Around the year 400 B.C., Hippocrates, regarded as one of the most influential figures in the history of medicine and healing, advised people to prevent and treat diseases by eating a nutrient-dense diet. Fast forward to modern times, the concept of "food as medicine" has gained significant scientific credibility and is one of the key tenets of functional medicine.
Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. — Hippocrates
In this article, we're digging into the chemistry of nutrition and investigating polyphenols.
What Are Polyphenols and Why Should I Care About Them?
Polyphenols are naturally occurring compounds
Polyphenols are a type of phytochemical (phyto meaning plant) produced in a variety of plant foods including spices, fruits, vegetables, seeds, and legumes. Plants developed them as an evolutionary defense mechanism to protect against environmental threats, including insects, diseases, etc. (Source, Source)
There are four categories of polyphenols
There are over 500 known polyphenols classified into four main categories based on their chemical structure (Source):
- phenolic acids (found in coffee, tea, cherries—they're effective at fighting cancer and heart disease)
- stilbenes (found in red wine and grapes—the least common type of polyphenol)
- lignans (primarily found in flax seeds, fruits, vegetables, and legumes—shown to improve immune system health and hormone balance)
- flavonoids (the most heavily studied with over 6000 types—responsible for giving foods their vibrant colors)
Polyphenols have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
Among other health benefits, polyphenols are powerful antioxidants that help fight against cellular aging. They act as a shield to prevent cellular oxidation and are widely known for their preventive effects against inflammatory, cardiovascular, and neurodegenerative diseases, as well as certain types of cancer. (Source)
How do antioxidants work again?
Free radicals are oxygen-containing molecules that form when atoms or molecules gain or lose electrons, either as part of normal metabolic processes or from environmental sources. They possess an uneven number of electrons, which makes them unstable, and easily react with other molecules, leading to oxidative stress in the body. Antioxidants function by donating an electron to the free radical, thereby stabilizing it and neutralizing its effect. Antioxidants are unique because they can donate an electron without becoming reactive free radicals themselves. (Source)
What Does the Research Show About Polyphenols?
Polyphenols protect your heart health
Studies suggest that higher polyphenol intake from fruits and vegetables is associated with decreased risk for cardiovascular disease. They inhibit LDL oxidation, a key mechanism in atherosclerosis (the hardening of your arteries), and they appear to have antiplatelet and anti-inflammatory effects as well. (Source)
Polyphenols feed your gut
Research has shown that polyphenol-rich foods have a "prebiotic-like" effect and can help grow the amount of good bacteria in your gut and prevent pathogenic strains. Your microbiome also impacts how well your body absorbs the polyphenols consumed, although more research is needed to understand the bi-directional relationship here. (Source)
Polyphenols fight aging
In one 12-year study, researchers found that people whose diets were rich in polyphenols experienced a 30% lower mortality rate than those whose diets were lower in polyphenols. Another recent study found that resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine, reduces the frequency of DNA double-strand breaks, which supports genomic stability. (Source, Source)