If you’re one who swoons over chocolate, you may be pleased to know there may be a scientific reason for it. In fact, researchers say potent compounds in dark chocolate as well as blueberries may contain secrets to staying youthful. Scientists from Exeter University in England, supported by colleagues at Brighton University, identified the compounds as a “secret” wrinkle-fighting substance because they help rejuvenate old cells.
In fact, lab research showed old cells both looking and “behaving” like younger cells, actually resuming dividing. Professor Lorna Harries, a director of research at Exeter and lead author in the study, explained that using plant chemicals effectively “switched back on” the major class of genes that switch off as you age, which may be used as a means to restore the function of old cells.
When lab scientists applied natural compounds found in red grapes, red wine, chocolate and blueberries, specifically antioxidant, anti-inflammatory flavonoids, the compounds were found to have longer telomeres, which are the “caps” on chromosomes that shorten as you get older.
“When we age, the strands of DNA in our cells gradually lose the protective telomeres, which … act like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces … Within hours of treatment, with these so-called resveratrol analogues, the older cells started to divide, and had longer telomeres.”
Eva Latorre, a research associate who conducted the experiments, said she couldn’t believe it when she noticed the extent of the cell rejuvenation and how quickly it took place. “These old cells were looking like young cells. It was like magic.” She repeated the experiment several times, and the same cell changes took place every time.
Latorre said she’s excited by the implications and potential for the research, which was published in the journal BMJ Cell Biology. Harries said the scientists hope it can be used not only to promote normal lifespans for people, but also to help them be healthy throughout their entire life.
Old Research, New Discoveries
One reason researchers found their study so exciting was because it built on earlier anti-aging experiments that had focused on a class of genes called splicing factors (which play a significant role in helping your genes operate as they should, but progressively “switch off “as you age) as well as a group of dysfunctional cells called senescent, which build up in your tissues as you get older.
Old cells lose their ability to correctly regulate the output of their genes, which is why your tissues and cells become increasingly susceptible to disease as aging progresses. When they’re activated, genes send messages instructing your cells to behave in certain ways. Most genes send more than one message, which partially explains why splicing factors are so crucial for ensuring genes perform functions, or a series of functions, properly.
An example might be the range of functions needed, as well as whether it’s necessary, to grow new blood vessels, and it’s the splicing factors that make the determination. In the featured study, the application of resveratrol analogues, found in foods such as red wine, dark chocolate, red grapes and blueberries, allowed the splicing factors to switch back on and simultaneously reversed signs of ageing.
According to Science Daily, “As people age, the splicing factors tend to work less efficiently or not at all, restricting the ability of cells to respond to challenges in their environment.” In addition:
“The discovery has the potential to lead to therapies which could help people age better, without experiencing some of the degenerative effects of getting old. Most people by the age of 85 have experienced some kind of chronic illness, and as people get older they are more prone to stroke, heart disease and cancer.”
Harries explained the study demonstrated that when you treat old cells with the molecules that will restore the abilities of splicing factors, the cells take on some of their former youthful aspects. They’re able to grow and the telomeres are longer, as they were when they were younger. However, while the possibilities are exciting for the scientific world to contemplate, Harries stresses that “far more research is needed to establish the true potential for these sort of approaches to address the degenerative effects of ageing.”
So What’s the Science Behind the Secret?
The so-called “secret” compound is one that’s gained international attention in recent years. Multiple studies have indicated that resveratrol, or, as the study couched the term, “resveralogues,” has beneficial effects on senescence phenotypes through other pathways, such as SIRT1 activity. Further, studies have shown resveratrol to modulate the ERK signaling pathway, which is another potential regulator of splicing factor expression, as well as to suppress cellular senescence. Interestingly, the authors wrote:
“SIRT1 is also a current target for drug design and for nutraceutical interventions and is known also to be activated by resveratrol. We suggest that focusing on SIRT1 activity alone may be misleading and that other pathways activated by resveralogues may be more important in alleviating senescence and improving health outcomes in later life.”
While the aspects and potency of the compounds specifically found in blueberries, red grapes and chocolate are exciting, it’s worth mentioning that the Exeter researchers note: “There is already considerable interest in the development of drugs that can attenuate senescence for eventual human use,” adding:
“The renewal of proliferation we observe upon resveralogue treatment obviously raises questions about the potential cancer risk attached to such treatment, should it eventually be employed in a clinical setting. We propose that the renewed proliferation arises from a transient increase in telomerase activity brought about by the induction of specific splicing factor proteins, and that the growth is still regulated.”
The scientists added that these observations from resveratrol treatments were suggested to have “a protective effect against cancer in both humans and rodent models.”
Significant Compounds in Curcumin
While you may be tempted to get your daily “dose” of resveratrol by overindulging in red wine, there are other foods that contain similarly powerful anti-inflammatory compounds, like curcumin. Curcumin is a powerful compound found primarily in the spice turmeric.
One study highlighted curcumin, along with resveratrol and flavonoids, in light of their ability to beneficially impact a variety of ailments. The “notion” that these plant-based foods could be responsible for disease intervention couldn’t be ignored, particularly for cancer, cardiovascular, neurological, respiratory and age-related diseases. Additionally:
“Exposure of the body to a stressful environment challenges cell survival and increases the risk of chronic disease developing. The polyphenols afford protection against various stress-induced toxicities through modulating intercellular cascades which inhibit inflammatory molecule synthesis, the formation of free radicals, nuclear damage and induce antioxidant enzyme expression. These responses have the potential to increase life expectancy.”
The same study concluded that these three compounds also have anti-inflammatory, cell- and DNA-protective properties. So limit your consumption of red wine and instead opt for curcumin, resveratrol and flavonoid-rich whole foods to fight inflammation and premature aging.
Antioxidants: Not Just a Buzzword
As the name suggests, antioxidants are the compounds that combat oxidation, a chemical process that can cause serious damage to the cells throughout your body. You may have guessed that blueberries and dark chocolate both contain antioxidants, but the fact is, their strength in these two foods can be described as impressive.
To explain the damaging aspects of oxidation, many scientists use the metaphor of a rusty bicycle or an apple that’s cut in half starting to turn brown. In a very real sense, that’s similar to what happens in your body when you smoke, work or live in a high-stress environment and/or eat a diet based largely on processed foods. The Atlantic explains:
“When there are disruptions in the natural oxidation process, highly unstable and potentially damaging molecules called free radicals are created. Oxygen triggers the formation of these destructive little chemicals, and, if left uncontrolled, they can cause damage to cells in the body.”
That’s where antioxidants come in, as some foods contain high amounts of antioxidants to fight the damage free radicals make in your body, and one reason why resveratrol is such a potent compound.
Flavonoids for Improved Brain Function and Decreased Disease Risk
Then there are flavonoids, and blueberries are famous for having a lot. One function of flavonoids is that they’ve been shown to be the element that improved brain function in clinical trials. In fact, one study found that when a group of elderly adults drank blueberry juice daily, blood flow to the brain increased and their cognitive function improved.
Exeter was also the site of this study, after which lead author Joanna Bowtell, associate professor of sport and health sciences, explained in NutraIngredients, “Epidemiological studies demonstrate that risk of dementia is reduced by higher fruit intake, and cognitive function is better in healthy older adults with a diet rich in plant-based foods.”
While flavonoids are found in most fruits and vegetables, nuts, seeds and green and black tea also contain these nutrients, specifically, as well as anthocyanins, which is where the deep color comes from. Red wine was included in the study, but should only be consumed in moderation. Multiple studies regale the protective exploits of deep-hued foods like red grapes and blueberries. The polyphenols they contain are natural plant chemicals that benefit every area of your body, including your brain, heart, skin, bones and gut.
At the same time function in these areas is improved and protected, blood pressure is normalized, inflammation is reduced, blood sugar levels are stabilized, your bones are built up and insulin resistance is lowered. Here’s another benefit: Flavonoids may help with erectile dysfunction. One study showed an 11 percent to 16 percent lower risk in men younger than 70 if they ate several foods rich in flavonoids.
The George Mateljan Foundation, a not-for-profit dedicated to healthy eating and cooking, notes that flavonoids support your nervous system, contribute to heart health and significantly “block the production of messaging molecules that promote inflammation.”
Who Doesn’t Love Chocolate or Its Brain-Boosting Power?
In dark chocolate, flavonoids are also abundant. One of them is in the form of epicatechin, which is also beneficial for optimal brain function, particularly for learning and memory, lowering your Alzheimer’s risk as well as improving mood and emotional stress, benefiting your vascular system and decreasing your stroke risk, one study notes. The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition published a list of the top 100 polyphenols, and cocoa powder ranked number four with 3,448 milligrams in every 100 grams.
Believe it or not, polyphenol benefits include boosting healthy gut bacteria for an overall improved gut microbiome, which you can benefit from by eating certain foods containing dark chocolate. Your bones benefit, too, so your risk of osteoporosis decreases. The caveat is that dark chocolate is the “good” chocolate because it doesn’t have the milk products and sugar that, obviously, milk chocolate contains.
Raw cacao nibs are one of the best choices, which can be eaten whole or ground into powder for use in recipes. When selecting chocolate, look for higher cacao and lower sugar content.
What you eat may not be something your doctor addresses as a significant option for crucial aspects of longevity and disease prevention, but the compounds that provide the most benefits are found in whole foods like blueberries and dark chocolate. If you choose foods that can provide better health as well as help prevent disease, you’ll feel and function better, and will most likely live longer.