If you’ve been paying attention to wine-related topics in the news the past week or so, you may recall reading several articles about New York Knicks basketball player Amar’e Stoudemire and how he likes to soak in red wine baths on his days off from the court. Stoudemire told the NY Post that “the red wine bath is very important to me because it…creates more circulation in my red blood cells”.
Does this so-called “vinotherapy” technique of bathing in red wine really do anything?
There is more to vinotherapy than just red wine baths. In fact, in the 1990s, a French husband and wife team founded the company, Caudalie Paris, aiming to further research and development of the health benefits of grapes and wine, and to isolate these compounds and patent them into various therapeutic products. According to their website, they now have several patents related to various therapies created from resveratrol, other polyphenols, viniferine, organic grape water, grape seed oil, and vinolevure. They claim to have scientific research to back up their claims that these products work, however, these papers don’t appear to be readily available to the consumer and at the time of this publication, my requests to the company for these paper have gone unanswered.
OK, so there is no peer-reviewed scientific evidence that shows any benefits of vinotherapy, but that’s not to say that there couldn’t be. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that vinotherapy is a legitimate treatment for various health-related issues and not just a gimmick created by spas that just want to take people’s money. What could actually be going on here?
Polyphenols are well known antioxidants, which are found in large concentrations in the skins and seeds of grapes and in wines that utilize skin contact techniques during the winemaking process (i.e. red wine). These antioxidant-rich polyphenols in grapes and wine have been shown to be linked to a wide variety of health benefits, including potentially alleviating the symptoms of essential tremor, dementia/Alzheimer’s, and decreased risk of cardiovascular disease.
Resveratrol, a specific kind of plant-derived polyphenol that has been linked to a wide variety of health benefits, is found in many species, including peanuts, blueberries, bilberries, and grapes (and also wine). It has been shown to combat against a variety of ailments, including diabetes, colon and breast cancers, cardiovascular disease, and neurological disorders. Found in the skins of grapes, it, like other polyphenols, functions in the plant to act as an antioxidant and antibiotic, particularly when in a stressful environment (i.e. when under attack by Botrytis cinerea).
Grape skins and seeds, and well as red wines are also known to harbor many different antioxidant-rich vitamins. Vitamins are essential in the human diet, with different vitamins providing different benefits, depending upon their chemical composition.
Vitamin C & E: Vitamin E is responsible for protecting cell membranes, and might also play a role in the development of LDL cholesterol in your arteries. Vitamin C is needed for the production of collagen, ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and bone protein, and is also a strong protectant against damaging free radicals. In the spa, Vitamins C and E are known to help protect skin against sun damage and skin cancer.
Vitamin A: This vitamin is responsible for the regulation of cell growth and division, and is also important in the creating of white blood cells for treating infections. In the spa, it is known treat fine lines, wrinkles, age spots, and rough skin.
Vitamin B (lots of them): B vitamins help in carbohydrate and fat metabolism, and also help protect against illness and premature aging. In the spa, vitamin B injections are common for boosting energy.
Vitamin K: Vitamin K is required by the body to assist in the synthesis of specific proteins needed for blood clotting, as well as for calcium binding in the bones and other tissues. In the spa, vitamin K is often used in cream form to diminishing bruising from cosmetic surgery, lessening the appearance of spider veins, and treating rosacea and dark under-eye circles.
Polyphenols, Vitamins & Other Antioxidants in Vinotherapy
Since grape skins and seeds as well as red wines contain significant amounts of polyphenols, vitamins, and other compounds found to demonstrate antioxidant properties, one could speculate that isolating these compounds and developing some sort of topical or oral treatment from these compounds could lend itself to focused and effective therapies, though, this is has not yet been scientifically confirmed.
When all else fails—fake it like you mean it.
The other possible thing that could be going on with vinotherapy has nothing to do with any of the potential health benefits of the compounds I described above. It has everything to do with what is known as the placebo effect.
Briefly, the placebo effect is the “fake” treatment that produces “real” medical responses.
The placebo effect is a mind-body interaction and is not entirely understood. One common theory is that it’s effectiveness is related to the subject’s expectations. So, if Amar’e Stoudemire really believed the red wine in the bath was improving his circulation, then to him it would seem that it did. Is there scientific evidence to prove that red wine baths actually do improve circulation compared to non-red wine baths? No, there is not.
So what about bathing in red wine?
We already know from previous research that polyphenols, resveratrol, vitamins, and other compounds with anti-oxidant characteristics do provide some benefit to human health, and can do so in topical form. However, these products are almost always super concentrated isolates of the specific target compounds. In red wine, these compounds are found in much smaller amounts, leading to the question: is the red wine bath concentrated enough to provide these benefits to the person sitting in it?
Focusing just on resveratrol for now, the amount that is often cited as being beneficial for human health is around 150mg per day. Based on the average red wine, this works out to be about 30 bottles of wine. Definitely too much to drink, but certainly conceivable for a red wine bath. The question now becomes: is resveratrol absorbed through the skin the same way that it is absorbed through the digestive system (assuming we’re comparing it to the act of swallowing a pill)? Would drinking 30 bottles of wine be comparable to sitting in 30 bottles of wine in terms of absorption of a therapeutic amount of resveratrol? This is not known.
Could the alcohol in the wine be contributing to Stoudemire’s supposed improved circulation?
While certain types of alcohol are known to improve the absorption of some compounds through the skin, ethanol (the type of alcohol found in wine) is a much smaller compound with not-as-impressive skin permeability skills. As an example, a small study in 2010 where subjects soaked their feet in 37.5% alcohol by volume vodka showed no detectable alcohol in their blood streams even after sitting there for 3 hours. While this was mostly a proof-of-concept study, I think it is unlikely Stoudemire’s circulation would be improved simply by soaking in diluted red wine (which has much less than 37.5% alcohol by volume than the vodka!).
So, can bathing in red wine really “create more circulation in [your] red blood cells” as Amar’e Stoudemire claims?
Well, first of all, not to be too nit-picky here, but we’re talking about the circulation OF red blood cells. NOT circulation IN red blood cells. Assuming that wasn’t just a typo, it appears as though Stoudemire himself doesn’t completely understand why he’s sitting in a red wine bath to begin with.
Assuming he meant to say improving the circulation OF his red blood cells, could sitting in a red wine bath really do that? Digging a little further into Stoudemire’s regime, you’ll notice that he’s not just sitting in a tub of red wine. It’s also heated up like a hot tub, and it’s also followed by a 90 minute massage.
What’s really improving his circulation here? First red flag: The wine was diluted with water. Stoudemire claimed that it was “mostly” red wine, but the fact remains that there was water mixed in there too, diluting the wine.
Second red flag: The fact that the red wine is as hot as the water in a hot tub. Hot tubs have been known for a long time to improve circulation. Basically, the temperature of the water (or in Stoudemire’s case, wine) increases the temperature of the body, which in turn dilates the blood vessels for greater blood flow and overall improved circulation.
Third red flag: The follow-up 90 minute massage. Even the ancient Greeks were aware that massages help improve blood flow and circulation. After a hard workout, your muscles and blood vessels can be pretty constricted and tense. A nice, long massage can really help loosen up and open up those blood vessels, thus improving blood circulation.
In my own personal opinion, I do not believe Amar’e Stoudemire’s regime of a “red wine bath” followed by a 90 minute massage was any more beneficial than a “regular” hot tub treatment followed by a 90 minute massage. There are no scientific studies showing the addition of red wine to the bath significantly improves circulation over the already improved circulation you get from the hot water and the soothing massage.
Considering all the possible factors, the wine probably doesn’t have enough contact (or at high enough concentrations) with the body in order to be solely responsible for the alleged outcome of improved circulation. However, if you really want to spend money on putting red wine in your bath, at least it’ll smell good. Just make sure it’s not Mad Dog. Or some rare gem from Château Lafite Rothschild.
Becca Yeamans has a Bachelor's of Science in Biology from Saint Michael's College in Colchester, VT, and a Masters of Science in Environmental Sciences from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, VA. She has extensive research experience as well as experience working in the wine industry. She is a freelance writer with a focus on wine science and research, and is the author/creator of the technical wine blog, The Academic Wino (www.academicwino.com). You may also follower her on twitter @TheAcademicWino.