The Qwest for Longevity—Chocolate and Wine
We are all probably aware of the headlines that hit the news a few years back that reported about red wine and its benefits. I recall reading about the French people who were lucky enough to eat a diet high in fat with lots of cheeses, dairy, and high fat foods yet maintain relatively good health (better health than we had in the U.S.) News reports speculated that the French people drank red wine regularly and this may have affected these results. This caught my interest — kind of like having your cake and eating it too! I myself have never had enough courage to really test the theory on a regular basis as I was sure my body would take in the calories of a glass of wine per day only to land on my hips. But the red wine benefits tout much more than maintaining a healthy weight. Claims of extending life, averting cancer and heart disease, and creating the muscles of a champion athlete without training were all part of the benefits.
Being somewhat intrigued with the theory, I decided to investigate it a bit further. I recently read the book The Longevity Factor by Joseph Maroon. Maroon wrote of the long history of the biology of humans and our evolution. Even though our life span has increased over the years, our potential for living longer is mostly untapped. Yes, we have increased our average life span over the past two centuries but most of us don’t expect to live much beyond 100 years, if we make it that far. This recent research in the quest towards longevity has some surprising results.
There are some facts that we do know about increasing our longevity. Research dating back to the 1930s has proven that calorie reduction has true life altering benefits. Not only have animals responded to calorie reduction by living longer, they also have a lower incidence of most age-associated diseases. Studies show that rodents fed 60 percent less of the daily calories outlived their counterparts by more than 50 percent in some cases. (Crowell, 1934) And some humans are actually living this out by vastly reducing their calorie intake by 40% of the recommended daily allowance. However, it is difficult to maintain this commitment because a person gets hungry! The Calorie Restriction Society advocates this approach, stating that a person needs to maintain a body weight of 25% less than medically recommended. There are many risks of this diet if calories that are eaten are not balanced nutritionally. And even though the results were positive, until recently scientists never really knew why this worked to increase longevity and reduce the age-related diseases.
The answer may rest in a survival gene which, when activated, promotes longevity. When calories are restricted it stresses the organism. This stress directly affects energy production. When an organism is under stress, mechanisms within the cell that help survival kick into action. SIR2 enzyme levels rise when survival is activated, promoting longevity. Scientists have identified 19 compounds that will stimulate SIR2 activity. All of these compounds were found in red wine grapes or other plant sources. All but two of these were polyphenols, which we know are beneficial in heart and brain protection and cancer-suppression.
Polyphenols are the most abundant antioxidants in our diet. These polyphenols, found mostly in plants, are extremely effective at protecting plants and animals against health problems and the effects of aging. Plants that are stressed by drought, infection, ultraviolet radiation from sunlight and other natural problems produce even more of these protective polyphenols – one of which is called resveratrol. This polyphenol is what is found in high concentration within the skin of red grapes used for wine. When experiments were conducted using resveratrol, the results showed an increase in the lifespan of some organisms up to 60%. Even though it is a powerful antioxidant, it may be that the resveratrol has even more significant benefits by increasing lifespan. Animals in these studies activated their own “scarcity genes” or “longevity factors” without needing to suffer caloric restriction by ingesting molecules from stressed plants.
Resveratrol is only one of the polyphenols found in the skin of red wine berries. There are numerous others. However, these may not be as abundant in our wine as they once were due to the pesticides and insecticides used on the grapes which take away some of the stress on the grapes thus producing less amounts of polyphenols. Those grapes grown 40 years ago do carry a larger amount (almost two times more) of polyphenols because back then pesticides were not widely used. The highest resveratrol content grapes are grown in humid, cool locations where fungus is most common.
So what will resveratrol really do? It is found to offset the bad health effects of a high-calorie diet and to significantly extend life span. In a Harvard experiment mice given a high calorie, high-fat diet responded similarly as humans with an increase in glucose and insulin levels that led to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and fatty deposits in the livers. However, when this same high-calorie group was given resveratrol, their tendency towards diabetes and other age-related diseases was reduced, although they still gained weight. These resveratrol-treated mice also showed improvement in balance and motor coordination. (J. Baur, 2006) Another study took this one step further by examining various organs and tissue. High-calorie-fed animals showed a buildup of fat and a loss of cellular integrity. However, those given doses of resveratrol showed a dramatic increase in aerobic capacity and endurance. Plus, with higher doses of resveratrol, these mice did not gain weight in spite of a high-calorie diet. (J. Baur, 2006)
Essentially, this research demonstrated the following benefits of resveratrol. Despite a high-fat diet, the mice did not gain weight and had smaller fat cells. The mice were protected from developing diabetes. Energy producing mitochondria in muscle cells were increased without additional exercise. Body fat burning was boosted. Aerobic capacity increased. Blood sugar levels were moderated. Muscle fibers were transformed into the type seen in trained athletes without training. Muscle strength was enhanced with a reduction of muscle fatigue. Coordination was improved and there were no adverse effects on the liver or other organ cells. It sounds like you might be able to have your cake and eat it too! (Joseph Marroon, 2009)
Maroon’s book is full of more information about the effects of resveratrol. And although there is still much more information to be discovered through ongoing research, he recommends we take advantage of some of this information now by incorporating these principles into our lives. Eat and drink natural food with the highest polyphenol antioxidant content such as red wine, grape juice, green tea, dark chocolate and apples. Take supplements containing super-concentrated polyphenol and resveratrol from natural sources. Take resveratrol as a dietary supplement. He suggests that we treat food as more than fuel for our body but that we see it as a way to affect our genes and how they function. Maroon gives a guideline that we have a xeno score of 20 points per day. These are points that rate the amount of polyphenol content in the foods we eat. Some of the higher valued foods (five points) include red wine (6 fl oz), blueberries (3/4 cup), dark chocolate (70% cocoa that is unsweetened or slightly sweetened), green tea (6 fl oz); pomegranate, and eggplant (1/2 cup). ( Marroon, 2009)
It is exciting information, yet I don’t think I will make lasagna every night of the week topped off with a bottle of red wine for my nightly beverage or skip my work out regime just yet. However, I am working at being conscientious about bringing the foods into my daily life that may, in fact, impact much more than getting me through the day in a good way.
Crowell, C. M. (1934). Prolonging the lifespan. Scientific Monthly , 405-414.
J. Baur, K. J. (2006). Resveratrol improves health and survival of mice on a high-calorie diet. Nature 444 , 337-342.
Marroon, Joseph M. (2009). The Longevity Factor. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker
Licensed Independent Mental Health Practitioner
- Janie Pfeifer Watson, LICSW, is the founder and director of Wholeness Healing Center, a mental health practice in Grand Island, Nebraska with remote sites in Broken Bow and Kearney. Her expertise encompasses a broad range of areas, including depression, anxiety, attachment and bonding, coaching, couples work, mindfulness, trauma, and grief. She views therapy as an opportunity to learn more about yourself as you step more into being your authentic self. From her perspective this is part of the spiritual journey; on this journey, she serves as a mirror for her clients as they get to know themselves—and, ultimately, to love themselves.
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