Resveratrol Basics: What You Need To Know About This Powerful Antioxidant
It's hard to keep up with health-related news and not see articles upon articles about resveratrol and its benefits and uses. So, what's all the fuss about? Is it just an excuse for us to justify drinking red wine, or is there some validity to the health claims being made? If you go to pubmed.gov and search for "resveratrol" as a key word in the database of published scientific literature, you get almost 11,000 search results. It's clear that there's a lot of interest in this powerful compound.
What is resveratrol, exactly?
First, we should discuss what resveratrol is. Basically, it's a compound found in plants that acts like an antioxidant and is considered a polyphenol. Antioxidants are compounds that fight free radical damage and oxidative stress in the body and are present mostly in colorful fruits and vegetables. Polyphenols are naturally occurring micronutrients that give foods their bright colors. While red wine is one of the most famous sources of resveratrol, there are other sources such as grapes, blueberries, raspberries, mulberries, and even peanuts. It's the skin of these foods that contains the resveratrol.
What are the health benefits of resveratrol?
Resveratrol has many, many health benefits. For starters, a 2015 study noted antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of resveratrol1 and stated that it is effective in type 2 diabetes because it can improve blood sugar control and decrease insulin resistance. Another study suggested that resveratrol could be considered in the treatment of conditions such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS)1. More recent research shows that resveratrol can also enhance vasodilation in those with insulin resistance2 and increase the flow of blood to muscles in our body; as a result, our blood sugar is able to be better used by our bodies. In the past, it was not entirely clear how resveratrol worked in diabetes, but this research may help shed some light on a potential mechanism of action. A recent major review of all the randomized control trials demonstrated that resveratrol supplementation significantly reduced inflammation3, and that actual levels of tumor necrosis factor alpha (TNF-alpha), a potent inflammatory chemical, and hs-CRP, a marker of inflammation in the body, were reduced.
Can resveratrol help prevent and/or treat cancer?
Even more exciting is evidence pointing to anti-cancer properties of resveratrol4. This potent anti-inflammatory has been proposed to be an effective agent in the treatment of stomach cancer. This takes eating blueberries and grapes to a whole new level! Another study showed that grapeseed proanthocyanidins together with resveratrol can inhibit breast cancer cells5 through a variety of mechanisms. Both of these compounds are found in red wine; however, I wouldn't jump to the conclusion that you should drink red wine to prevent breast cancer. There is data that actually speaks to the contrary and suggests that even drinking one alcoholic beverage could increase a woman's risk for breast cancer.
Can resveratrol protect us from toxins?
Most of us know about—or have at least heard about—bisphenol A, or BPA. BPA is a toxin commonly found in plastics and resins, and it's been used for decades. A recent study published in August of 2018 suggested that resveratrol could protect against BPA-induced toxicity to blood vessels. The authors suggested that this could be related to the strong antioxidant properties of this polyphenol powerhouse.
Can resveratrol help manage glaucoma?
Another exciting use of resveratrol has been proposed in the management of glaucoma. Resveratrol is thought to suppress inflammation6 in the retina and prevent cell death in nerve cells in the eye. To go even further, researchers in Spain suggested that resveratrol can improve resilience in the brain7 and protect against neurodegeneration. This is quite fascinating. Food really is medicine!
Can resveratrol help fight biofilms and infection?
If you haven't been impressed with the wide variety of functions that resveratrol has to this point, maybe this one will get you. There's a lot of talk about biofilms that are produced by microorganisms that can cause chronic infection. These bad microbes in biofilm communities tend to be more resistant to antibiotics and other treatments. This poses a greater health risk and makes treating what might have been a common infection more complicated. You might be pleased to know that resveratrol is also able to inhibit formation of biofilms8, and it can even destroy a biofilm that has already matured. So you can add antimicrobial effects to the list of positive health benefits this polyphenol has.
Can resveratrol promote longevity?
In the hundreds of articles that I've reviewed on resveratrol's benefits for cardiovascular disease, cancer, arthritis, glaucoma, cataracts, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, Alzheimer's disease, and many of the other conditions reviewed above, one of the most interesting findings was that this polyphenol has anti-aging benefits. It's felt this is true because resveratrol can modify oxidative damage9, inflammation, telomere length, and cell death. Telomeres are the caps at the ends of our chromosomes; you can think of them as the little plastic ends to your shoelaces. When these caps get short enough, the DNA can essentially fall apart and the cell can become "old" or "senescent," and when that happens, a variety of diseases and conditions can develop. This science was brought to the forefront by Nobel Prize–winning scientist Elizabeth Blackburn. Is resveratrol the fountain of youth? Well, I wouldn't go that far, but these findings sure are interesting and make me think about how I can increase my exposure to this powerhouse compound.
Does resveratrol have any negative side effects?
So, is there any downside to resveratrol? Well, as with anything in life, it's good to zoom out and look at the pros and cons. Generally, resveratrol is well-tolerated—especially when taken in food form. When taken as a supplement, some people can get mild to moderate gastrointestinal symptoms and diarrhea10 when they take high doses of it. Many experts also think that if you have a hormone-sensitive cancer, resveratrol should be used with caution11 because it can have some estrogen-like properties and this could actually stimulate cancer cells to grow even more. This highlights an important point: Just because something seems perfectly healthy, that doesn't mean it's always perfect for everyone in every scenario.
Can resveratrol interact with any medications?
In general, it's always a good idea to discuss the risks and benefits of taking any supplement, especially in this setting, with your physician. As with any other medication or supplement, it is also important to consider what interactions might occur. Resveratrol can decrease platelet clumping, so if you're taking an antiplatelet drug or blood thinner, you should definitely consult your doctor. It can also influence how certain drugs you might be taking are metabolized; this is important because certain drugs might be found in increased levels or decreased levels in your bloodstream as an effect of this, and it could influence how effective that medication may be for you. As with any other drug or supplement, it is important to make sure there are no specific interactions that could be pertinent to your health.
All in all, though, resveratrol is a superpower when it comes to plant-based compounds. There aren't too many serious contraindications or severe side effects, and there is an enormous body of literature that suggests numerous health benefits. If you are nervous about taking a supplement, then it may be safer for you to include more of the foods that contain this substance in your diet. Without a doubt, food is one of the most powerful medicines we have access to, and resveratrol is a clear example of why this is true.
Marvin Singh, M.D is an Integrative Gastroenterologist in San Diego, California, and a Member of the Board and Diplomate of the American Board of Integrative Medicine. He is also trained and board certified in Internal Medicine and Gastroenterology/Hepatology. A graduate of Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, Singh completed his residency training in Internal Medicine at the University of Michigan Health System followed by fellowship training in Gastroenterology at Scripps Clinic Torrey Pines. Singh was trained by Andrew Weil, M.D., a pioneer in the field of integrative medicine, at the Andrew Weil Center for Integrative Medicine.
Singh is currently the Director of Integrative Gastroenterology at the Susan Samueli Integrative Health Institute at UC Irvine. He is also currently a voluntary Assistant Clinical Professor at UCSD in the Department of Family Medicine and Public Health; prior to this, he has been a Clinical Assistant Professor at UCLA and an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Singh is a member of the American Academy of Anti-Aging Medicine, American College of Lifestyle Medicine, and many other societies. He is actively involved in the American Gastroenterological Association. He is one of the editors of the textbook of Integrative Gastroenterology, 2nd edition (a Weil Series text) and has written several book chapters and articles.
He is dedicated to guiding his clients toward optimal wellness every step of the way, using the most cutting edge technologies to design highly personalized precision based protocols. Towards this end, he founded Precisione Clinic and wrote the book Rescue Your Health to bring the best in preventive medicine to his clients.