Monday, October 1, 2012

Polyphenols and Xenohormesis (How resveratrol, ginseng etc work)

I often recommend botanical compounds called plant polyphenols as part of helping people optimize their bodies' ability to getting rid of toxins and/or dealing with oxidative- or other types of stress,

Examples of polyphenols are curcumin from turmeric, EGCG from green tea, resveratrol from grapes, and silymarin from milk thistle. There are also polyphenols belonging to the family of botanical compounds called "adaptogens". (The most famous adaptogenic plant is Panax Ginseng.) Coffee has polyphenols too.

I know from observational experience, looking at lab results, and the scientific literature that polyphenols of various types often work very well to achieve desired effects with minimal unwanted effects. (I would add, especially when used as part of defined "protocols" for specific purposes rather than random supplementation.)

So how do polyphenols work?

Aren't they just like weaker, more "natural" versions of designer pharmaceuticals (aka biochemical monkey-wrenches), and hence just as un-natural and potentially harmful?

Not so!

It has been discovered that polyphenols' main pathway of conferring their effects seems to be to send messages to our genes.

Polyphenols tell the body to start doing certain things; for instance to create more anti-oxidants, or to alter its response to environmental stress.

This is a different way of action than, for instance, providing essential nutrients for processes that the body is already striving to perform at a certain rate, or from substituting compounds that the body might make on its own.

Interestingly, our bodies seem primed to receive messages from these compounds (in fact specific receptors for some of them have been found), but why would our bodies want to listen to strange biochemical messages from plants?

One explanation, which I find biologically compelling, is xenohormesis, and it goes something like this:

Plants produce higher quantities of polyphenols when under environmental stress. This is why grapes growing under harsh conditions are used in the most sought after wines in the world (polyphenols provide "complexity" to the taste), and it is why Swedish strawberries taste better than any other strawberries in the world (or, maybe that's just my nostalgia…).

Now, when animals (including us), eat these polyphenol rich plants their bodies receive advance warning of forthcoming stressful conditions, and may then adapt accordingly on the genetic/biochemical level. Such advance warning is life-serving, so this is why our bodies evolved and retained the biochemical means to "listen".


When wine grapes are made to suffer nutritionally, they produce more of the polyphenol resveratrol in the response.

When an animal then eats these grapes, the extra resveratrol in them tells the animal's genes that famine might be coming.

In response, the animal's physiology re-orients towards famine conditions without actually experiencing a lack of food yet. The famine-reorientation sets off reactions that have been found to increase longevity. (You have probably heard about caloric restriction, or CR, as a way to prolong life.) In this way, resveratrol acts as a "CR-mimetic", ie., giving the benefits of starvation without the downside.

Cool, isn't it ?!

Now before you go out and buy resveratrol or other polyphenol compounds to take indefinitely, be aware that if you make your body up-regulate, say, certain longevity processes, it must at the same time down-regulate something else. (Are you prepared for the potential problems from messing with your physiology in this way?)

Actually, the body seems to have evolved clever ways to counteract sustained and therefore possibly disruptive signals from plants and their polyphenols.

For instance, what often happens is that unless a polyphenol compound is cycled on and off, there will be diminished effects over time. The body's receptors seem to become deaf to the signal. This also makes biological sense. Who benefits from someone yelling "Fire! Fire! Fire!" long after a fire must reasonably have been extinguished?

So don't think about polyphenol compounds as universal panaceas. You are not going to override the bad effects from eating at McDonald's by putting curry (curcumin) on the burger.

However do think about them as powerful tools with a low risk/reward ratio in the toolkit of health, performance, and longevity.

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