Polyphenols for Life, Health, and Longevity


“When the first frost turned cranberries crimson, we gathered these low-lying berries….
I didn’t know it then, but these winter treats were packed with polyphenols.
I grew up in rural New England. When the nights chilled in the fall, maple leaves turned golden and the oaks a deep red. Hot Indian summer days with cold nights were perfect for berry picking. Every weekend during berry season, my mother packed the family station wagon with snacks and drove to her favorite wild blueberry spot. When the first frost turned cranberries crimson, we gathered these low-lying berries too. And it wasn’t just berries—we also gathered wild hazelnuts and black walnuts.

I didn’t know it then, but these winter treats were packed with polyphenols.

Polyphenols for Life

Polyphenols are a class of chemicals containing a large number of organic compounds composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen called phenols. These chemical compounds occur everywhere in nature and, along with their synthetic counterparts, serve as a basis for all kinds of commercial products including detergents, herbicides, and many pharmaceutical drugs, as well as foods and beverages, and nutraceuticals.

Plants produce lots of polyphenols. Most are found as tannins, which gives wine and tea their astringent and bitter taste.

Since they are water-soluble, teas are important ways of getting polyphenols. Green and black teas are rich in polyphenol compounds, and so is coffee. Red wine is at the top of the polyphenol-rich beverages. Traditional cultures learned centuries ago that to support life humans should consume small amounts of polyphenols every day.

Polyphenol-Rich Teas

  • Cinnamon and clove tea
  • Green and black teas
  • Peppermint tea
  • Jasmine tea
  • Rooibos tea
  • Maté tea
  • Chamomile tea

Polyphenols are antioxidants. They give plants their color, flavor, and healing qualities. Life in the biosphere depends on oxygen, water, and nutrients. But too much of even a good thing can result in cell damage. Oxygen reacts with cells to cause oxidative damage. Nature provides abundant antioxidant compounds in plants. We couldn’t live without them. Polyphenols are one of nature’s most important remedies.

Polyphenols for Health

Food plants typically contain a complex mixtures of phenols—therefore, the term polyphenol. We get a wide variety of polyphenols in a plant-based diet. Some polyphenols are specific to particular foods like flavones in citrus fruit, isoflavones in soy, and phloridzin in apples. Some are universal, such as quercetin, which is found in all plants including fruits, vegetables, cereals, beans, tea, and wine. Herbs and spices are particularly rich in polyphenols.

Top 10 Polyphenol Spices and Foods

  1. Cloves
  2. Peppermint
  3. Star anise
  4. Cocoa
  5. Oregano
  6. Celery seeds
  7. Chokeberry
  8. Flaxseed
  9. Elderberry
  10. Chestnuts

Polyphenols from different plants may work synergistically to protect against cardiovascular disease, cancer, diabetes, endothelial dysfunction, and other chronic diseases, without any known side effects. They also support immunity, brain function, and gut health.

Top Polyphenol Berries

  • Bilberries
  • Black and red currents
  • Blackberries
  • Blueberries
  • Chokeberries
  • Cranberries
  • Elderberries
  • Raspberries
  • Strawberries

But there is a dark side to polyphenols. Some are considered anti-nutrients—compounds that inhibit the absorption of essential nutrients, especially minerals.

Anti-nutrients are natural or synthetic compounds that interfere with the utilization of nutrients. They are found at some level in almost all wild foods as a means of protection from insects and animals. As an outcome of millenniums of domestication and cultivation, their levels are reduced in modern crops.

Pharmaceutical drugs are notorious anti-nutrients. For example, statins deplete coenzyme Q10. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) depletes glutathione. Antibiotics interfere with B vitamins.

Common foods have their share of anti-nutrients. Phytic acid found in flaxseed, sesame seeds, wheat, and spinach inhibits the absorption of calcium, magnesium, iron, and copper. Oxalic acid found in spinach, parsley, chives, and kale binds calcium. Compounds in the cabbage family prevent iodine utilization and can contribute to low thyroid gland function.

Traditional methods of food preparation such as fermentation, cooking, and malting increase the nutritive quality of plant foods and reduce anti-nutrients. These processing methods are widely used in societies where cereals and legumes form a major part of the diet, as in China.

Polyphenols reduce risk for many chronic diseases including cancer, cardiovascular disease, liver disease, diabetes and metabolic syndrome, and help lower LDL cholesterol. They lower inflammation by influencing cell-signaling pathways, and they are gut friendly.

Polyphenols are mainly metabolized in the gut where they are acted upon by gut bacteria. Researchers have found that in addition to a high fiber diet and abundant friendly bacteria, polyphenols play a role in modulating our gut microbiota. Scientific studies on the role of polyphenols in the gut are in their early stages, but we already have an idea that they are biotransformative, helping gut bacteria make new compounds that reduce inflammation and assist in detoxification.

Polyphenols for Longevity

When you want your genes to work their best, include polyphenol superfoods. Studies show that polyphenols in red wine, extra virgin olive oil, coffee and tea, and blueberries can extend lifespan.

A family of proteins called silent information regulators (SIR) genes, or sirtuins, have links to longevity. Resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red grapes and some herbs, coupled with a healthy diet and calorie restriction, has shown to increase lifespan. Traditional Chinese herbs like the Ganoderma glabra mushroom and Polygonum cuspidatum have an ancient history as longevity medicines, which may be due to their specific polyphenol content.

Polyphenol Superfoods

  • Acai berries
  • Camu camu
  • Dark chocolate
  • Peruvian purple corn
  • Polygonum cuspidatum (Hu zhang)
  • Pomegranate
  • Seaweeds and microalgae

The American diet is made of nutrient-empty, high calorie foods that are polyphenol deficient. It is also top heavy with stimulates like caffeine. The FDA says that 400 mg per day is okay. One cup of latte at Starbucks has about 150 mg. Many people consume more caffeine than is good for them. At 1,000 mg per day, the heart beats irregularly. That’s beyond jittery.

Green tea has 25-40 mg per cup. In Asia, the home of green tea, no one drinks it by the 8-ounce cup! Traditional Chinese drink tea from tiny cups not much bigger than a thimble, sipping all day long, getting small doses of caffeine but lots of polyphenols.

Changing to a healthy, fresh, organic whole foods plant-based diet is better. Adding traditional polyphenol-rich beverages and superfoods is a great improvement. But, Americans are unlikely to take their polyphenols in small frequent doses. If you want to be proactive in preventing degenerative diseases and cancer, as well as promoting longevity, consider adding polyphenol supplements.

Top Polyphenol Supplements

  • Blueberry (vaccinium angustifolium) extract
  • Grape seed (vitis vinifera) extract standardized to contain 92% polyphenols
  • Green tea (camellia sinensis) extract
  • Olive (olea europaea) extract
  • Pomegranate (punica granatum) extract
  • Trans-resveratrol (polygonum cuspidatum) extract
  • Turmeric (curcuma longa) extract standardized to 90% curcumin
  • Whole red grape (vitis vinifera) extract

To get your share of polyphenols, the first rule is to eat a plant-based diet. Go light on anti-nutrient foods. Include polyphenol-rich beverages every day like tea, coffee, or red wine. Include some exotics like super foods like seaweeds or a little dark bitter chocolate. And, consider taking a polyphenol supplement.

Remember, when it comes to polyphenols, they work synergistically. A little, but a variety of polyphenols, ingested regularly over time is the way to go.

My New England rural upbringing was a healthy start. Now, I understand that polyphenols are life giving and have disease-fighting power. They are essential for health and longevity. I start my day with a cup of green tea, eat fresh vegetables daily, include wild berries in my diet, take small doses of polyphenol extracts a couple of times a day, and some times end the day with a glass of red wine with dinner.

Dr. J. E. Williams

Dr. J. E. Williams is a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, longevity, and natural health. Dr. Williams is the author of six books and more than two hundred articles. During his thirty years of practice, Dr. Williams has conducted over 100,000 patient visits. Formerly from San Diego, he now practices in Sarasota, Florida and teaches at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, Division of Complementary and Integrative Medicine, NOVA Southeastern University, and Emperor’s College in Los Angeles.

He is also an ethnographer and naturalist. Since 1967, he has lived and worked with indigenous tribes, and spends as much time in the high Andean wilderness and deep Amazonian rainforest as possible. In 2010, he founded AyniGLOBAL, a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting indigenous cultures, environments, and intellec¬tual rights. His current work is with the Q’ero people of the Peruvian Andes, where he teaches Earth-based wisdom and heart-centered spirituality.

For more information: www.drjewilliams.com

Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/drjewilliams

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