Plant Phytochemicals Are Potent Anti-Aging Compounds
What do red grapes, the term “French paradox,” Ayurvedic rasayana (rejuvenation) tonics and lifespan extension have in common? They are all connected to resveratrol, a plant polyphenol which is sought after by nutritionists and biochemists because of its potential as an anti-cancer, anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory compound Resveratrol and other polyphenols (flavanols, flavonoids, anthocyanins and phytochemicals) are produced as part of the plant’s defense system against infection. Epidemiologic and clinical studies suggest that high consumption of polyphenols, including resveratrol-rich foods, is associated with reduced cardiovascular disease risk, lower total cholesterol, and lower LDL (or so-called ‘bad’) cholesterol.
Resveratrol is also unique in its ability to block the initiation, promotion and progression of cancer with minimal toxicity to normal cells. Some sources suggest that resveratrol has some similarities to phytoestrogens, which means it should be considered with caution in some situations (such as certain types of breast cancer).
Longevity: Wine, Grapes, Amla & Ayurveda
Resveratrol came to scientific attention as one part of a possible explanation for the French paradox – the low incidence of obesity and heart disease among French people who eat a relatively high-fat diet. It was found that despite similar levels of fat intake, the heart attack rate in France was far lower than that of the USA. A key factor attributed to this was the French custom of drinking wine with meals. The health benefits of red wine consumption have been attributed to polyphenols; resveratrol, found in high concentrations in red wine, is a major constituent of polyphenols.
Resveratrol’s most abundant natural sources include the wide variety of grapes used to make wines. The compound is found throughout the plant: in the vines, roots, seeds and stalks, but the highest concentration of resveratrol is in the grape skin. Some other rich plant sources of resveratrol include eucalyptus, spruce and lily, peanuts and berries of all forms (including blueberries, huckleberries and cranberries).
Recent scientific work has demonstrated some exciting effects of resveratrol. Three researchers who share a common interest in the biology of aging and lifespan extension (David Sinclair of Harvard Medical School, Marc Tatar of Brown University, and Stephen Helfand of the University of Connecticut) demonstrated that resveratrol can slow the aging process in fruit flies and worms. In their study, the researchers placed adult worms in two separate plates and the fruit flies into two separate one-liter jars. While one group of flies and worms received a normal diet; resveratrol was added to the diets of the other group every two days. Each day the researchers checked for dead worms and flies, counted and removed them from the groups.
The team observed that while worms with the resveratrol supplemented diet lived an average of between fourteen and twenty-four percent longer than those on a regular diet, flies fed with resveratrol containing diets lived thirty percent longer than flies fed a normal diet. Extending these results, Sinclair’s group at Harvard Medical School reported that resveratrol increases DNA stability and extends lifespan of yeast cells by seventy percent. This collaborative work appeared in the July 15, 2004, issue of the prestigious journal Nature.
The significance of all these studies was so exciting that it grabbed the attention of several non-scientific magazines and newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. Resveratrol was touted as the manna from heaven to extend longevity. Even with these results, it is important to remember that no single food or compound is a panacea. For proper nutrition, we need a variety of minerals, vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants and phytochemicals. Additionally, resveratrol is only beginning to be studied, and the effects of its metabolites, or chemicals produced when it is broken down by the body, are not well understood.
Just as resveratrol and other polyphenols are part of a plant’s defensive system, in our bodies, these phytochemicals switch on the physiological defense system to protect all the cells in the body from various stresses. Thus, drinking red wine not only explains the French paradox but may also suggest why so many Italians on Sardinia who are known to consume large quantities of red wine live to reach their one hundredth birthday, or at least come close. But before you stock up on a cellar full of wine barrels, consider the disadvantages of excessive wine consumption: Alcohol disturbs the vata (air/ether) and pitta (fire) elements, it is toxic to the nervous system and destructive to the liver and it depletes the body of nutrients and vital minerals. The intense sugar content of wine can also create imbalances and its high caloric content can exacerbate weight gain. Alcohol can be addictive, impair judgment and can destroy lives.
How does all of this relate to Ayurveda? Thousands of years ago the rishis (sages) with their power of pratyeksha (direct perception) put together herbal super-formulas made with a synergetic blend of numerous fruits and herbs. Two of these are known as chyavanprash and darakchasava. These tonics were designed to nourish the body and mind, promote longevity and support strong immune system function. They promote free radical scavenging, protection by antioxidants and greater cardiovascular health by reducing platelet aggregation and reducing LDL cholesterol levels, according to recent research as well as Ayurvedic lore.
Chyavanprash is a traditional Ayurvedic rejuvenative; the primary ingredient is the fruit amla or amalaki (Emblica officinalis). Amla is a potent source of Vitamin C, balances all three doshas (elemental forces) and has a long list of anti-inflammatory, immune-enhancing, blood sugar balancing and antioxidant effects. The primary ingredient of darakchasava (also written as drakshasava) is red grapes, and the traditional formula is a carefully prepared medicinal wine, taken in small therapeutic doses. Both chyavanprash and darakchasava contain a variety of other synergistic herbs, such as cardamom, cinnamon, pippali (Piper longum), black pepper, ashwagandha (Withania somnifera), and specific formulations vary.
Chemical analysis of the herbs used in these preparations reveal an abundance of polyphenols including resveratrol. In addition to their use as rasayana (rejuvenative) tonics, chyavanprash and darakchasava pave the way for physical, mental and emotional well-being through their rejuvenative effects. They are considered to be supreme anti-stress and anti-aging formulas and are most widely revered of all of the Ayurvedic tonics.
So the next time you reach for a glass of wine, remember that the road to good health and extended lifespan also exists in a spoonful of chyavanprash or darakchasava.
Rammohan Rao, PhD, CAS, PKS, is a graduate of the California College of Ayurveda (CCA) with certification as Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist. He presently teaches the CCA program in Marin and San Francisco counties. Ram is also a Research Associate Professor at the Buck Institute for Age Research in Novato and his research focus is on understanding mechanisms of age-associated neurodegenerative diseases.
The Ayurveda articles in LA YOGA are for educational purposes only and are not a substitute for personalized advice from your primary healthcare provider. The information in the Ayurveda section represents the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of LA YOGA Ayurveda and Health magazine.