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A component of red wine that may help to extend one’s life span and slow the development of age-related diseases, including diabetes and heart disease. Some researchers believe that the resveratrol in red wine may help to explain the so-called “French paradox” — that people in France consume a high-fat diet yet have a lower rate of heart disease than Americans.

Studies in mice have shown potential health benefits from resveratrol. In a study published in the journal Nature, one group of mice was fed a diet in which 60% of calories came from fat. Another group of mice was fed the same high-fat diet but in combination with high doses of resveratrol. The resveratrol-fed mice gained just as much weight as the first group of mice. However, their insulin sensitivity increased, and they lived significantly longer than the other group — about as long as mice fed a normal diet. The mice getting resveratrol also had better motor function, as demonstrated by the duration of their ability to walk on a rotating rod before falling off.

Another study, published in the journal Cell, showed that resveratrol increased endurance as well: Researchers showed that mice given resveratrol could run twice as far on a treadmill. Their muscles consumed more oxygen and their heart rates were lower, changes characteristic of the training effect seen in athletes. Researchers believe that resveratrol achieved these effects by increasing the number of mitochondria — energy generators in cells — in the muscle cells of the mice.

Naturally, researchers want to know whether resveratrol or similar chemicals can achieve the same effects in humans. The doses of resveratrol the mice received are far more than people could consume through red wine. Resveratrol supplements are commercially available, but medical experts are quick to point out that the safety and effectiveness of these supplements has yet to be proved. Sirtris Pharmaceuticals of Cambridge, Massachusetts, has developed a number of agents meant to mimic the effects of resveratrol, but at smaller doses. Sirtris has begun studying one such agent, called SRT501, in people with diabetes to see whether it helps control blood glucose levels.

Originally Published November 24, 2009

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