Polyphenols: The Surprising Health Benefits of These Plant Compounds
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Polyphenols are secondary compounds made by plants. They provide plants protection against sun damage, insect attack, and disease. Plant-based polyphenol compounds also promote human health and prevent disease.
You’ve probably heard of antioxidants and know they’re good for you, but have you heard of polyphenols? Polyphenols are compounds found in plant foods like fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and legumes. They’re responsible for the bright colors in foods like berries, broccoli, and leafy greens. Turns out, polyphenols do way more than make your plate pretty.
The research on polyphenols is exciting and ongoing. These plant compounds have been linked to some surprising health benefits. We’re talking improved brain function, better heart health, reduced inflammation, and maybe even a longer life.
While you shouldn’t expect a magic bullet, adding more polyphenol-rich foods to your diet could give your health a boost. Read on to learn about the top sources of polyphenols and how they might just help you live healthier and happier.
What Are Polyphenols and Where Are They Found?
Polyphenols are secondary natural compounds found in plants, especially in the pigments that give many fruits and vegetables their bright colors. Their primary purpose is to protect the plant from natural forces like sun damage and disease. In the human body, polyphenols act as antioxidants, protecting cells from damage and providing some significant health benefits. They also have anti-inflammatory properties and protect the brain from dementia and other neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. Polyphenols also have a positive effect on maintaining a healthy gut microbiome.
You can find polyphenols in many of the foods you probably already eat. Berries, like blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries contain anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives them their ruby-red hue. Apples, especially the peel, contain quercetin, a polyphenol linked to reduced inflammation. Broccoli, spinach, and kale are loaded with kaempferol, which may help lower cancer risk.
The health benefits of polyphenols are quite impressive. They have been shown to help:
- Reduce the risk of heart disease by lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
- Decrease inflammation in the body. Chronic inflammation is linked to many diseases, so polyphenols may help lower the risk of some cancers, Alzheimer’s, and other age-related illnesses.
- Improve brain function and may even boost memory. Polyphenols can increase blood flow to the brain and stimulate the growth of new neural connections.
- Extend lifespan. Diets high in polyphenols have been linked to longer, healthier lives.
- Aid weight loss and weight management. Polyphenols may boost metabolism and fat burning, helping make it easier to maintain a healthy weight.
So, eat up those colorful fruits and veggies—your body and mind will thank you!
The Antioxidant Power of Polyphenols
Polyphenols are natural compounds found in plants that act as powerful antioxidants in your body. Antioxidants help prevent or slow damage to cells caused by free radicals, unstable molecules that can harm your tissues and organs.
Polyphenols are found in many of the plant-based foods you probably already eat, like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds. Some of the best sources include:
- Berries: Blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are packed with anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that may help improve memory and cognitive function.
- Tea: Both green and black tea contain catechins, polyphenols shown to potentially lower heart disease and cancer risk.
- Cocoa: The cocoa in dark chocolate contains flavonoids that could help lower blood pressure and improve cholesterol levels.
- Turmeric: Curcumin, the active compound in turmeric, acts as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant. Turmeric supplements or adding this spice to your diet may help ease joint pain and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.
- Extra virgin olive oil: Polyphenols called oleuropein and hydroxytyrosol in olive oil could help lower inflammation in the body and reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Coffee: Two compounds found in coffee, caffeic acid, and chlorogenic acid, may help prevent cell damage and slow aging.
The list goes on and on. The bottom line is, adding more plant-based whole foods to your diet is the best way to boost your polyphenol intake and reap their many benefits. Your body—and taste buds—will thank you.
How Polyphenols May Help Fight Disease
Polyphenols may help reduce inflammation in the body and lower the risk of some diseases. Here are a few ways these plant compounds can benefit your health:
Fight Free Radicals
Polyphenols are antioxidants, meaning they help neutralize free radicals—unstable molecules that can damage cells. By reducing free radical damage, polyphenols may help lower the risk of cell mutations that lead to cancer and other diseases.
Reduce Heart Disease Risk
Polyphenols may help improve cholesterol levels, lower blood pressure, and benefit blood vessel function. This could lower the risk of heart disease over time. For example, resveratrol found in red wine and cocoa in dark chocolate has been shown to boost the production of nitric oxide, which helps relax and widen blood vessels.
Slow Cognitive Decline
Polyphenols may help protect brain cells from damage as we age and slow age-related mental decline. Regular consumption of foods high in certain polyphenols like flavonoids has been linked to a lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and age-related memory loss. Polyphenols may reduce inflammation in the brain, prevent plaques that lead to Alzheimer’s, and boost the growth of new neural connections in the brain.
Fight Obesity and Diabetes
Polyphenols may help improve insulin sensitivity and support healthy glucose metabolism in the body. This could help prevent weight gain, obesity, and type 2 diabetes. For example, studies show people who drink several cups of green tea, which contains catechins, per day, tend to have a lower risk of both obesity and diabetes. The polyphenols in cocoa, berries, and citrus fruits may have similar benefits.
In summary, adding more polyphenol-rich foods to your diet could have significant benefits for lifelong health and disease prevention.
Polyphenols May Boost Brain Health and Cognition
Polyphenols have been shown to benefit brain health and cognition in surprising ways. Several studies point to polyphenols’ ability to boost neural connections in the brain, enhance memory, and even slow age-related mental decline.
Polyphenols may help boost the growth and connectivity of neurons in the brain. They have been found to increase neural plasticity, the brain’s ability to form new neural pathways, especially in the hippocampus—the area of the brain involved in memory formation and connecting memories. Stronger neural connections and plasticity are associated with better learning, memory, and cognitive abilities.
Polyphenols could enhance and protect memory. Regular consumption of polyphenol-rich foods and beverages has been linked to improved memory, especially as we age. Polyphenols may help prevent oxidative stress and inflammation in the brain which can lead to memory loss and other age-related cognitive changes.
Slowing age-related mental decline is another promising benefit of polyphenols. Several studies show that diets high in polyphenol-rich foods are associated with a lower risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Polyphenols’ antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects may help combat the cell damage that contributes to age-related cognitive impairment and mental decline.
The bottom line is that polyphenols play an important role in brain and cognitive health. A diet full of polyphenol-rich foods like berries, broccoli, turmeric, and green tea may help boost your memory, enhance neural connections, and slow age-related mental decline. While more research is still needed, the potential brain benefits of polyphenols are quite surprising and promising.
Tips to Add More Polyphenol-Rich Foods to Your Diet
Focusing on a balanced diet with plenty of polyphenol-rich foods is one of the best ways to support your health for life. But sometimes we need more protection. To boost your polyphenol intake, make some simple swaps and additions to your daily diet.
- Add berries to your breakfast: Berries like blueberries, blackberries, and raspberries are loaded with anthocyanins, a type of polyphenol that gives them their bright color. Add a cup of mixed berries to your cereal or yogurt, or smoothies, for an extra boost of nutrition.
- Switch to dark chocolate: Dark chocolate contains cocoa, which is rich in polyphenols like flavanols. Look for chocolate that is at least 70% cocoa and enjoy an ounce a few times a week.
- Season with herbs and spices: Many fresh and dried herbs like rosemary, oregano, thyme, sage, peppermint, and turmeric are excellent sources of polyphenols. Add them to soups, stews, salads, marinades, and rubs.
- Drink green tea: Green tea is loaded with epigallocatechin gallate or EGCG, a catechin and potent antioxidant. Aim for 2 to 3 cups of brewed green tea per day to reap the benefits. For extra polyphenols, choose loose-leaf or bagged teas over bottled green tea drinks.
- Eat more fresh vegetables: Artichokes, broccoli, spinach, kale, onions, eggplants, and peppers contain chlorogenic acid, quercetin, kaempferol, and other polyphenols. Fill half your plate with a variety of cooked and raw veggies at each meal.
- Use olive oil: Extra virgin olive oil is high in hydroxytyrosol, a polyphenol that provides various health benefits, including protecting against cancer and cardiovascular disease. Use olive oil for salad dressings, steaming, and roasting vegetables. Though olive oil performs well for cooking, I advise not sautéing vegetables in olive oil. It’s expensive and has a low smoke point—the temperature where the oil starts to smoke and loses some of its nutritional value. Cooking also destroys some of the nutritional value of olive oil including vitamin E and oleocanthal, the substance responsible for its anti-inflammatory effect. I recommend using avocado oil or sunflower oil for Chinese-style stir-frying in a wok.
By making a few simple changes and choosing more polyphenol-rich foods each day, you’ll boost your health and reduce disease risk. Focus on eating the rainbow by choosing brightly colored fruits and vegetables, using flavorful herbs and spices, drinking tea, and snacking on dark chocolate. Your body and brain will thank you for the extra nutrition and antioxidants.
What Nutritional Supplements Have Polyphenols
Polyphenols can be found in certain supplements, allowing you to boost your intake of these beneficial plant compounds. Here are some of the top supplements with polyphenols:
Resveratrol is a type of polyphenol found in red wine, grapes, and some berries. Resveratrol supplements provide a concentrated dose of this antioxidant. Studies show resveratrol may help reduce inflammation, lower heart disease risk, and slow age-related mental decline.
Curcumin is the main polyphenol found in turmeric, a bright yellow spice. Curcumin supplements provide a high amount of this potent anti-inflammatory compound. Curcumin may help ease joint pain from arthritis, improve brain function, and lower the risk of cancer.
Green Tea Extract
Green tea extract supplements provide a concentrated dose of the polyphenols found in green tea leaves. The main polyphenols in green tea are EGCG and ECG, which act as antioxidants in the body. Green tea extract may help boost fat burning, lower heart disease risk, and reduce the risk of some types of cancer like breast and prostate cancer.
Cocoa Flavanol Supplements
Cocoa beans contain flavanols like epicatechin, which provide antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. Cocoa flavanol supplements provide a high dose of these beneficial compounds. Studies show cocoa flavanols may help lower blood pressure, improve blood flow to the brain and heart, and boost cognitive abilities.
Pomegranates are rich in polyphenols like punicalagins and anthocyanins, which give pomegranate juice its distinctive red color. Pomegranate extract supplements provide a concentrated form of these antioxidants. Pomegranate extract may help reduce inflammation in the body, lower blood pressure, and slow the growth of cancer cells. It’s good for your heart.
Polyphenol Nutrient Combination
If you want a wide range of cellular protection, choose a blend of polyphenols. That’s what I recommend for my patients as a daily foundational support supplement.
In summary, some of the top supplements for boosting your polyphenol intake include resveratrol, curcumin, green tea extract, cocoa flavanols, and pomegranate extract. Adding one or more of these supplements to your diet is an easy way to harness the health benefits of polyphenols. For broad-spectrum protection, choose a polyphenol multivitamin and mineral combination.
So there you have it, polyphenols are natural compounds found in many plant-based foods and beverages that can have some pretty impressive effects on your health. While more research is needed, the potential benefits of adding polyphenol-rich foods to your diet seem too good to ignore. Eating more fruits and vegetables, enjoying a daily cup, or two, of green tea; snacking on some dark chocolate, and cooking with spices like turmeric and ginger are all simple ways to boost your polyphenol intake and support better health and longevity. The research suggests that polyphenols may help reduce your risk of disease and keep you feeling your best for years to come. Not a bad payoff for making some easy and delicious diet changes. Why not give it a try – your body and taste buds will thank you.