Polyphenols — It’s one of the healthcare world’s favorite buzzwords right now. But what are polyphenols? What can foods with polyphenols do for you?
If you’re trying to take good care of yourself and your family, there’s no doubt you’ve come across “polyphenols” as you’ve scanned the internet for the best health tips and remedies. Sure enough, the most highly recommended health products contain polyphenols. So, it really should come as no surprise that medical experts and scientists everywhere claim these vital nutrients play a crucial role in keeping your body at its best.
However, there’s growing concern that some Americans might be “polyphenol deficient.”
Researchers are finding out more each day about the common signs and side effect of polyphenol deficiency. Studies are still in the early stages, and there’s much more research to be done. But by taking a moment to understand polyphenols — how they work in your body, and why you need them — you might be able to answer this question for yourself: Are you polyphenol deficient?
So, let’s take a look at the facts —
What are polyphenols? How do they work?
Polyphenols are the building blocks of natural phytochemicals (compounds found in plants) and they have incredible antioxidant properties. They are characterized by their chemical structure.1
Have you ever wondered how fruits, berries, and vegetables get their vibrant colors? Do you know what determines their taste and aroma?
The answer is polyphenols.
Polyphenols also protect plants from damage caused by ultraviolet radiation.2
Categories of Polyphenols
Polyphenols are divided into four basic categories, some of which can be broken down into additional subgroups.3
Flavonoids are found throughout nature, and are sensitive to oxidative enzymes and cooking conditions due to their polyphenolic structure.4 They have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.5
Flavonoids are one of the biggest groups of nutrients known to scientists. Below are a just a few of the most recognized flavonoids.6
- Flavonols – also known as catechins are found in high concentrations in apples, almonds, quinoa, etc.
- Flavones – include the compounds chrysin, baicalein, and galangin are present in celery, parsley, lettuce, etc.
- Flavonones – are found in oranges, lemons, grapefruit, etc.
- Flavan-3-ols – the most common flavonoids consumed in the American diet are found in bananas, blueberries, peaches, pears, etc.
- Anthocyanidins – are the pigment group responsible for giving plants their colors. Cherries, strawberries, raspberries are some of the most common fruits containing anthocyanidins.
Flavonoids can be found in fruits, vegetables, legumes, red wine, green tea and other plant-based foods.7
Stilbenes are less common in the American diet. They are natural defense compounds, with antimicrobial and antioxidant properties that provide protection against phytopathogens and ultraviolet stress. They are found in wine, peanuts, sorghum, and other tree species.8
In fact, one stilbene is getting a lot of buzz lately – resveratrol. Now, resveratrol can be found in some nuts, grapes, dark chocolate, blueberries, and even wine.
According to The Journal of Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, Resveratrol is likely to better your health and even help reduce some chronic health issues. Resveratrol is also likely to postpone certain signs of aging, though researchers are just beginning to understand its beneficial potential.9
Like all polyphenols, lignans have antioxidant properties, and they’ve got therapeutic potential when it comes to several health issues.10
These phytonutrients have been found to reduce LDL, or ‘bad,’ cholesterol. Lignans’ other possible uses in the medicinal world are fighting against cardiovascular disease, and maintaining ovarian and uterine health, prostate health, and colon health.11
Phenolic acids are observed to be universally distributed in plants. The research involving phenolic acids has reached new heights in recent years due to their favorable protective effects against a number of serious health conditions, such as cardiovascular ailments.12
Caffeic acid and ferulic acid in coffee, vanillin, and coumaric acid are a few phenolic acids. Phenolic content can also be found in other various spices like clove, cinnamon, and oregano.13
Other Notable Facts about Polyphenols
There’s a special division of flavonols called Proanthocyanidins. And, If you’re a wine drinker, you’re probably familiar with the term ‘tannins.’ Well, proanthocyanidins are what’s known as condensed tannins. You can find them in the skin and seeds of grapes. They’re also found in red wine, because the skins and seeds are left in the juice during the fermentation process.14
Proanthocyanidins are one way in which plants protect themselves from predators. They can also protect your body against oxidative damage or free radical formation.
Now, a free radical is an atom that’s lost an electron. It’s formed when oxygen mingles with certain types of molecules. The missing electron causes the free radical to be highly reactive. And, when it reacts with certain cell membranes, your cells can start to function poorly or even expire. Proanthocyanidins can help your body defend itself against this process.15
Food sources that contain PAs are grapes, apples, unsweetened baking chocolate, blueberries, cranberries, bilberries, black currants, hazelnuts, pecans, pistachios, and black chokeberries.16
Health Benefits of Polyphenols
Polyphenols are considered non-essential micronutrients—which means your body does not require them in order to sustain life. But they help keep your body healthy.17
Let’s discuss some of the greatest benefits of polyphenols.
Helps Prevent Angiogenesis
Angiogenesis is the growth of blood vessels in your body. There are cases in which the body becomes incapable of stopping extra blood vessels from forming or growing new blood vessels. These situations can cause angiogenesis to become imbalanced, and thus various diseases may arise – especially when these new blood vessels help play a role in the growth of tumors.18,19
But, polyphenols are believed to be effective in inhibiting inflammatory angiogenesis, which may reduce the risks of developing ailments due to angiogenesis.20 Polyphenol deficiency could be partially to blame for imbalanced angiogenesis. So, if you want to keep those blood vessels in shape, up your dose of polyphenols to protect your system.21
The anti-aging effects of polyphenols stem from their antioxidant properties. As you age, your cells and tissues change and suffer damage. This damage is caused by free radicals and other cellular stress.22
But, research shows polyphenols reduce the damaging effects of these processes and help slow certain aspects of aging. In fact, the journal Current Aging Science states there’s real potential for polyphenols to protect against age-related illnesses – calling out specific dietary polyphenols like resveratrol and curcumin. It even mentions their possible ability to alleviate certain kinds of cellular damage.23
Reduces Blood Sugar Levels
According to a recent study, the effects of polyphenols have been reported to display inhibition of glucose absorption, thus reducing blood sugar levels, and ultimately decreasing the risk of developing more serious disease related to high blood sugar.24
So to mind your sugar levels, have some olive oil and try a polyphenol-rich supplement. Remember to take include as much antioxidants in your diet as you can on a daily basis.
Now, let’s just do a quick recap…
“You are what you eat.” That’s the old saying, right?
But if that’s true, then it turns out you’re also what the thing you ate, ate. So, when you eat organically raised produce or pastured animal proteins, then the nutrients in those plants – and the nutrients the plants got from the soil – travel into your body. There, they’re incorporated into all of your cells. So, it’s important to know how the food you eat was grown – or raised – because it affects your health pretty directly.
And as you now know, organically grown vegetables and fruits contain more vitamins and minerals than conventionally grown produce, but more importantly… they contain more polyphenols.
Again, what is a polyphenol?
Well, without getting too deep into it, these beneficial plant chemicals are found in tea, coffee, fruits and berries, and some vegetables. Technically, polyphenols are a pretty significant class of chemical compounds found in plants. They are characterised by the existence of more than one phenol unit – or building block – per molecule.
There’s also another name for polyphenols – it’s phenolics. Remember from grammar lessons that the prefix poly means many, which refers to the larger number of clusters of the phenol (plant chemical) rings.
Believe it or not, there are over 4,000 polyphenol compounds. The reasons they’re beneficial are many… but polyphenols are most impressive in that they’re often full of powerful antioxidants and can sometimes neutralise free radicals and reduce inflammation.
But, how do polyphenols really work?
Well you see, plants create these natural chemical compounds to defend themselves against insects and even protect them from sunburn. That’s right, plants get sunburned. So polyphenols help provide you with a bunch of beneficial effects when metabolized by your gut bugs.
Can polyphenol supplements help?
Yes! The benefits of polyphenols include actively helping to dilate your blood vessels. This is one of the prime reasons I developed a polyphenol supplement that blends thirty-four different polyphenols – along with a very special probiotic. It’s called Vital Reds.
But, I’ve got a few other favorite supplements. For instance, you can get polyphenol supplements in the form of grape seed extract, pine tree bark extract, and of course you’ve heard about resveratrol – the polyphenol in red wine.
You can find a few of these supplements at Costco, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and online. Other great supplements are green tea extract, berberine, cocoa powder, cinnamon, mulberry, and pomegranate, all of which (and many more) are in Vital Reds, but can also be taken on their own.
What foods have polyphenols?
- Spices – Cloves, star anise, capers, curry powder, ginger, cumin, cinnamon
- Dried herbs – Peppermint, oregano, sage, rosemary, thyme, basil, lemon verbena, parsley, marjoram
- Beverages – Cocoa, green tea, black tea, red wine
- In-season fruit and dark berries – Black chokeberries, black elderberries, blueberries, plums, cherries, blackcurrants, blackberries, strawberries, raspberries, avocado
- Seeds – Flaxseed (ground only), celery seeds
- Nuts – Chestnuts, pecans, walnuts
- Olives – Black olives, green olives
- Vegetables – Jerusalem artichokes, red chicory, green chicory, red onions, spinach, broccoli, curly endive
- Oils – Extra-virgin olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil
- Dark chocolate (70% cacao or more)
More polyphenol-friendly tips?
- Increase friendly bacteria (your “gut buddies”) by eating lots of polyphenol compounds in pulp from all acceptable fruits. Here’s a great way to get more polyphenols. Put your juicer to the test by “reverse juicing.” Here’s what you do: Juice your fruits the same way you always have, only toss the juice out! That’s where the “candy” lives. Then, add the leftover pulp to a smoothie. Or try blending the polyphenol-rich pulp with plain goat, sheep, or coconut yogurt. You can also toss into appropriate salad dressings.
- Look for polyphenols in unlikely places. For instance, lemon juice is chock full of polyphenols and you can add it to your salads! Also, vinegars like balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy contain lots of polyphenols.
- Start cooking with more of the acceptable oils – avocado oil, extra virgin olive oil, and coconut oil are great oils with which to cook.
- Add friendly nuts to your diet — particularly pistachios, walnuts, macadamia nuts, and pecans. These are full of beneficial polyphenols that will help promote the growth of your “gut buddies.”
And, just to reiterate… what are some potential polyphenol health benefits?
Anti-aging effects of polyphenols
What is aging, really? Basically, it’s the accumulation process of different detrimental changes in your cells and tissues that occurs as you get older. Unfortunately, the result in an increase in the risks of diseases and certain health concerns. Many theorists propose the reasons for aging come down to free radical damage and oxidative stress.
Now, a certain amount of oxidative damage occurs naturally throughout your life under normal conditions; however, sometimes the rate of damage can grow as the efficiency of antioxidative processes and your body’s ability to heal itself decrease.
So, it would make sense then that the antioxidant ability of your tissues is related to dietary intake of antioxidants, right? And, turns out, an antioxidant rich diet is effective in reducing the deleterious effects of aging and behavior. This benefit can really be attributed to consuming a mix of anti-inflammatory polyphenolic compounds – most of which are found in certain fruits and veggies.
Especially because the consumption of the right in-season fruits, vegetables, and nuts may help protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays. Again, the polyphenol resveratrol – the polyphenol compound in red wine – has active polyphenolic qualities that help protect your skin. So, based on mounting research, these polyphenols really can be dubbed anti-aging compounds.25
Positive polyphenol effects on cognitive function
Now, oxidative stress can also take a toll on your brain and the way it functions. But, because polyphenols are antioxidative, consuming them could also mean protection from neurological issues. Furthermore, the polyphenols in certain fruits and vegetables seem like they might be really helpful when it comes to their ability to influence and a few specific cellular processes like –
- Signaling – that’s when your neurons send electro-chemical messages to areas of the brain to cause different responses or task the body with completing certain tasks
- Proliferation – the rapid reproduction of a cell, body part, or organism
- Apoptosis – the natural death of cells that exists as a controlled part of your growth or physiological development
- Differentiation – the process where a certain cell can change from its initial cell type to another type of cell26
Polyphenols may help your heart health
Among many other potential benefits, certain types of polyphenols – like the ones found in tea – may be beneficial when it comes to helping lower blood pressure. The effects may be due to the antioxidant activity of polyphenols, which could also be linked to an improvement in endothelial function.
Now, the endothelium is a skinny little membrane that lines the inside of your heart – and your blood vessels. Endothelial cells release certain substances that help regulate the relaxation and contraction of your blood vessels. They also help monitor blood clotting.
Furthermore, there could be an association between polyphenol consumption or the intake of polyphenol-rich foods and fewer incidences of heart health issues. For example, a polyphenol rich diet might have been linked to a lower risk of blood flow decrease.27
So, are you polyphenol deficient?
Now that you’ve read about polyphenols, how they work, and their benefits, the question remains:
Are you polyphenol deficient?
Ask yourself the following questions:
1. Am I feeling fatigued? Are my muscles feeling more exhausted than usual?25
It’s possible that supplements rich in polyphenols could help reduce muscle fatigue.
2. Do my joints feel stiff?26
Recent studies show a link between polyphenols and the inhibiting of muscular and skeletal inflammation.
3. Is my vision a bit cloudy?
Some in vitro studies exhibit flavonoids possibly guarding certain retinal cells from oxidative stress-induced damage.27
4. Is my stomach often upset or do I often feel nauseous?28
Significant in-vitro studies support the positive effects of polyphenols in several gastrointestinal health issues.
5. Am I shorter of breath than usual?29
Some circumstantial evidence suggests polyphenols might help with obstructive lung and other cardiovascular issues.
Of course, if you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, you should also consult your physician.
And, after you give yourself the Am I polyphenol deficient check-up, you can determine if it might be worth your while to try to get more polyphenols into your diet. Given the source of most polyphenols – herbs, berries, nuts, and fruits – I can’t see why you wouldn’t want to spruce up your diet and take steps toward improving your health.
For more helpful articles keep reading:
Disclosure: The GundryMD team creates these articles as a way to provide you with the latest information on health and nutrition. Unfortunately, we cannot make specific product recommendations for our website visitors, such as “Vital Reds” or “gundry md dark spot diminisher” Please consult with your healthcare provider to determine the best products for you.
Article updated on August 24th, 2017.
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