Polyphenols make case for eating lots of fruits and veggies of every color, shape, size, and taste. And ladies, read on! There is science to prove that dark chocolate in moderation may be good for you.
Polyphenols are a form of phytonutrients. Specifically, they are fat-soluble phytochemicals found in over 9,000 plant foods. Their job is to protect the plant from harm. Dr. Bland, PhD, states that the more a plant is subjected to harsh conditions, the more phytonutrients it creates. This is one reason he believes that organic foods may be more nutrient-dense than conventionally raised crops—plants raised organically without the use of heavy fertilizers and pesticides have to defend themselves against the elements more, creating more phytonutrients in the process.
What foods contain polyphenols?
Polyphenols are commonly found in fruits, veggies, legumes, cereals, tea (black, white, and green), red wine, chocolate, and olive oil. Common fruits and vegetables high in polyphenols include apples, blackberries, blueberries, cantaloupes, pomegranates, cherries, cranberries, grapes, pears, plums, raspberries, aronia berries, strawberries, broccoli, cabbage, celery, onions, and parsley. A full list can be found at:
In addition, many artificial flavorings and coloring agents made from petroleum products contain phenols.
Why are polyphenols important to our health?
Many of us in the FM world consider Dr. Jeffrey Bland to be the father of functional medicine. He has always been ahead of the curve, but I believe his most important contributions are his findings on the interaction between food and its ability to control gene expression. Whether a gene is turned on or off can drastically affect our health, so this is a huge finding.
Phytochemicals have been shown to communicate with certain genes that control the production and release of inflammatory messengers. This process translates our food directly into genetic information. For me, that is beyond wow! The fact that food can change our genetic expression means we may have a way to reset the body to potentially avoid certain diseases and conditions.
Polyphenols have been shown in the scientific literature to help alleviate degenerative diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular issues, Alzheimer’s, osteoporosis, etc.—in other words, pretty much any condition that is rooted in inflammation. They have been shown to help control cell proliferation and cell death, functions that minimize the risk of developing cancer. Polyphenols may also have antioxidant effects and aid in heavy metal chelation. Most important, though, is their ability to affect our gut microbiotia, which can influence our genetic expression.
Polyphenols act as a prebiotic for good bacteria because polyphenols are difficult to absorb, which means they’re sent to the large intestines largely unprocessed, giving our gut bacteria the job of breaking them down. A 2013 study in Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry titled “Benefits of Polyphenols on Gut Microbiota and Implications in Human Health” shows that there is a symbiotic relationship between the gut bacteria and the metabolites of these compounds: bacteria create the metabolites, and they in turn provide the food that is preferred by beneficial bacteria.
So what does all of this mean for our overall health picture? The 2013 Journal of Nutrition reported that older adults with a high polyphenol intake of over 650 mg per day had a 30% reduction in mortality compared to with those who consumed less than 500 mg per day. That’s good enough for me!
Well that’s the good news…..
There may be a catch 22 here. According to Dr. Datis Kharrazian, if your microbiome is not healthy, it many not be able to process the polyphenols. Given time, these compounds should help the diversity the biome enough to start effectively processing them.
Unfortunately, there are some folks that have franks sensitivities to these foods. According to Dr. Rosemary Waring, PhD, phenols seem to affect the body by interfering with an enzyme in our sulfation pathway. Sulfation is an important detoxification pathway responsible for the elimination of steroid and thyroid hormones, neurotransmitters, and toxins created by intestinal bacteria. This same pathway is also used to remove artificial food colorings, artificial flavorings, and some preservatives from our bodies. Those with leaky gut are far more susceptible to issues with phenols, especially a type called salicylates.
What are salicylates?
The list of salicylate-containing foods is enough to make you cry and you might have to give up aspirin as well. Specific phenol foods can be found at http://salicylatesensitivity.com/about/food-guide/fruits/. Salicylates are inherent to plants to protect themselves from insects and disease.
Dr. Feingold states that folks with phenol sensitivities who consumes large quantities of foods high in phenol or foods containing salicylates may experience some of these symptoms:
- Anaphylaxis (rare)
- Breathing difficulties
- Changes in skin color
- Cognitive and perceptual disorders
- Eye muscle disorder
- Itchy skin, rash, or hives
- Itchy, watery, or swollen eyes
- Joint pain
- Lack of concentration or memory
- Mouth ulcers or raw hot red rash around mouth
- Nasal polyps
- Persistent cough
- Stomach aches or upsets
- Swelling of eyelids, face, and lips
- Swelling of hands and feet
- Urgency to pass water or bedwetting
Additional symptoms include chronic fatigue syndrome-like symptoms, anxiety disorders, night waking, night sweats, and irritability. I have also read that children may have dark circles under their eyes, red ears, and a pale face.
What to do?
The effect may be cumulative and delayed, so the only way to know if phenols, salicylates, or additives are affecting your health is to limit them for a period of time and then bring them back in to see how they make you feel. You may choose to first exclude all of the man-made sources of phenols and salicylates to see how you do. In addition, you may support digestion of moderate phenol and salicylate consumption by taking a digestive enzyme especially tailored for phenols with each meal.
The Feingold Program removes high-phenol foods and salicylate-containing foods from the diet and has been doing so for years. It also removes artificial colorings and flavorings (i.e., FD&C colors, vanillin), artificial preservatives (BHA, BHT, and TBHQ), and aspartame. The program also takes away non-food phenol and salicylate sources, including aspirin, toothpaste, medicines, and gum.
They are also quick to point out:
- “The amount of salicylate can vary from one variety of a fruit to another, and even the levels in a particular plant can change. For example, organic fruits in an orchard that has been attacked by pests will make more salicylate than other fruits.
- Different parts of a plant might have different levels of salicylate. The amounts can vary between the pulp, seeds, and peel of a fruit or vegetable.
- Sensitivity can vary depending on whether the fruit or vegetable is raw or cooked. For example, fresh pineapple may cause a problem for the same person who tolerates canned pineapple or pineapple juice. (Canned pineapple is acceptable on Stage One of the Feingold Diet, but fresh pineapple should not be used at the very beginning.
- Foods grown in one region might not be the same as foods grown in another.
- We don’t even know that it is only the salicylate in a food that is to blame; there could be other naturally occurring chemicals that play a part.
- Typically, a salicylate-sensitive person has problems with only some—not all—salicylates.
- Salicylate sensitivity can change; frequently a person who avoids them for a year or so can later tolerate moderate amounts of them.
- “Other items to consider are “perfumes and fragrances, nitrites and nitrates, monosodium glutamate [MSG], hydrolyzed vegetable protein [may contain MSG], sulfites/sulfiting agents, benzoates, and corn syrup [made from hydrogen sulfide + corn starch and many other added chemicals].”
Finally, according to a 1994 article in Biochemical Pharmacology, high doses of vitamin B6 can aggravate the situation, so be careful with your doses if you supplement with B6, especially if you experience burning or tingling at your extremities.