Resveratrol is a food supplement that is found naturally in red grapes and red wine and thought to have many different effects, potentially explaining the ‘French paradox’ which is based on the observation that the French eat a fairly high fat diet but suffer far fewer cases of coronary heart disease and other related illnesses.
The benefits of resveratrol are thought to include anti-cancer properties, anti-inflammatory abilities, life extension, blood sugar lowering and positive cardiovascular effects. Most of the studies on resveratrol are so far based on lab rats, however a few human studies seem to support the claims, and one recent study seemingly confirmed the blood-sugar lowering effect. Interestingly, many of the benefits of resveratrol are thought to work in a similar way to the process of calorie restriction, which has gained popularity among certain circles looking to increase their life spans.
Calorie restriction first came about after a lab study tested the effects of lowering the intake of calories in lab rats, in which it was found that by lowering their calories to a minimal they could increase their lifespan by around 25%. This of course lead to certain groups interested in life extension to attempt to replicate these findings in humans, leading to them eating hardly any calories in a day – restricting themselves to a single apple in some extreme cases. This is then thought to work in several ways. Firstly the simple act of doing less means that fewer processes will take place within the body which will in turn lead to less wear and tear. Anecdotal evidence suggests that those animals that are less active, and so consume fewer calories, live much longer – for example turtles compared to insects.
At the same time it is thought that this process activates a gene called Sirtuin 1 (possibly as a survival mechanism to deal with a potential famine by extracting more energy from cells), which improves the functioning of the mitochondria. Mitochondrion are a membrane-encolsed ‘organelle’ that surround selected cells and work as a ‘cellular power plants’ by providing ATP (andensosine triphosphate) for energy and are also used in signalling, differentiation, cell growth and directing cell cycle and apoptosis. This then protects the cells from damage or malfunction, aids transmission, improves energy and limits cases of mitochondrial dysfunction, permeability transition and apoptosis (programmed cell death). This occurs in every major organ of the body, including the heart, the brain and the rest of the nervous system meaning that it can prevent coronary heart disease, stroke, dementia, angina and a range of other problems.
The benefits of resveratrol are thought to work in the same way by triggering Sirtuin 1, and therefore improving the function of the mitochondria and providing the benefits of extra protection for the cells and increased energy and signalling. As cell death is limited this then leads to a potentially extended lifespan along with other benefits that could make it useful as a potential sports supplement (studies have demonstrated that resveratrol can lead to greater treadmill endurance in mice).
The benefits of resveratrol are fortunately also far more practical than those of calorie restriction. For while restricting calories might benefit the mitochondria, it will nevertheless leave the individual with lower energy levels and less protein thereby hampering many of the body’s other processes. As such, those who restrict their diet in this way often suffer from other conditions such as osteoporosis, limited muscle mass, dry flaky skin and thin hair. Furthermore, calorie restriction is an anti-social and un enjoyable process that sees patients order side salads on their own at meals out. The life extension benefits of resveratrol can be enjoyed without such sacrifices. Currently there are no longitudinal studies on humans demonstrating the effectiveness of resveratrol on humans or indeed of calorie restriction. However the supplement has been shown to be effective on fish and yeast.
There are other benefits of resveratrol too that extend beyond the mitochondria. Firstly, many studies (again confined to animal studies) have demonstrated its anti-cancer activities in interacting with molecular targets. This has been shown to work best with tumors that it can come into direct contact with such as those skin and gastrointestinal tract.
As well as being used to enhance endurance in the gym, resveratrol may also work as a fat burner; this concept stemming from the observation that those born with certain variations of the SIRT1 gene have faster metabolisms leading to increased fat burning. It’s positive effects on the mitochondria of the brain also suggest that it could be effective not only in protecting the brain from the onset of disease, but also in treating disorders that already exist and in enhancing cognitive function. In one study, it was found that the amyloid plaques and tangles that cause Alzheimers and other conditions could be greatly reduced in mice through oral administering of resveratrol.
Adding to the benefits of resveratrol is the fact that it is an oestrogen receptor and modulator, meaning that it can reduce levels of oestrogen in the blood and increase testosterone. This can then lead to increased anabolism (the building of muscle and healing of wounds), improved sex drive, concentration and drive.
The ‘bioavailability’ of resveratrol has been questioned, with some critics questioning its ability to be used by the body when taken as a supplement. Buccal delivery has been found to be the best way to consume resveratrol whereby the user allows the ingredients to be absorbed through their mouth lining into their blood stream. Side effects of resveratrol have yet to be fully examined, though currently there are no known adverse effects (though it may interfere with some oral contraceptives).