by Rachael Link, MS, RD
Once considered little more than decadent indulgences, treats like dark chocolate and red wine have become widely accepted components of a healthy diet in recent years. These popular ingredients have enjoyed an onslaught of positive publicity lately due to their purported health benefits, with some research claiming that drinking a glass of red wine with dinner or enjoying a few squares of dark chocolate each day can do everything from improve heart health to extend longevity. Many of these health benefits are due to their content of polyphenols, a type of natural plant compound with powerful antioxidant properties.
So how can polyphenols affect your health and reduce your risk of chronic disease? Keep on reading for polyphenols food sources and bioavailability, plus how you can increase your intake to take advantage of the unique health benefits that this micronutrient has to offer.
What Are Polyphenols? Role in the Body
So what are polyphenols, and how exactly can they affect your health? The official polyphenols definition is “any compound that contains one or more phenolic hydroxyl group,” but what does that actually mean?
To put it simply, polyphenols are a type of micronutrient that contain health-promoting properties and can be found in a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Plant polyphenols are rich in antioxidants, which can help fight off harmful free radicals and prevent damage to cells while lowering the risk of chronic disease. Polyphenols have also been associated with many other health benefits, ranging from better blood sugar control to a reduced blood clot formation.
There are four groups of polyphenols that are found in different food sources. These main types include:
- Phenolic acids
The best way to get in your daily dose of polyphenols is by incorporating plenty of foods with polyphenols into your diet. Polyphenols supplements are also available but have been associated with some adverse side effects, such as impaired hormone production and increased cancer growth.
Top Polyphenols Foods
There are plenty of polyphenols food sources available that you can easily add into your diet. In particular, there are a high amount of polyphenols in coffee, berries, cocoa powder, and certain spices and seasonings, like cloves and star anise.
Here are a few of the top polyphenol foods that you may want to consider upping your intake of:
- Red onions
- High in Antioxidants
- Protect Against Heart Disease
- Relieve Inflammation
- Prevent Blood Clotting
- May Reduce Cancer Development
- Support Blood Sugar Control
1. High in Antioxidants
One of the main benefits of polyphenols is that they’re loaded with powerful antioxidants that can help neutralize free radicals and fight disease. Free radicals are unstable compounds that form as a result of factors like stress, pollution and an unhealthy diet, building up in the body and causing damage to your cells.
Studies show that antioxidants may be protective against a wide variety of conditions, ranging from heart disease to cancer and diabetes. (1) Thanks to the antioxidant content of polyphenols, eating more polyphenols foods may help prevent chronic disease and minimize the risk of oxidative stress.
2. Protect Against Heart Disease
Heart disease is a major concern that affects millions of people around the world. According to a report published by the American Heart Association, heart disease is the leading underlying cause of death, accounting for about 31.5 million deaths globally in 2013. (2) Although there are many potential factors that can play a role in the development of heart disease, switching up your diet to include more polyphenols foods can be an effective way to keep your heart healthy and strong.
Several studies have found that a higher intake of polyphenols is associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. One human study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that those with the highest intake of flavonoids, one particular type of polyphenol, had 18 percent fewer deaths from heart disease compared to those with the lowest intake of flavonoids. (3) Other research suggests that polyphenols may reduce the risk of heart disease thanks to their ability to scavenge free radicals and alleviate chronic inflammation. (4)
3. Relieve Inflammation
While acute inflammation is a normal immune response that helps protect against injury and infection, sustaining chronic inflammation for long periods of time can wreak havoc on the body. Not only can it trigger your immune system to begin attacking healthy cells, but it has also been linked to an increased risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, cancer and diabetes. (5)
Polyphenols work by reducing the oxidative stress that contributes to inflammation. (6) Besides having far-reaching effects when it comes to disease prevention, the anti-inflammatory properties of polyphenols may also help reduce symptoms of inflammatory conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, lupus and inflammatory bowel disease.
4. Prevent Blood Clotting
Blood clots can be a serious health concern for many people. Blood clots are formed through a process called platelet aggregation, which occurs when the platelets in your blood begin to clump together. Although this process is necessary to prevent excess bleeding, it can also cause some serious health issues, like stroke, pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis.
Polyphenols may help prevent platelet aggregation to block the formation of blood clots. Resveratrol, in particular, is one of the most extensively studied polyphenols found primarily in the skins of berries as well as red wine. Both animal models and in vitro studies have demonstrated that resveratrol can effectively inhibit platelet aggregation, reducing the risk of blood clots. (7, 8)
5. May Reduce Cancer Development
In addition to the multitude of beneficial effects on heart health, promising research also indicates that polyphenols may help block the growth of cancer cells as well. According to a review published in the journal Nutrients, specific types of polyphenols, such as anthoncyanins, flavanols, flavanones and phenolic acids, have been shown to decrease cancer cell growth and development in in vitro studies. (9)
Plus, many of the top cancer-fighting foods also happen to be rich in polyphenols and antioxidants, giving you all the more reason to enjoy plenty of nutrient-dense foods like berries, citrus fruits, leafy green vegetables, and fresh herbs and spices.
6. Support Blood Sugar Control
High blood sugar can result in side effects like frequent urination, fatigue and unintentional weight loss. Left uncontrolled, high blood sugar can also cause a slew of negative effects on long-term health, including diabetes symptoms like nerve damage, vision loss and impaired wound healing.
Polyphenols may be especially beneficial in maintaining normal blood sugar levels. According to a 2016 review out of Australia, in vitro studies have found that consuming dietary polyphenols can stimulate insulin secretion and inhibit certain enzymes that break down starches into simple sugars to prevent spikes in blood sugar levels. (10) A recent human study published in the British Journal of Nutrition also showed that a higher intake of polyphenols was associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. (11)
Polyphenols in Ayurveda and TCM
Cloves, for instance, are loaded with polyphenols. In Ayurveda, cloves are believed to promote digestive health, enhance blood flow and boost metabolism. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cloves are said to affect the health of the spleen, lungs and kidneys. They are also used to help warm the body and treat conditions like hiccups, abdominal pain and diarrhea. Green tea, meanwhile, is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for its cooling properties and is believed to remove heat and phlegm while stimulating digestion, urination and the production of bodily fluids.
Other foods like berries, pomegranates, greens, nuts and herbs are similarly rich in polyphenols and utilized in Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine to promote better health and help ward off illness and infections.
Polyphenols and Lectins
Lectins are a type of protein found in a wide array of foods, such as beans, wheat and potatoes. In small amounts, lectins can actually come with some pretty impressive health benefits. In larger quantities, however, they can disrupt digestion and even damage the lining of the intestines. (12)
Much like polyphenols, lectins are a type of antinutrient, meaning that they can impair absorption of certain vitamins and minerals. In vitro studies show that polyphenols may block the absorption of iron in a dose-dependent manner. (13) Lectins, on the other hand, inhibit absorption of a wider range of micronutrients and can even cause gastrointestinal upset with symptoms like indigestion, gas and bloating.
If lectins cause issues for you, there are several ways to reduce the lectin content in polyphenol-rich foods. Soaking beans and legumes, for instance, has been shown to slash lectin content in half. (14) Sprouting these foods can also be beneficial, allowing you to take advantage of the unique health benefits of polyphenols while minimizing the amount of lectins in your diet. (15)
Polyphenols vs. Phenols
Phenols are a type of chemical compound composed of a hydroxyl group bonded to an aromatic hydrocarbon group. They are also known as carbolic acid, or C6H5OH. Because they have antiseptic properties, phenols are often added in small amounts to products like sunscreens, hair dyes and skin-lightening creams. Interestingly enough, though, concentrated amounts of isolated phenols can actually be highly toxic and corrosive to the skin. (16)
Meanwhile, polyphenols are made up of multiple phenol units and are found naturally in many dietary sources. There are also several types of polyphenols, including flavonoids, stillbenes, lignans and phenolic acids. Polyphenols of all classes have been studied extensively and have been associated with many health benefits due to their antioxidant content, from improved heart health to better blood sugar control.
Recipes with Polyphenols Foods
Ready to start adding more foods high in polyphenols into your diet? Here are a few nutritious and delicious recipes that will fit right into a healthy polyphenol diet plan:
In recent years, red wine has garnered a huge amount of attention for its purported health benefits. A phenomenon known as the French Paradox was initially described in the 1980s, when researchers noted that French people had lower rates of coronary heart disease than other countries despite higher intakes of saturated fat and regular consumption of red wine. There are many potential explanations and theories for the French Paradox, but it’s believed to partially stem from the polyphenol content of red wine.
Resveratrol, one of the most well-known types of polyphenols, is plentiful in red wine as well as the skin of certain types of berries, like grapes, blueberries and raspberries. First isolated in 1939 by a Japanese researcher, resveratrol has since been associated with a number of important health benefits. It’s been shown to lower biomarkers for specific diseases and could even be therapeutic for conditions like neurological disorders, heart disease and diabetes. (17)
Today, numerous types of polyphenols have been identified and shown to have powerful effects on health. From hesperidin found in citrus fruits like lemons and oranges to epigallocatechin gallate in green tea, there are many different types of polyphenols available in the diet that all boast a unique set of health benefits.
Although loading up on the polyphenols foods is unlikely to cause any negative side effects, capsules and supplements have been associated with some potential adverse health effects. Polyphenol supplementation may actually have carcinogenic effects and can even disrupt the production of thyroid hormones as well. It can also interfere with certain medications and could impair iron absorption as well. (18)
Ideally, it’s best to stick to dietary sources of polyphenols instead of using supplementation. Besides containing a hearty dose of polyphenols and antioxidants, these highly nutritious foods can also provide a host of other valuable vitamins, minerals and micronutrients.
If you do decide to take a polyphenol supplement, however, you may want to consult with your doctor if you have a history of thyroid problems, iron deficiency or cancer, or if you’re taking anti-diabetes medications or blood thinners to prevent an interaction. If you have any other health concerns or experience any adverse side effects as a result of taking polyphenol supplements, you should also consider consulting with a health care practitioner to determine the best course of action.
- Polyphenols are a type of plant compound and micronutrient found in many different fruits and vegetables.
- They are high in antioxidants and have been associated with improved heart health, better blood sugar control, reduced inflammation and a reduced risk of cancer development.
- Some of the best sources of polyphenols include fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, tea, coffee, herbs and spices.
- Although polyphenol supplements are also available, it’s best to increase your intake of polyphenol foods instead to minimize the risk of adverse side effects.
- Combine polyphenol-rich foods with a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle to maximize the potential benefits and reduce your risk of chronic disease.
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