated: Feb. 28, 2010 9:42 am
< If you drink red wine, you’ve probably heard of resveratrol. Lately it’s been in the news so often that apparently I’ve learned how to spell it without consulting a dictionary. (Resveratrol is also a great word to try to pronounce after a few glasses of red.)
Resveratrol, one of the compounds in red wine, is the thing that taught me what an antioxidant is. And the first thing I learned is that it’s a good thing. Good despite the fact that the name “antioxidant” attaches the prefix “anti” to a root form of “oxygen” to create a word that would seem to suggest an alarming opposition to oxygen!!!
Now generally I’m against opposition to oxygen. But it turns out, antioxidants are actually against harmful oxidization not life-sustaining oxygen (my mistake). One of the good things antioxidants do is to grab hold of cell-terrorizing free radicals and knock them out of our systems. (In a civilized society you simply cannot have your radicals running around scot free.)
And the most recent thing I learned about resveratrol? It seems to protect the lungs somewhat against the ravages of cigarette smoke. Now I’m not a smoker, but, even so, I was fascinated to learn how resveratrol does this. So I figured I’d share.
Hardly surprising, but our lungs do not appreciate being filled up like a balloon with toxic cigarette smoke. Only naturally, the lungs figure where there’s smoke there’s fire. And so they signal to the immune system to send out the troops. What the immune system unleashes is a swarming army of marauding white blood cells. They are not subtle, these white blood cells. It’s all attack, attack, attack with them. Unfortunately, white blood cells never learned anything about friendly fire in boot camp (tiniest boots ever). They shoot first and ask questions…well, basically never. Caught up in their single-minded pursuit of wholesale destruction, they blow up both the unhealthy and the healthy cells alike. The difference makes them absolutely no never mind. All they want to to know is, “Whadda you lookin’ at?”
The body, though, is aware of the white blood cells’ tendency to go…a little overboard. So before the white blood cells show up and start brawling like drunken vikings, the lungs begin cleaning up the damage themselves. They unleash fussy, clean-freak enzymes called caspases to tidy up the mess that smoking has wrought before the white blood cells burst through the door to tear the place completely apart. Amazing!
By limiting the initial carnage caused by smoking, the healthy caspases ensure a less intense immune-system response: when the white blood cells show up, they’re feeling a little less puffed up, a little less drunk with blind rage, a bit less aggressive, not so inclined to burn the whole place down in order to save it.
Now for the bummer part if you’re a smoker: the toxic cigarette smoke also does grave harm to these do-gooding caspases! Which, at last, brings us to the good news if you drink red wine. (Sorry for the long walk here.) Resveratrol, it turns out, somehow protects the caspases from being destroyed by the smoke, so they can go about their business sweeping out the smoke-damaged cells!
It’s all relative, of course. The smoke is still doing damage; it’s just not as bad as it would be if the resveratrol weren’t there protecting the caspases. And limiting the cell damage to the lungs is key because damaged and inflamed tissue apparently leads to tumor growth.
In the idle speculation portion of this post, I have to wonder if perhaps whatever positive effect resveratrol is having for smokers’ lungs, it might also be having for non-smoking people who are ambling through the smog of rush-hour traffic or walking past the foggy scrums of smokers huddling outside on the sidewalk, etc. No word from the science community on this one yet. But you can be sure, I’m standing by, a glass of red wine in hand, ready to report when more good news arrives. Until then, cheers!