Red wine is sometimes called a “superfood” because of its antioxidants — substances that help protect against some types of cell damage. But there’s debate about how much red wine is beneficial and whether certain people would be better off avoiding it.
Those living with chronic conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) may wonder how alcohol consumption will affect their symptoms and if the perceived health halo around red wine applies to MS. Although no two people with MS are exactly the same, here’s what researchers studying MS and individuals living with the condition have reported.
Unfortunately, there’s limited research examining red wine’s protective effects on humans with MS. The most relevant study was published in 2017 in the journal Multiple Sclerosis and Related Disorders. Researchers analyzed data from 923 people with MS, finding that participants who drank more than three glasses of red wine a week had lower disability and disease severity scores than nondrinkers. However, those who drank up to three glasses of red wine a week seemed to accumulate brain lesions faster than abstainers.
The results of this study show the potential benefits and risks of red wine, suggesting that red wine may protect against neurological disability but could encourage MS progression in other ways. Certain aspects of red wine may be beneficial, but others may be harmful.
For example, the alcohol in red wine can temporarily impair balance and coordination. Drinking red wine may also increase the urge to urinate and raise the risk of additional health conditions like breast cancer.
Resveratrol is a flavonoid or polyphenol (plant compound) often credited for the health benefits of red wine. Although a 2013 study advised caution against resveratrol for MS, later research showed that it may improve healing of myelin, a fatty tissue that insulates nerve fibers. Other flavonoids are otherwise known for having anti-inflammatory properties and for helping to limit demyelination (damage to and destruction of myelin). Results of other studies have also demonstrated flavonoids’ benefits on the course of MS.
Alcohol’s effect on multiple sclerosis is not fully understood, but most studies suggest that low to moderate alcohol intake helps slow the progression of MS. Researchers attribute this potential benefit to alcohol’s anti-inflammatory effects on the immune system.
That’s not to say consuming red wine will make life with MS better. Common MS symptoms such as blood glucose fluctuations, numbness and tingling, and facial flushing may worsen after a glass of wine or two. Chronic, long-term drinking can produce a condition called alcoholic neuropathy, which damages the peripheral nerves and causes issues like muscle spasms, abnormal gait, and speech difficulties. Because many of these side effects overlap with the symptoms of MS, it’s crucial for people with MS to seek treatment if excessive alcohol use becomes a habit.
Many people with multiple sclerosis are apprehensive about drinking red wine, including one MyMSTeam member who said, “I haven't had red wine in years and may try a glass sometime to see if it’s different. But I am not sure I want to risk it. Life is challenging enough, and there are too many other things to do without having any extra issues.”
Several members have said alcoholic drinks like red wine seem to hit them harder than before MS — “one drink feels like five.” Others have noted that bladder issues and incontinence deter them from having a drink.
On the other hand, some people with MS continue to drink wine without adverse effects or are not dissuaded by temporary effects: “I drink moderately (more than three drinks per week), usually red wine or hard cider. Neither the cider nor the wine seems to affect me at all — well, maybe they mellow me out a bit, but that’s it. I feel very lucky to have no adverse reaction to moderate alcohol consumption!”
Another member said, “I have one glass of red wine each evening with my meal at home. And yes, it does affect my walking, but I’ve no intention of giving it up unless my doctor advises. It’s one of the joys of life that hasn’t been taken away. The effects only last for about an hour.”
Although most health experts probably wouldn’t advise someone who doesn’t drink to start drinking, it’s possible that red wine and other alcoholic beverages can remain part of your life with MS. Paying attention to how you feel and making an effort to balance red wine with plenty of water can help you figure out if the occasional glass of red wine is worth having.
For many people, red wine is about more than health effects. If you were a wine connoisseur before your diagnosis, giving it up might seem like a big loss. Perhaps you associate a glass of red wine with memories of winery trips or holiday gatherings. You may feel like red wine is a must for certain meals or occasions.
One member candidly shared their viewpoint: “I love wine because I live alone and usually drink with other people. Therefore, it brings me a sense of joy and emotional comfort. I have a lot of anger at MS, and wine calms me down a bit, and I don’t hurt as much.”
They explained how they balance their drinking: “I’ve found that moderation is key, especially since I’m either tired at the end of day or dehydrated. I put iced tea or Crystal Light in a fancy wine bottle, and it helps … I still enjoy wine but try to sip slower, enjoy more when I drink, and aim for a level that works best, like one or two drinks with friends and food.”
Multiple sclerosis places many challenges on daily life, so discovering creative ways to include things you love is an essential part of living well with the disease.
However, if you find red wine is negatively affecting your symptoms or causing your health to decline, you may need to find a healthier substitute or get support to develop new coping skills. Struggling with alcohol isn’t an uncommon problem, and your health care provider can point you in the right direction to get help. You can also call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 800-662-4357 for confidential and free assistance.
MyMSTeam is the social network for people with multiple sclerosis and their loved ones. On MyMSTeam, members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with multiple sclerosis.
Do you drink red wine? Do you feel it affects your MS symptoms, and if so, how? What lifestyle changes have you made to help manage your condition? Share your thoughts in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.