This is part of our ongoing The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging spotlight. Each day, we will be posting some of the great information that’s packed into our book, The Best Kept Secrets to Healthy Aging.
Polyphenols and Polyphenols in Healthy Aging
Plants have been used as a health supporting tool since ancient times. The use of therapeutic botanicals transcends cultures. Traditional herbalists throughout the world spent time observing the phenomena presented by nature through the interactions plants had with predators and the varied conditions of their environments and discovered that plants were surprisingly adept at adapting to difficult situations. More often than not, plants found ways to survive and even thrive in harsh conditions. Putting two and two together, these observers found that what benefits plants, fruits and vegetables in their struggle to survive would also be beneficial for humans. These observations by great healers through the centuries have led to the explosion we’ve seen today in the use of herbal therapies to promote optimal health. Plants are full of health-promoting compounds including vitamins and minerals. But they contain compounds that are even more exciting in their potential to promote wellness – the class of compounds collectively known as polyphenols. That’s right! Polyphenols have been used to promote health since time immemorial. These compounds have been the backbone of the wisdom of traditional systems of medicine and it’s only now that modern science is beginning to untap the beneficial effects that nature has endowed these substances with.
You may have heard of some of the more highly publicized polyphenols, such as quercetin, hesperidin, resveratrol, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (“EGCG”), caffeine, genistein and the soy isoflavones, as well as the anthocyanins in berries. Others that you will be hearing much more about in the near future include fisetin, hydroxycinnamic acid and galangin from flower pollen. These are just a handful of the thousands of polyphenols that have been isolated. While polyphenols serve important roles in plants as a means of defense from predators, research is finding that these compounds have significant pharmacological activities.
Vitamins, minerals and other phytonutrients are amazingly talented craftsmen, sculptors, artists, engineers, communications experts and skilled technicians. Polyphenols, on the other hand, orchestrate, conduct, administer and direct the immense processes of life. They are increasingly recognized as the major active components in fruits and vegetables. As the individual polyphenols have been studied in detail, and compared to each other, it has become clear that each acts slightly differently in benefiting human health.1 The beneficial outcome of this integrated cooperation is a vastly greater robustness and versatility in our abilities to respond to health-challenging situations and environmental insults. Healthier responses lead to healthier aging.
Polyphenols in Healthy Aging
The scientific literature provides a feast of detailed evidence that very strongly documents the vital importance of polyphenols to vibrant health in all of its forms – tremendous and ever-increasing research highlights the effects of polyphenols in the areas of heart health, immune system health and strength, skeletal health and function, nervous system health and longevity, and blood glucose regulation. In all of these activities the polyphenols act as creative and sensitive managers, directing and redirecting cellular activities toward greater health. They are masters of cell signaling processes.
Most polyphenols interact directly with cell receptors or enzymes. These interactions trigger intracellular reaction pathways that work to multiply the potency of each polyphenol molecule. For example, as shown in research published recently in BMC Neuroscience, the polyphenolic soy isoflavones interact with estrogen receptors in brain cells to stimulate changes in DNA activation patterns.2 These interactions ultimately lead to potential cognitive benefits. Further evidence of the interaction of polyphenols with cell-signaling pathways comes from literature outlining the ability of these compounds to modulate the normal inflammatory process in the body. Research suggests that polyphenols interact with genes, proteins and enzymes in the body, in a fashion similar to a conductor of an orchestra, to support and maintain a healthy inflammatory response, preventing imbalances in this crucial component of the immune system. Unique to polyphenols is their ability to influence several cell-based pathways and molecules, making them important modulators of immune and inflammatory processes.3
Dietary polyphenols can exert their effects on intracellular reaction pathways separately, sequentially or in combination, and the effects of one polyphenol can complement and reinforce those of another. In fact, many investigators have reported that mixtures of polyphenols have profound effects on cardiovascular health, heart health, healthy blood pressure regulation, liver health and overall immune system strength.4,5 However, it is clear that the activities of these compounds are synergistic. More important than individual polyphenolic compounds is the combined effect of several. Clearly, the cooperative nature of the polyphenols overrides the properties of any individual superstar.
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1. Jeong YJ, Choi YJ, Kwon HM, Kang SW, Park HS, Lee M, Kang YH. Differential inhibition of oxidized LDL-induced apoptosis in human endothelial cells treated with different flavonoids. Br J Nutr 2005;93:581-591.
2. Bu L, Lephart ED. AVPV neurons containing estrogen receptor-beta in adult male rats are influenced by soy isoflavones. BMC Neurosci 2007 Feb 1;8:13 (doi:10.1186/1471-2202-8-13).
3. Santangelo C, Varì R, Scazzocchio B, Di Benedetto R, Filesi C, Masella R. Polyphenols, intracellular signalling and inflammation. Ann Ist Super Sanita. 2007;43(4):394-405. Review.
4. Arts IC, Hollman PC. Polyphenols and disease risk in epidemiologic studies. Am J Clin Nutr 2005;81(Suppl.):317S-325S.
5. Peluso MR. Flavonoids attenuate cardiovascular disease, inhibit phosphodiesterase, and modulate lipid homeostasis in adipose tissue and liver. Exp Biol Med 2006;231:1287-1299.