What Are the Benefits of Polyphenols?

Melanie Greenwood

Polyphenols offer a number of health and cosmetic benefits, including the ability to improve immune response when it comes to fighting cold and flu viruses and improved texture and elasticity in hair and skin. Regular consumption has also been shown to ward off memory problems like Alzheimer’s Disease, and may also have the ability to improve structural DNA repair, which can make the body less susceptible to various cancers. A a lot of how these benefits are realized depends on three main factors, though: how they are consumed, the amount in which they are consumed, and the regularity with which they are consumed. In most cases, the biggest benefits come with concentrated use that is on-going for months or years at a time. Simply eating a polyphenol-rich food or using an antioxidant face cream once or twice may give a temporary boost, or it may do nothing at all. Many health experts are quick to warn that these compounds can’t usually be relied on to cure conditions in and of themselves, and as such they should typically be used in conjunction with other more streamlined courses of treatment.

Kalamata olives, which contain polyphenols.
Kalamata olives, which contain polyphenols.

Compound Basics

Polypheonols are a broad class of plant-based antioxidants. Antioxidants, in turn, are chemical compounds that neutralize and destabilize harmful substances in the body known as free radicals. Free radicals are harmful oxygen molecules that form as a result of exposure to environmental toxins, and also form as part of the normal human aging process.

Walnuts contain polyphenols.
Walnuts contain polyphenols.

Bright red or purple-colored fruits and vegetables are some of the most commonly known polyphenol-rich foods, and these include cranberries, raspberries, purple cabbage, and dark-skinned grapes. Olives and most nuts are also included, as are most varieties of green and black tea. Medical researchers generally agree that it’s a good idea for people to consume antioxidant-containing foods as a regular part of their diet, but when it comes to exactly how much benefit people can get there’s often a bit more disagreement. A lot depends on the quality of the compound as well as its concentration. Just because a food group contains these compounds doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good source of them, either. People who are looking for serious benefits usually need to pay attention not just to composition but also to concentration.

Olive oil is a good source of polyphenols.
Olive oil is a good source of polyphenols.

Improved Immune Response

One of the most widely-noted short term benefits is quicker recovery from colds, flu, and other minor viral infections. Many — though not all — antioxidants are antagonistic to viruses. Specifically, these compounds interfere with a virus’ ability to attach to cells, which is the main way that the virus reproduces. When viruses can’t replicate themselves, the body has an easier time eliminating them, which shortens recovery time. It can also make it harder for the virus to spread to others.

Skin and Hair Benefits

These compounds also have a number of more cosmetic benefits, and many of these are also somewhat short-term, which is to say, people can see the results more or less right away. Walnuts, olives and other foods rich in healthy vegetable-based polyunsaturated fat typically contain polyphenol-based antioxidants that protect the skin from environmental damage, such as solar radiation. These compounds also help skin maintain its elasticity and natural vibrancy. That reduces the appearance of wrinkles and improves overall skin tone. In many cases these benefits also translate to hair; people who eat a lot of these sorts of foods often see shinier, stronger locks as a result.

Some cosmetics manufacturers also add extracts to lotions, hair creams, and other topical treatments, often with the claim that they will soak in from the outside and provide richer, more concentrated benefits. There isn’t a lot of science backing these assertions, though. Many polyphenol-containing plants are also good for cosmetic purposes because of their fatty acids, but whether they can actually do anything special because of their chemical composition is not usually known with any certainty.

Potential to Ward off Memory Problems

One of the most widely-touted long term benefits is these chemicals’ ability to protect against Alzheimer’s disease and other memory problems. Though susceptibility to memory degradation has many contributing factors including family history, presence or absence of mental stimulation, and general lifestyle, free radicals are also believed by many to play a pretty significant role. Polyphenols may be able to deactivate free radicals before they can erode memory, though a person usually has to have had a steady stream of them in the body for months if not years to see good results.

DNA Protection

Polyphenol compounds may also be able to help with cancer protection. Free radicals are sometimes associated with DNA damage in some or all of the body’s cells. Sometimes, this causes damage to the DNA codes that control cell replication and cellular lifespan. When this happens, cells can start multiplying out of control, forming masses that eventually form cancerous tumors. Polyphenols can help lower cancer risk by deactivating free radicals, thus preventing DNA damage and, consequently, many types of cancer.

Limitations and Risks

While most medical experts agree that people should eat diets rich in antioxidants and plant-based energy, there is a lot of controversy when it comes to the ability of polyphenols to deliver specific benefits or cure conditions outright. For most people, the best course of action is to use these compounds to supplement or augment other aspects of healthy living, including wearing sunscreen, limiting the consumption of alcohol and drugs, and getting prompt medical treatment for serious conditions.

Polyphenols are said to help protect DNA from damage.
Polyphenols are said to help protect DNA from damage.

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