Polyphenols: Support Your Gut Microbiome
It’s not headline news that fruit and vegetables play a key role in a healthy diet. They are known to be packed with important vitamins, minerals, and fibre, however, there are also a number of other compounds that give plants their nutritional power.
Meet polyphenols, another reason to pack your menu with plants.
Over the last decade, polyphenols have stirred a lot of interest as research suggests that they may have several health benefits, thanks to their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
What are polyphenols?
Polyphenols are natural compounds present in many foods and beverages, namely in fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, cereals, tea, coffee, spices and wine.
Their biological activities are being investigated by many researchers as they have been recognised for their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, meaning they could decrease the risk for many chronic diseases and conditions.
Polyphenols are the most abundant antioxidant in the human body. So far, more than 8,000 types of polyphenols have been identified, however not all short- and long-term health effects have been distinguished and some have cautioned that there may be harmful effects as a result of overconsumption when compounds are consumed in their isolated form.
Different types of polyphenols and their food sources
Polyphenols can be split into four main categories based on their chemical composition.
1. Phenolic acids
This group accounts for around 30% of all polyphenols. You can find them in the seed, skins and leaves of many plants, but they are particularly rich in acidic-tasting fruits.
Flavonoids account for around 60% of all polyphenols and can be found in fruits, vegetables, tea, cacao and wine. Flavonoids are the pigments responsible for the bright colours of many fruits and vegetables.
Stilbenes are a smaller group of polyphenols, and these are abundant in peanuts, grapes, berries and red wine.
These are found in whole grains, fruits, nuts, and seeds. The richest sources of lignans include flax seeds and sesame seeds.
Researchers have started to identify a link between polyphenols and gut health. Specifically, initial research suggests polyphenols may promote the growth of beneficial gut bacteria and inhibit the growth of potentially harmful bacteria.
Furthermore, research shows that there may be interactions between polyphenols and probiotics. Some compounds in polyphenols may increase the functionality and survival of probiotics under exposure to gastrointestinal conditions.
This positive influence on the composition of your gut bacteria can also have beneficial outcomes for your brain and mood. Your gut-brain axis provides two-way communication between your gastrointestinal tract and your central nervous system. It plays an important role in your stress response, and your gut microbiota can act upon your nervous, hormonal and immune systems to influence your brain function.
In addition to gut health, research is ongoing into the effect of polyphenols on cardiovascular health, insulin sensitivity and type 2 diabetes, cognitive performance, and cancer treatment (specifically breast cancer).
How to incorporate more polyphenols into your diet?
It’s actually not as difficult as you might think! All plants contain polyphenols, so by eating plenty of fruits, vegetables and other plant-based foods, you will enjoy all the beneficial deliciousness. Some might find it hard to get to their 5-a-day, but it can be pretty simple with a few small changes.
- Cook at home using fresh ingredients rather than eating out or ordering a takeaway. This also allows you to pick the fruit and veg you like, making you more likely to eat it.
- Create a rainbow on your plate. The more colours, the more different nutrients you’ll be eating and the more benefits you will obtain.
- Experiment with different cooking and prepping methods. For example, raw, steamed, boiled, blended, and mashed are all ways you can prepare the fruit and vegetable components of a meal. Changing the cooking or prep method keeps things new and exciting, even when repeating the same ingredients.
- Consume seasonal produce. Consuming produce which is available in different seasons will challenge and encourage you to try new flavours and recipes.
- Snack on fruit and vegetables. This is an easy way to increase your fruit and veg intake, and it involves minimal preparation. If that’s not exciting enough for you, try spreading peanut butter on your apple chunks, or dipping carrots in hummus, for added flavour and texture experience.
- Try consuming plant-based meals once or twice per week. Swap your portion of meat for legumes, a soy product and/or whole grains.
So what about polyphenol supplementation?
Supplements provide the added benefit of offering a consistent dose of polyphenols. However, there have been some concerns expressed regarding the supplementation of these compounds.
First of all, it’s important, as with all supplements, that they do not replace the intake of healthy whole foods. Consuming whole foods will provide additional nutritional benefits such as fibre and other macro and micronutrients. We always take a food first approach, encouraging our clients to prioritise real food rather than consuming an isolated polyphenolic compound.
Secondly, there has been concern expressed, regarding the levels of polyphenols within the supplements on the market, specifically that the levels of polyphenols within these supplements might be too high and potentially harmful. Some supplements contain intakes over 100-times higher than those currently associated with a Western diet. The mechanisms and effects of polyphenols in human bodies need first a complete understanding so safe and beneficial levels of polyphenol intake can be adequately recommended.
The bottom line is that with small but significant changes and a varied and colourful diet you can easily incorporate polyphenols into your daily diet. Incorporating these powerful plant compounds may reduce the risk for many chronic diseases, as well as keep your gut and brain healthy and happy.
To make it easier for you, we’ve recently teamed up with Eaten Alive, a leading UK producer of live fermented food, adding extra polyphenols and feel-good live cultures to your meals.
What’s not to love?
Cory, H. et al. 2018. The Role of Polyphenols in Human Health and Food Systems: A Mini-Review. Frontiers in Nutrition, 5.
Abdal Dayem, A. et al. 2016. The Anti-Cancer Effect of Polyphenols against Breast Cancer and Cancer Stem Cells: Molecular Mechanisms. Nutrients, 8(9), p.581.
de Souza, E. et al. 2018. Potential interactions among phenolic compounds and probiotics for mutual boosting of their health-promoting properties and food functionalities – A review. Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 59(10), pp.1645-1659.