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The Power of Polyphenols: Functional Medicine's Antioxidant Superstars

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The Power of Polyphenols: Functional Medicine's Antioxidant Superstars

Polyphenols are naturally occurring antioxidants that help protect plants from ultraviolet radiation or pathogens. When consumed with plant-based foods via supplements, they offer significant health benefits for us as well. 

Polyphenols are micronutrients with powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. Their potent antioxidant capacity allows them to combat harmful free radicals and prevent damage to cells from oxidative damage. Consistently consuming a diet rich in plant polyphenols protects against diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases, and neurodegenerative diseases.

Functional medicine utilizes a comprehensive approach to health, balancing the body using diet, lifestyle, and integrative approaches. Polyphenols can be incorporated into such an approach to help prevent oxidative stress and inflammation that contributes to many chronic diseases. 


What Are Polyphenols?

Polyphenols are compounds produced by plants in adverse situations that help them fend off damage. They have these protective properties due to their ability to act as antioxidants, combatting free radicals and oxidative stress. Polyphenols are also powerful anti-inflammatory agents. Together, these actions help polyphenols favorably impact your health and reduce your risk of many chronic diseases. 

There are four main families of polyphenols, including flavonoids, lignans, stilbenes, and phenolic acids, with over 8,000 unique polyphenols that have been identified. For example, flavonols, anthocyanidins, anthocyanins, isoflavones, flavones, flavonols, flavanones, and flavanonols are various types of flavonoids. 

All polyphenols have a phenolic chemical structure characterized by at least two phenyl rings and one or more hydroxyl substituents. Polyphenols are classified into these groups based on differences in their chemical makeup, including how many phenyl rings they have, which molecules are attached to each ring, and the linkage type between phenol units.

You consume these important phytochemicals when you eat fruits and vegetables and foods and beverages made from them, such as teas, wines, olive oil, and spices. They are also available as supplements. 

Health Benefits of Polyphenols

Plants produce polyphenols under stressful conditions, such as to defend themselves against pathogens, and these micronutrients can have similar benefits when you consume those plants. When combined with other beneficial nutrients in your diet, like fiber, minerals, and other antioxidants, polyphenols protect your body from the root causes of many chronic illnesses.

Many epidemiological studies show the power of polyphenols to protect against chronic diseases, including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, osteoporosis, and neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson’s disease. Studies suggest that the more polyphenols you consume in your diet, the lower your risk of chronic disease. 

These micronutrients are able to have such broad-reaching diverse health benefits since they help to balance many of the common contributing pathologies that lead to these chronic diseases. For example, polyphenols are powerful antioxidants, helping to reduce free radicals that cause oxidative stress and inflammation that damage your body. 

For example, diets rich in polyphenols like resveratrol found in grapes help to reduce the risk of cardiovascular diseases such as coronary heart disease and heart attack. At the molecular level, these phytochemicals improve the function of the endothelium lining blood vessels to promote vasodilation, reduce inflammation, modulate the immune system, and inhibit platelet aggregation to reduce the risk of clots (thrombosis) that can reduce blood flow and lead to atherosclerosis, heart attacks, and strokes. 

Polyphenols like quercetin in apples, onions, parsley, and sage and flavanols in cocoa in the diet also improve other risk factors for cardiovascular and metabolic disease, such as the balance of fats in the blood, blood pressure, and insulin resistance.

A variety of polyphenols, ranging from quercetin, catechins, isoflavones, lignans, flavanones, ellagic acid, and resveratrol to curcumin, have all been studied to have anti-cancer effects. These nutrients seem to act at many points in the development of cancer to reduce the risk of cancers of the mouth, stomach, duodenum, colon, liver, lung, mammary gland, skin, and more. They do so by impacts such as reducing estrogen, reducing cancer cell proliferation, inducing apoptosis (cell death), preventing oxidation, increasing detoxification, reducing inflammation, and balancing the immune response. 

The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of polyphenols also make them powerful protectors of neurological diseases. Polyphenols seem to exert neuroprotective effects that contribute to improved learning, memory, and cognition. Their ability to eliminate reactive oxygen species and chelate heavy metals has proven beneficial in the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and stroke. 

Polyphenols and Antioxidant Properties

Aging and chronic disease occur due to the accumulation of a variety of detrimental changes in your cells and tissues over time. One of the major ways that this damage occurs is via ongoing oxidative stress. This normal process takes place daily due to metabolic processes in your body and everyday exposures. 

Polyphenols are powerful antioxidants that can help neutralize destructive reactive oxygen species and reactive nitrogen species that are produced as byproducts of many metabolic processes in the body. These reactive metabolites can create oxidative damage to your tissues if they are not neutralized. 

There is considerable research into the role of polyphenols in oxidative stress reduction with benefits for reducing adverse impacts of aging. The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory impacts of polyphenolic compounds found in fruits and vegetables are powerful anti-aging compounds. For example, studies consistently show that resveratrol prolongs the life span.

In particular, a subset of the flavonoids known as anthocyanins help to inhibit damage to fats that make up all of your cell membranes and inhibit the inflammatory mediators cyclo-oxygenase (COX)-1 and -2 that are responsible for inflammatory processes throughout your body. Since anthocyanins add color to fruits, they are especially abundant in brightly-colored fruits such as berries, grapes, and grape seeds. 

Polyphenols can cross the blood-brain barrier, a natural protective barrier that tightly controls what nutrients and other substances can reach the brain. This makes them beneficial in reducing the impacts of aging on the nervous system and brain.

Incorporating Polyphenols in a Functional Medicine Approach

Anti-inflammatory diets that focus on plant-based foods, like the Mediterranean diet and Phytonutrient Spectrum Plan, are rich in polyphenols. This way of eating incorporates many dietary sources of polyphenols such as fresh and seasonal fruits and vegetables, a variety of flavorful herbs and spices, heart-healthy fats like olive oil, whole grains, nuts and seeds, and red wine in moderation. 

Some of the most well-known sources of dietary polyphenols include berries, apples, dark chocolate, tea, red wine, and olive oil. Incorporating a wide variety of plant-based foods will help you consume a range of polyphenols as well as other phytochemicals that reduce inflammation and help prevent chronic disease. 

The focus on natural plant-based foods combined in traditional ways has synergistic impacts when it comes to garnering the health benefits of polyphenols. For example, cooking vegetables and spices like garlic, onion, and tomato in extra-virgin olive oil makes bioactive compounds in the oil, such as polyphenols, more readily available for your body to absorb and use.

Overall, you can emphasize polyphenols in your diet by aiming to eat a range of vibrantly colored fruits and vegetables, especially those with stronger bitter or astringent flavors. In general, the darker or brighter the plant, the greater the polyphenol content it contains. Since polyphenols are usually concentrated in the outer layers (skins) and/or seeds, consuming these can help you get a good dose of these micronutrients. 

Since polyphenols can be affected by air exposure, water conditions, soil conditions, and the age and stage of the plant itself, look for fresh and locally-grown fruits and vegetables that don’t need to be transported as far or stored as long, keeping their polyphenol content high.

A variety of polyphenol supplements are also available. These can provide more consistent and controlled dosing. 

Potential Risks and Considerations

Despite these many powerful benefits, there are some potential risks of polyphenol supplementation that should be kept in mind. Adverse effects have been reported from polyphenolic botanical extracts in beverages, especially for people with chronic illnesses like high blood pressure, thyroid disease, epilepsy, and heart disease. 

Due to how they are metabolized and absorbed, polyphenols may reduce the absorption of thiamin, folic acid, and iron. Large doses of polyphenols may also alter the activity of certain medications. 

While supplements can provide more concentrated and consistent quantities of polyphenols, whole-plant sources offer unique benefits. Like other micronutrients in food, polyphenols work in synergy with other compounds. Therefore, you can receive unique benefits from polyphenols consumed straight from their plant source.

Additionally, since polyphenol supplements and functional foods are not regulated or minimally regulated, they can contain much larger doses of these phytochemicals than you would commonly consume in foods. For example, high doses of catechins isolated from green tea have been associated with liver toxicity. Certain isolated polyphenols like soy isoflavones have also been shown to interfere with thyroid hormone biosynthesis.

To ensure the safe consumption of polyphenols, balance, moderation, and individualization are needed. Always discuss your use of supplements with your functional medicine practitioner to develop a personalized plan for your unique needs. 

Research and Emerging Trends

These micronutrients exert such powerful and diverse health benefits through their role as antioxidants, reducing oxidative stress and inflammation. Emerging science shows that one way that exerts these benefits on your health is through bidirectional interactions with the gut microbiome

Polyphenols favorably affect the composition of microbes in your gastrointestinal tract. One way they seem to do this is by acting as prebiotics to nourish healthy microbes in your gut (like Bifidobacteriaceae and Lactobacillaceae) and/or inhibiting pathogenic bacteria (such as E. coli, Clostridium perfringens, and Helicobacter pylori). 

In the other direction, most polyphenols need to be altered in order to be absorbed into your body in your small intestine. Your gut microbes help to metabolize polyphenols into bioactive compounds that have therapeutic effects. 

This may be one way that polyphenols contribute to boosting immunity and seem to be able to modulate the body’s defenses against emerging viruses. Quercetin, resveratrol, epigallocatechin gallate from green tea, curcumin, and ellagic acid have all shown an ability to fight against viruses. 

Another innovative use for polyphenols that is emerging is in biodegradable active packaging. Polyphenols like tea catechins are being used as part of edible coatings designed to act as oxygen scavengers, antioxidants, and antimicrobial agents. These are proposed as an alternative to plastic packaging materials.

Patient Education and Guidance

Healthcare practitioners can help patients understand the diverse health benefits of polyphenols and how to effectively incorporate them into their diets. Educating patients about polyphenols using simple but powerful strategies can help them benefit from these potent nutrients.

Provide easy-to-apply guidance on polyphenol-rich diets by simplifying your approach. One strategy that makes eating polyphenols approachable and fun is to encourage eating the rainbow. Polyphenols range from green, yellow-orange, blue-purple, white, and red and give fruits, vegetables, and spices their rich colors. Encourage your patients to consume at least one to two of each color daily to eat a variety of phytonutrients.

For example, orange, red, and yellow foods like bell peppers, berries, cherries, cranberries, winter squashes, turmeric, carrots, bananas, pineapple, and melons are rich in anthocyanins and quercetin as well as other important phytochemicals like vitamins A and C.  

Blue and purple foods like berries, grapes, eggplant, purple cabbage, figs, olives, prunes, and some potatoes are rich in anthocyanins and resveratrol that support balanced inflammation and benefit the heart. 

There is a wide range of delicious green foods that provide polyphenols like catechins, isothiocyanates, and phenols. Leafy greens, cucumbers, broccoli, avocado, artichoke, asparagus, edamame, zucchini, olives, apples, green tea, and pears provide these polyphenols to help support detoxification and benefit the gut microbiome. 

To increase the variety and range of polyphenols your patients consume without it becoming overwhelming, encourage them to try one new plant food per week. You can provide easy-to-prepare plant-based recipes that show fun ways to enjoy a variety of colorful fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, and whole grains. Frozen produce can also be one way to make these polyphenol sources more accessible. 


Polyphenols: Key Takeaways

Polyphenols are antioxidant superstars in functional medicine that have wide-reaching benefits on health and well-being. Integrating polyphenols for optimal health can help you reduce your risk of many chronic diseases, ranging from heart disease to neurodegenerative issues. 

You can incorporate a variety of these powerful antioxidants by consuming a diet rich in various colorful plant-based foods. As mentioned, flavonoids like quercetin are found in onions and apples, while resveratrol is rich in red wine and grape skins. Just remember to eat as many colors as possible.

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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