| ||Food for Thought || |
Resveratrol -- A Fountain of Youth?
November 5, 2010
By Beth Klos, R.D., L.D.N.
Brigham and Women's Hospital
"Ads for this juice say it contains resveratrol to keep me young forever no matter what I eat! But, my dietitian advised drinking only small portions of fruit juice because more may make me gain weight and will spike my blood sugar. Hm, maybe a resveratrol supplement is the way to go?"
Resveratrol has attracted interest for its potential to reduce the effects of aging, prevent cancer, inflammation, diabetes, blood clotting and heart disease.
What is resveratrol and why has it garnered so much attention? Is there evidence to support taking resveratrol supplements?
What Is Resveratrol?
Resveratrol is part of a group of chemicals called "phytoalexins." Plants make them to fight fungal and bacterial infections. It's their own supply of medicine. When under stress from infection, exposure to UV radiation or physical injury, some plants make resveratrol.
Resveratrol has many interesting properties. Among them are its antioxidant and phytoestrogen qualities.
Red wine is a well-known source of resveratrol. But it's also found in:
- Peanuts and pistachio nuts
- Cranberries, blueberries, strawberries and some other berries
- Japanese knotweed, from which Itadori tea is made
Red wine and Itadori tea have the highest amounts of resveratrol. But resveratrol content is affected by growing conditions and varies by type of plants. For example, different cultivars of grapes have different amounts of resveratrol.
We are still learning details about the sources of resveratrol and their exact content because the compound has been studied for very a relatively short time.
Because it is found in grapes, some people claim that resveratrol is responsible for the lower rates of heart disease in France, despite cuisine that is rich in saturated fat. (This is called the French paradox. ) But it's unlikely that any one substance is a "magic bullet." Instead, the phytochemicals and botanicals found in the fruit and juice of grapes used to make European table wine probably work together.
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Is There Proof?
There are no human studies to support the use of resveratrol supplements to fight aging and improve longevity. The buzz about resveratrol comes from studies in mice, flies, round worms and even yeast. For example:
- A study published in Science in 2003, found that resveratrol extended the lifespan of yeast by 70%. (Yeast is a useful model of aging because it divides often.) Researchers think that the effect on lifespan is largely due to resveratrol's impact on enzymes in the body called sirtuins that are also activated by calorie restriction.
- A study of mice published in the journal Nature in 2006 found that resveratrol lengthened lifespan, and improved motor function, insulin sensitivity and other metabolic factors in mice fed a high-calorie, high-fat diet that was also high in resveratrol. The group of mice consumed resveratrol in amounts roughly comparable to a 150-pound adult drinking over 1,200 glasses of red wine, 800 cups of Itadori tea or eating over 3,200 cups of red grapes (using data from the EPIC food database). Although they gained weight and 60% of their calories came from fat, the mice lived longer than another group of mice that ate a high-calorie diet without resveratrol. In fact, their survival was similar to normal weight mice, though at the time the mice had not reached the end of their lifespans. Given their improved survival, researchers believed they would live as long as the healthy-weight mice on a lower calorie diet. Because foods and beverages contain relatively small amounts of resveratrol, the authors and others believe resveratrol's potential as a treatment for aging (or other conditions) may lie in putting it into a pill.
These studies may provide a model for what may happen in humans, but they are only the starting point for further study. For example, one study is tracking the resveratrol intake among a Spanish population. More research like this could shed light on the possible beneficial effect of foods with resveratrol.
While taking resveratrol supplements does not appear to result in severe problems, long-term data are lacking. Taking these supplements may not be safe for children, pregnant or lactating women, or women who are trying to become pregnant.
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Maintaining Your Health While Aging
Until we know more about resveratrol's potential as a treatment for aging, what can we do to age "successfully" right now? I interviewed Dr. Juergen Bludau, Acting Chief of Geriatric Clinical Services and Director of the Center for Older Adult Health at Brigham and Women's Hospital. His book, Aging, But Never Old: The Realties, Myths and Misrepresentations of the Anti-Aging Movement, was just published.
He graciously agreed to share four practical ways to age successfully:
- Keep up with current trends to maintain cognitive abilities. One way to be a lifelong learner and keep mental functions sharp is to stay up-to-date with changes in society, including those in technology. The most recent research indicates this kind of practical learning is more potent mental exercise than games and puzzles.
- Develop strong social connections. Keeping current also helps elders remain socially engaged, another key to healthy aging. Using a cell phone, for example, helps maintain social connections. Dr. Bludau noted that there is increasing evidence that meaningful relationships, such as strong marriages and friendships, help sustain health.
- Maintain mobility. While Dr. Bludau feels the new data on physical exercise indicates it will not help maintain mental abilities, physical activity will help maintain mobility another key to longevity. Mobility helps seniors be independent when it comes to daily activities that demand agility, such as getting dressed, which requires standing on one leg. Even activities like vacuuming or taking the stairs improve mobility, not just going to the gym.
- Enjoy the passage of time. Lastly, Dr. Bludau suggests enjoying "the passage of time" as we age, which encompasses accepting new limitations, and capitalizing on our remaining abilities. He suggests that rather than romanticizing the past at the expense of enjoying the present, "be a member of the community of 2010" by getting on the Internet and learning about new technologies such as social networking.
As for resveratrol, Dr. Bludau agrees the research so far does not indicate it improves longevity in humans. While the future may bring interesting new research, you can still protect your longevity now with Dr. Bludau's practical suggestions.
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Beth Klos, R.D., L.D.N., is a Senior Nutritionist who counsels outpatients at Brigham and Women's Hospital. She completed her undergraduate degree at University of Rhode Island and her dietetic internship at Brigham and Women's Hospital