Is Resveratrol the Fountain of Youth?
At the age of 122, the French woman, Jeanne Calment was still as mentally sharp as ever. A woman who had met Vincent Van Gogh when he still had two ears while she was a young woman in Arles, Jeanne had become an international celebrity for being the oldest documented person to have ever lived.
At the age of 90, the woman who would one day go on to be the oldest person to have ever lived according to documented records, Jeanne Calment, found herself without any direct heirs and dangerously running out of money. In such a dire situation, a French lawyer made a deal with Jeanne to pay her the equivalent of $500 USD a month if she would sign over her home to him upon her death.
It probably seemed like a good deal for the lawyer. The only catch was that he had to wait until she passed away. Perhaps given her advanced age, he thought it would just be a short period before he would have the home free and clear.
As fate would have it, this woman ended up outliving the lawyer. Not only that, the lawyer ended up paying her more than twice the value of her home. This stroke of fate allowed Jeanne to live the rest of her life without any further money worries.
Perhaps this deal is what allowed Jeanne to support her 2.2 pounds of chocolate that she ate each week and her red wine. When she was later asked how the lawyer must have felt about this deal, Jeanne simply replied, “it happens in life that we make bad deals.”
When asked about her secret to a long life during an interview in 1997 just before her death, she credited her longevity to red wine and chocolate, among other things.
For decades, researchers have been intrigued by the potential link between the ingredient found in both red wine and chocolate–resveratrol–and longevity.
Discovery of Resveratrol
In 1939 an obscure Japanese researcher, Michio Takaoka and his students, were doing experiments on veratrum grandiflorum, a plant found on the northern most island of Japan, Hokkaido. By chance, they isolated resveratrol crystals and shared their findings in a Japanese medical journal unknown to the rest of the world.
His finding had faded away into obscurity until modern scientists once again discovered resveratrol, this time when red grapes made the compound when infected by a fungus. Further research concluded that resveratrol was a protective effect of red grapes to environmental stressors like weather, bacteria, or fungus.
Now large pharmaceutical and supplement companies have jumped into the resveratrol quest. Consequently, many studies have been published on the potential benefits of this anti-oxidant, anti-aging, and anti-cancer compound.
Could Resveratrol Explain the French Paradox?
The French Paradox has baffled scientists for generations. How could the French eat the “wrong” foods and not exercise more than anyone else, yet consistently have the lowest rates of heart disease in the world? Indeed, based on World Health Organization data, the risk of a heart attack in France is nearly 3 times lower than in the U.S.!
One of the possible theories for the French Paradox is that while enjoying their red wine, the French benefit from the resveratrol in the red wine which can help protect against heart disease.
Possible Health Benefits of Resveratrol
You may be wondering what the science says about resveratrol. Can you really live to 122 on a diet that includes red wine and chocolate?
1. Resveratrol Slows the Aging Process
Amazingly, when resveratrol is given to worms, fruit flies, bees, and mice they can live up to 38% longer. Researchers feel that the life extending benefits of resveratrol may come from activation of the SIRT1 gene. This gene has the same effect to the body as caloric restriction in extending life.
Unfortunately, as we age our DNA slowly degrades with time. When this happens it can lead to disease, suffering, and ultimately death. Fortunately, the SIRT1 gene has also been shown to enhance DNA repair which can also lengthen lifespans. Other research has shown that the life extending benefits of resveratrol may come from activation of mTOR proteins.
Regardless of which mechanism of longevity may be at play, the French remain one of the longest lived people. In fact, the French live, on average, several years longer than we do in the U.S.
2. Resveratrol Prevents Cancer
In the laboratory setting, resveratrol has been shown to be highly effective in killing many different types of cancer cells. However, what happens in a test tube and what happens in real life are often two different things.
In living animals and humans these cancer preventing effects of resveratrol have not been as pronounced. Currently, there are many ongoing studies looking at the effect of resveratrol in both preventing and reversing cancer.
3. Resveratrol Prevents Heart Disease
With regards to the heart, there are many possible explanations as to why resveratrol may prevent heart disease. In addition to being an anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory agent, resveratrol has also been shown to have many heart protective effects including the following:
-Prevention of cholesterol from being oxidized in our arteries
-Prevention of blood clots from platelet aggregation
-Improved blood flow within the heart
Whether or not it is the red wine, the French have the lowest rate of heart disease in the world where there are reliable data. Is it the resveratrol or something else that seems to protect the French hearts?
4. Improves Cognitive Function
Jeanne Calment was mentally sharp right up until her last day of life at age 122. With humor, when asked about her remarkable longevity, she was quoted as saying “I’ve been forgotten by God.”
Was this due to good genes or the brain protective effects of resveratrol?
In studies done with fish, resveratrol has been shown to protect against age-related cognitive decline. Additionally, studies in mice and rats have shown that resveratrol can improve brain function by reversing traumatic brain injury, Parkinson’s Disease, and Alzheimer’s Disease.
While most of the research on resveratrol and cognitive function has occurred in animals, there are studies in humans showing that resveratrol may improve memory. In other words, not only may resveratrol increase lifespan but many studies have shown that it can also help to protect the brain with this increased lifespan.
5. Reduces Appetite
As researchers have been busy trying to increase the lifespan of mice with resveratrol, they noticed a very strange thing. Not only did the mice live longer but they also stayed very lean and would not always eat all of their food.
Over time, this finding has been seen in other animals as well. Resveratrol seems to cause decreased food intake. This decreased appetite effect of resveratrol was not anticipated at all. This effect is now also felt due to activation of the SIRT1 gene which has the same effect on the body as caloric restriction.
Could the resveratrol in the French diet possibly explain their much lower obesity levels than what we see here in the U.S.? Specifically, Americans are nearly three times more likely to be obese than the French.
This too is also part of the French Paradox. How can they stay slim on the French diet which would cause many to gain weight? Indeed, the low rates of obesity in France has prompted a number of popular books like French Women Don’t Get Fat (affiliate link).
Natural Sources of Resveratrol
By now you are probably wondering how can you naturally increase your resveratrol intake. The primary sources of resveratrol come from red wine or red grapes as resveratrol is most highly concentrated in the skins of red grapes. There are also other natural sources of resveratrol which include blueberries, cranberries, peanuts, and dark chocolate. Fortunately for me, these are all some of my favorite foods.
Should I Take a Resveratrol Supplement?
If you believe the the French Paradox then it can’t be from resveratrol supplements as most French do not take these supplements. Jeanne Calmen never took resveratrol supplements as she got all of her resveratrol naturally from her beloved red wine and chocolate.
Perhaps the biggest challenge with resveratrol supplements is that the bioavailability of resveratrol is extremely low. Even worse, what little resveratrol that it usable by the body may have detrimental effects. For example, one recent study suggested that resveratrol appeared to negate the benefits from exercise.
My Approach to Resveratrol
At the young age of 100, Jeanne Calment was still riding her bicycle. I, too, love riding my bicycle and do so in some form on most days year round. While I don’t drink red wine, my favorite fruit, which I eat in large quantities, is red grapes. Also, my only sugar vice, dark chocolate covered almonds, also has resveratrol.
While there has been a lot of hype in the media about the many anti-aging and other properties of resveratrol, there still are no convincing studies that it is beneficial yet in humans. Thus, until further scientific data emerge I don’t think resveratrol is our fountain of youth.
Given this lack of data on resveratrol, I cannot recommend resveratrol supplements. Likewise, if you don’t drink alcohol I cannot recommend that you start drinking red wine just for the potential health benefits of resveratrol.
However, if you love resveratrol rich foods, like me, then at least you can feel good about eating red grapes, blueberries, cranberries, peanuts, and dark chocolate. As with Jeanne Calment, perhaps these foods will allow you to stay young, smart, and thin while protecting you from heart disease and cancer.
Do you try to get resveratrol in your diet?