Considering the alternative, most of us want to get as old as we possibly can; we just don’t want to look like it. While we can’t stop the march of time, there are simple things we can do to help us look younger and feel better as we flip over our calendars from year to year. The awesome thing is, they are easy, cheap, and natural.
The 16th-century Spanish explorer, Juan Ponce de Leon, is fabled to have combed the island of Bimini off the Florida coast in search of the Fountain of Youth, a mythical, magical spring said to be able to turn back time and ‘turn men into boys.’ Yet all he really needed was to find a cherry tree, some tea leaves, a blueberry patch and maybe the odd cactus. Here’s why.
Plant polyphenols — and why we need them
Polyphenols are naturally occurring plant compounds that protect plants from the harmful consequences of the thousands of biochemical reactions, known as oxidations, that occur 24 hours a day. All use oxygen as a reactant and many produce highly reactive compounds called free radicals. These nasty, high-energy little molecules are missing an electron, which they happily snatch from the molecules, in particular, DNA, residing in our own healthy cells.
Free radicals have been implicated in cancer, aging, and inflammation. Fortunately, living organisms have inbuilt DNA repair mechanisms to help us recover from the ravages of these radicals. Unfortunately, these mechanisms can become overwhelmed, and we are forced to look to our diets to make up the shortfall.
Types of polyphenols
Polyphenols are among 500 phytochemicals (plant-derived chemicals) that have been identified to date. Their chemical structures all possess similar multi-ring structures which may be classified according to the number of rings present and by the molecular groups that are attached to these rings. The ones that mop up free radicals produced in oxidative reactions are collectively known as antioxidants.
There are four categories of polyphenols: lignans, stilbenes, phenolic acids, and flavonoids1. Polyphenols tend to congregate in the skins of fruits and vegetables, they are what give each their distinctive colors. Therefore, your best strategy for consuming polyphenols is to scrub, not peel.
Lignans are phytoestrogens, meaning they mimic the action of natural estrogen. Lignans have been found to correlate positively with a reduced risk of osteoporosis, heart disease, and some types of cancer, specifically that of the breast, prostate, and ovaries2.
Good dietary sources of lignans also tend to be high in fiber, which itself is useful for fighting certain types of cancer and improving general health and wellbeing. You can find lignans in flax seeds, cashew nuts, peanuts, sesame seeds, and poppy seeds.
The stilbene, resveratrol, is increasing in popularity. Found in dark-skinned fruits such as cherries, cranberries, and blueberries, resveratrol is also found in onions, peanuts, chocolate, and other dietary sources.
Because red wine is made from crushed grapes and people who drink moderate amounts of red wine seem to have a lower risk of heart disease, fans of the substance make the giant leap that resveratrol is responsible for that reduced risk. There needs to be a lot more research before we can confirm this.
Resveratrol does, however, seem to act as an antioxidant. It also appears to boost the immune system, and improve endurance and reduce muscle fatigue by increasing the number of energy-producing mitochondria in muscle cells3. Resveratrol can also reduce the absorption of sugar by the intestine and inhibit the activity of free fatty acids. Yes, you can fight fat without having to restrict caloric intake!
Abundant in nature, phenolic acids are found in high concentrations in coffee and tea, grapes and cherries, apples and plums, and in kiwi fruits (from which you have dispensation to remove the fuzzy protective covering).
Although there are more than 10,000 different flavonoids, only a handful have been closely studied. Flavonoids serve plants by providing protection against the sun’s harmful UV rays, free radicals, viruses, and bacteria. They also regulate gene expression and influence the action of certain enzymes.
They do the same things in humans and, if taken as a regular part of the diet, they have been implicated in a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, cancer, neurodegenerative disorders, and other chronic conditions.
How to get enough polyphenols
Most antioxidants are found in small amounts, so getting enough of them from the diet is a challenge unless you are in a position to eat nibble berries steadily throughout the day. A good strategy is to eat what you can of high-polyphenol foods and add a supplement powder to your routine.
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