The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

The Fountain of Youth Revealed? Proceed with Caution!

Scientists map a formula that improves longevity and brain function in mice.

Making health decisions based on news headlines is never a good idea. In the past month there has been an avalanche of controversial reports disputing the "miraculous" anti-aging, weight-reducing, brain-improving, and performance-enhancing potential of resveratrol. 

Resveratrol is commonly found in the skin of red grapes, red wine, peanuts, and berries. Most resveratrol supplements sold in the U.S. contain extracts from the Japanese and Chinese knotweed plant Polygonum cuspidatum. Other reservatrol supplements are made from red wine or red grape extracts. 

The first discoveries about the health benefits of resveratrol came in the late 1980s, when scientists began to notice that despite the prevalence of high-fat diets, the French had a significantly lower rate of heart disease than people in countries like the United States. At first, this was referred to as the “French Paradox." Eventually, scientists concluded that in addition to the fatty foods, the French also consumed the most red wine per capita, and that something in the red wine was providing this health benefit. We know today that the “something” was resveratrol and the other healthy polyphenol molecules that are found in the skins of red grapes. 

Supplement manufacturers will try to convince consumers that since resveratrol is thought to have so many health benefits and seen to improve longevity and brain function in mice, it will do the same in humans. Don't believe the hype! Until more high-quality research is available, experts say they can't recommend resveratrol supplements for antiaging or disease prevention. 

Please use common sense and extreme caution when taking any supplements or radically changing your diet based on preliminary scientific studies. Resveratrol research has been built on numerous positive animal studies, and soon a wave of studies will be reporting on potential human benefits...But the jury is still out. 

New findings on the benefits of resveratrol in mice

Two scientific studies that came out this month show the potential of resveratrol to improve longevity and brain function in mice. The potential of these studies is exciting, but they are still in their earliest stages and years away from leading to human applications. 

In the first study, published in the December issue of Cell Metabolism, a research team at the University of Hong Kong developed a resveratrol formula that can help combat a rare early-aging disease called Progeria, which affects about one in four million babies and causes extreme physical aging. There is some reason to believe this formula could someday reverse the aging process in healthy adults. 

Associate professor Zhou Zhongjun, who led the study, said healthy mice fed with concentrated resveratrol fared significantly better than healthy mice not given the compound. "We actually delayed the onset of aging and extended the healthy lifespan," Zhou said of the mice. Mice with progeria lived 30 percent longer when fed with resveratrol compared with progerial mice not given the compound.

"We can develop drugs that mimic Lamin A or increase the binding between Lamin A and SIRT1," Liu Baohua, research assistant professor of biochemistry at the University of Hong Kong, told a news conference on December 21, 2012.  

Asked if their study supported the notion that drinking red wine delays aging and reduces the risk of heart disease, Zhou said the alcohol content in wine would cause harm before any benefit could be derived. "The amount of resveratrol in red wine is very low and it may not be beneficial. Moreover, the alcohol will cause damage to the body," Zhou said.

In November of 2012, David Porquet and Colleagues from the Institut de Biomedicina (IBUB), Centros de Investigación Biomédica en Red de Enfermedades Neurodegenerativas (CIBERNED) in Barcelona, Spain published an article titled: "Dietary resveratrol prevents Alzheimer’s markers and increases life span in SAMP8 [mice]." 

They found that, "resveratrol may be a powerful agent to prevent age-associated neurodegeneration and to improve cognitive deficits in Alzheimer's disease (AD). Moreover, different findings support the view that longevity in mice could be promoted by caloric restriction (CR). In this study, we examined the role of dietary resveratrol in SAMP8 mice, a model of age-related AD."

David Porquet and colleagues found that resveratrol supplements increased mean life expectancy, maximal life span and had neuroprotective effects on several specific hallmarks of Alzheimer's disease in mice. "We found that long-term dietary resveratrol activates AMPK pathways and pro-survival routes such as SIRT1 in vivo. Resveratrol also reduces cognitive impairment and has a neuroprotective role," Porquet says. 

Conclusion: The Athlete's Way prescriptive for longevity

I personally do not advocate taking megadoses of any vitamin or supplement. The only specific dietary guidelines I give in The Athlete's Way are to: "Eat a diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole-grains, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, and fish, and drink plenty of water."

There is no magic pill, potion, or powder that will guarantee eternal youth, optimal health or peak performance.  Lifestyle decisions will make a difference. If you have time, please watch this TED lecture by Dan Buettner talking about lifestyle behaviors that promote longevity and why it's so difficult to adopt these in the United States. My prescription for longevity and a sound mind in a sound body is simple:

  1. Human Connection: Maintain close-knit human bonds and a sense of community.
  2. Daily Physicality: Incorporate physical activity into your daily routine. 
  3. Balance Calories In-Calories Out: Don't consume more calories than you burn. 
  4. Spiritual Connectedness: Identify a Source of inspiration that is bigger than you. 
  5. Sense of Purpose: Practice mastering something you love and look forward to everyday. 

The research on resveratrol is promising, which is why I am writing about it today. I will keep my antennae up to see if these animal studies translate into human applications for longevity and brain function in years to come and would recommend you do the same. 

Please consult with your doctor before taking any supplements or making radical changes to your diet. 

 

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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