These plant compounds are critical to health and longevity. Polyphenols are so important that researchers have referred to these powerful nutrients as “lifespan essentials.” And yet, many people don’t get the minimum level of 1,000 mg of polyphenols they need in their daily diets. We know that getting a full range of nutrients every day is key to living a long, healthy life. While many people are familiar with vitamins and minerals, they may not think much about polyphenols. So, how would you know if you’re consuming polyphenols in the food you’re eating? Does your diet consist of a plentiful variety of colored fresh fruits and vegetables like berries, pomegranates, kale, spinach, red cabbage, olives, apples, onions, grapes, peaches, broccoli, asparagus, and carrots? Do you consume dark chocolate, red wine, coffee, or tea? How about nuts and seeds, and spices like cumin, turmeric, and clove? Do you use herbs in your cooking like oregano, thyme, sage, and ginger? These are just a sampling of foods that contain life-enhancing polyphenols! If you are eating the Standard American Diet (SAD) that is 80% industrialized, processed foods rich in disease-causing “franken” fats, refined grain-based carbohydrates, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and chemical colors, flavors, and preservatives, then you are not getting the necessary amount of polyphenols to protect you from chronic disease, metabolic dysfunction, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive decline.
Let’s look at what polyphenols are and why they’re so important for human health. Have you ever wondered why blueberries are blue and strawberries are red? When you bite into an apple have you asked why it tastes the way it does? Not only do polyphenols give plants their color and taste, but they also protect the chloroplast, a structure within the plant cell that produces energy from sunlight (photosynthesis). Polyphenols have a similar action in human cellular mitochondria. Like the plant chloroplast, the mitochondria are the primary site of energy production in the human body, but instead of using sunlight to generate energy, the mitochondria use oxygen. Polyphenols not only protect chloroplasts and mitochondria from oxidative damage, but they help those” little energy factories” replicate and repair. In nutrition science, we say that you’re only as healthy as your mitochondria. All chronic diseases are directly correlated with mitochondrial dysfunction, so making dietary changes now to include these “life-protecting” plant compounds is a critical step in healthy aging and avoiding chronic disease.
Polyphenols have been clinically and scientifically validated, and the body of research is extensive. Let’s look at some study highlights:
- Plant polyphenols protect against cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative disease.
- These compounds also reduce the number and growth of tumors in the mouth, stomach, colon, liver, intestines, lungs, mammary glands, and skin.
- They are potent antioxidants and anti-inflammatories, preventing oxidative damage and inhibiting COX-2 activity.
- Polyphenols preserve brain activity and may defend against Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
- Polyphenols regenerate and enhance the actions of vitamins in the body, including alpha-tocopherol, one of the most active components of Vitamin
- These compounds are effective metal chelators, helping flush dangerous levels of metals from the body.
- Large-scale clinical research has found that polyphenols reduce the risk of mortality from cardiovascular diseases and diabetes, plus there is a strong association and clinical evidence between low cancer risk and polyphenol intake.
- Polyphenol intake preserved cognitive factors, including language and verbal memory. That may be because polyphenols consistently increase cerebral blood flow and modulate brain activity-even after single doses.
- Polyphenols can enhance exercise performance by reducing muscle fatigue, improving recovery, and reducing stressors that negatively affect training.
Most plant-based foods contain more than one type of polyphenol. In fact, scientists have now identified literally thousands of different compounds that fall into this category, which have been further subdivided into four main groups: flavonoids, phenolic acids, lignans, and stilbenes. First, make the necessary dietary changes to include foods that are rich in polyphenols and consume them regularly. If this is difficult or impossible for you, there are concentrated sources of polyphenols in supplement form that can offer a myriad of health benefits. Please reach out to me with any questions you may have.
Michael Chase, MS, NTP
Nutrition Science and Dietetics
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Anna Tresserra-Rimbau, Rosa M. Lamuela-Raventos, Juan J. Moreno, Polyphenols, food and pharma. Current knowledge and directions for future research, Biochemical Pharmacology, Volume 156, 2018, Pages 186-195
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