May 11, 2009

Poly-phenols and Not-So-Poly Faith

I recently learned that polyphenols are organic compounds found in wine, specifically red wine and have been shown to have therapeutic properties in human beings.

Father Anthony Perkins recently told me of a concern among some of the faithful about the potential transmission of diseases (especially the recent threat of swine (H1N1) flu) through sharing the Chalice and spoon when Holy Communion is administered. Such a concern has risen before and the answer simply is this: the Body and Blood of Christ Itself, or any of the objects that contact It are NOT vehicles of corruption and sickness.

However, as weak human beings who are very Thomas-like, we must see and touch in order to believe. And, as a scientist, I understand this viewpoint—we need DATA! This has been my dilemma throughout all of graduate school and during my post-doctoral research experience: the meaning of life is DATA! That was my ticket to graduation!

Therefore, in an effort to make good use of the skills I’ve been given, I can present some scientific evidence for the anti-microbial properties of the physical elements of the Holy Gifts, particularly, the wine. Please note here that I say “Holy Gifts”, referring to the wine and bread, BEFORE they are consecrated to become the precious Blood and Body of our Lord.

It is not the alcohol, but the polyphenols, organic compounds in wine, that exhibit several different properties to protect human health—they are good for the heart (GM Halpern Immunopharmacology 2008), they are anti-carcinogenic (M Jang et al, Science 1997), and also, they exhibit anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties (P Cos et al, Current Med Chem 2004).

There is one polyphenol (among several others) that is found specifically in red wine and it is supported to stop viral replication, especially of the influenza virus. This polyphenol is called Resveratrol, let’s nickname it RV because it's too hard to pronounce. :) A group from Italy determined the precise mechanism in cells by which RV inhibits influenza infection. Another group found a strong correlation between consumption of red wine and decreased incidence of the common cold (caused by rhinoviruses). In summary, based on some of the studies presented here as well as countless others I’ve found by doing a PubMed search (online database of medical and scientific journals you can access at any hospital/med school library), it is highly likely that any object that comes into contact with red wine, be it a person’s mouth or a spoon or a chalice, the polyphenols in it will kill any harmful microbes that are present.

Now that you’ve gotten a taste (pun definitely intended) of what it’s like to do research and perhaps have gotten thoroughly bored with reading the links above, let me give you another source that has undergone some major “peer-review” in around the year 325. The title of this source is The Bible. The author is the Holy Spirit. :)

According to Saint Paul in his First letter to the Corinthians 11:30, many of the people who received Communion in an unworthy manner would become weak, sick, or even would die. As we heard in this past Sunday’s Gospel, when Jesus healed the paralytic, He said "See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse befall you." (John 5:14). We see a strong agreement between Jesus and St. Paul on how sin and illness are correlated. It is not the Body and Blood of Christ which is a vehicle for illness, but our own human tendencies to fall into sin. The H1N1 virus and many other incurable viral diseases (HIV, the flu, herpes, cold sores, etc) are in existence because of the fall of humanity and our insistence to remain fallen in sin.

It is utter nonsense to worry about transmission of germs through common use of sacred vessels that have held and touched “the divine, holy, pure, immortal, heavenly, life giving, and awesome Mysteries of Christ, let us worthily give thanks to the Lord. (from prayers in the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom). Further, Saint John in his Gospel quotes Jesus saying “whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal LIFE…” (John 5:54).

Why would something that is LIFE-giving be the carrier of something that causes disease and death? Sadly, this concern is a result of our lack of faith. It is even more sad to look to human science to rely on an answer to ease our fears. I enjoy studying and teaching science, simply because it continuously glorifies God in the examination of His beautiful and wonderful creation. But, it is not the only way of knowing the truth, faith is needed. Saint John Chrysostom expresses this well (as he always does):

"Where faith exists, there is no need of question. Where there is no room for curiosity, questions are superfluous. Questioning is the subversion of faith. For he that seeks, has not yet found. He who questions cannot believe. Therefore, it is [St. Paul's] advice that we should not be occupied with questions; since, if we question, it is not faith. For faith sets reasoning at rest. ..."

Of course, it is always good to search the Scriptures, to honor science, and to ask questions to help us on our journey. But let us work on strengthening our faith and ask our Lord to give us the courage to not fear sickness and death, because He has trampled upon it.

Christ is Risen!

[Editor's Note: Please also see these links to writings by two very beloved, knowledgeable, and holy fathers of our time in Greece and America, respectively:]


  1. Christ is Risen!

    You rock! It is frustrating to have to resort to this kind of thing when defending the Mysteries (in fact it even be quite blasphemous and irreverent), but you did it marvelously.

    Should there be a pandemic, then there will be other issues that we'll have to address (such as when it might be appropriate to stay home and receive the Mysteries there), but this will help people realize that they have nothing to fear (except real Fear/Awe) from the Mystery of Communion.

    God bless you!

    Fr Anthony

  2. Demetra,

    Christ is risen!

    My wife found your blog. I have an BA in chemistry 1990 from The University (and an MS from IUPUI). I also found my wife there. Lately I've been in seminary at St. Tikhon's and find questions of science intersecting faith interesting.

    One point on anti microbial properties: Many communion vessels and spoons are silver. I have no HARD data on this, but Silver is widely believed to have anti-microbial properties.

    This may or may not be a good reason to upgrade a chalice/spoon etc set to Sterling.

    Just thought I'd throw that out for consideration.

    Mark Lichtenstein

  3. Great article.

    I was told that gold held antibacterial properties.

  4. I would like to know your thoughts on Communion and Celiac disease. I recently had a very scientifically minded Episcopalian friend visit our parish who says that when he takes full communion there, he is sick with gastrointestinal ailments for a week or so. He was wondering, if he converted, what he would do with our Eucharist, which has both elements put together.

    My immediate thought was "It's not bread; it's Christ!" but I didn't really know how to respond.

  5. Thank you, Mr./Ms. Anonymous! (could you tell us who you are please? :) ) That's a really great point about gold's antibacterial properties. I have heard that also, as well as for silver. And I found a link for you:

    There's lots of physics involved it seems, but they believe the mechanism has to do with the metal ions binding microbial DNA and/or messing with their enzymes.

    But I'm not sure if all our Holy Chalices are made of gold or silver or some other mixture of metals.

    Either way, we come back to our conclusion: Holy Communion is Life-giving.


  6. As for celiac disease, I would definitely respond by saying the same thing, it's not bread, it's Christ. Wine has no adverse effects on people with celiac disease, but anything with gluten does, so the bread would be the concern. I would guess that if his lifestyle includes a gluten-free diet, then the crumbs present in the Communion he would receive probably would not pose a huge threat. But again, the crumbs are Christ, not bread, so he should not worry. He should avoid eating antidoron afterwards, though, because that really is bread, not Christ's Body.

  7. Hejhej, from experience of having knowingly lived with Celiac for 7 years, I have had hideous GI troubles when receiving the bread in a communion service pre-becoming-Orthodox. And Demetra, again from experience, even a crumb can set off a reaction in some people, as the body percieves this as a major threat and doesn't have the resources to counter it! I have this problem and it makes me very difficult to live with.

    At present, in my Orthodox parish, I recieve in both kinds and suffer very few troubles. I've found that there ARE some Sundays where I have slight GI trouble. And on those days there are very few other options than that the Holy Gifts themselves ARE causing me trouble. It is incredibly hard to say this, knowing that some people WILL accuse me of blasphemy.

    HOWEVER, I would say, to any Celiacs out there really really talk this through with your Priest before recieving. In one parish I was given a dispensation to receive the Blood only, albeit from the Holy Chalice. We as laypeople shouldn't presume to tell those with genuine and very serious autoimmune diseases like Celiac that they should/shouldn't receive.

  8. oh dear, I realise that ended a little harshly! I am sorry. The place I wanted to end was, Thank God for Spiritual fathers!

  9. I was definitely mistaken about the crumbs...for such a serious autoimmune disease, even a very small amount of the gluten protein would instigate a severe immune response in the GI tract.

    yes, indeed, we must have a spiritual father to help us in these situations. Celiac disease is something very serious and unique to the person who suffers from it. Only a spiritual father is qualified to determine the best solution for this person, and we as lay persons are in no position to make sweeping generalizations.

    However, worrying about germ transmission is something universal, and should not be a worry when it comes to common reception of Holy Communion for the reasons stated in the original post.

    may God bless you all, thanks so much for being engaged on this topic on my blog!

  10. Re: the bit about the Body and Blood not being "vehicles of corruption and sickness".

    What about consecrated communion bread that goes moldy? I assume such things exist, and I assume the Church is aware of them, because a priest once told me that there are canons requiring the priest to consume such bread instead of passing it on to the parishioners.

  11. Just found your blog... you instantly made my subsribe list. My sister is doing an M.D./Ph.D at WVU and my wife, mother, and I (all converts to Orthodoxy) are praying for her conversion, too. Maybe I'll point her to your blog.

  12. About the moldy bread...

    Again, here we must clarify. If you speak of the bread that is consecrated to become the Body of Christ in the Chalice: it has no time to go bad because the priest consumes the entire Communion that remains after the faithful have received.

    If you are speaking of the bread that is blessed, called antidoron: if it is left out for a long period of time in a moist environment, then yes, it will go bad and grow moldy. That's because it is not the Body of Christ, it is simply blessed bread. In monasteries, this bread is actually dried (either by dry air or in the oven, i'm not sure how, but it is usually crunchy) and eaten daily in the morning for blessing.

    The difference here is whether the bread has become Christ or if it is still bread in the form of antidoron--both have different properties and are treated differently.

  13. Re: Spoiled Sacrament

    As far as I understand, if consecrated gifts have spoiled they are to be burned on a piece of charcoal and the ashes are to be buried appropriately. Technically, this could happen if the consecrated gifts are used as a reserve sacrament, kept in the tabernale, and forgotten-the reserve sacrament is taken to the sick and shut-ins.

  14. Nice post. It's a mystery. Personally, I'm not expecting a chemical transformation to occur that would eliminate the possibility of allergic reactions to the bread. If you have an allergic reaction, maybe that's just your cross to bear. You could take communion less often. The priest can try to just give you the blood, but there will be tiny particles of the body mixed in anyway, so you'll be receiving both at once. Anyway, I'm no expert on the subject.

  15. This is a very interesting topic.
    From my experience as a college student, I have noticed that the Church does have some precautionary
    steps to prevent illness from spreading. A) the use of gold, silver, and even copper in spoons and chalice.B) the water for the holy communion is boiled before given to the priest. Maybe this is only done in my church but as an alter boy I asked the reason for boiling it, and the priests reply was that the blood of Christ must not be cold. C) the method of administering the holy gifts is different in some churches. The priest may spill the spoons contents in the parishioners mouth rather than let them close their mouths on the spoon. There is a specific term called an infectious dose.This is the minimum number of cells to cause a disease. This strategy may effectively reduce the number of cells that may attempt to contaminate the communion.
    In addition, phenol is an alcohol.
    Any organic compound ending in suffix -ol is an alcohol. The alcohol that we consume in our beverages is called ethanol.