Have you heard of the so-called “French paradox?” It refers to the fact that despite their high cholesterol and high saturated fat diet, the French do not develop cardiovascular diseases because of their high red wine intake.1 While this belief most likely stemmed from a marketing campaign perpetuated by the wine industry,2 there may be some truth to this, as red wine contains a potent antioxidant known as resveratrol.3
However, drinking red wine is not the only way to get resveratrol, and you should not rely on it as your primary source of this antioxidant as it can pose negative effects due to its alcohol content. But first, let’s touch on what resveratrol is and how it may do your body good.
What is resveratrol?
Resveratrol, also known as 3,4′,5-trihydroxystilbene, is a naturally occurring compound found in a number of plants. It belongs to stilbenes, a class of polyphenolic compounds, and acts like an antioxidant. It may be a chemopreventive agent as well.4 Resveratrol is actually designed to help increase the life span of these plants by making them resistant to diseases, injury and various stressors, including excessive UV radiation, drastic climate changes and fungal infections.5,6
The discovery of resveratrol can be attributed to Japanese scientist Michio Takaoka, who first isolated the compound in 1939.7 He took it from the rhizomes of the white hellebore (Veratrum grandiflorum Loes),8 which thrives in the Nagano Prefecture.9
Many years later, in 1963, another Japanese scientist known only as Nonomura isolated resveratrol from Japanese knotweed.10 In traditional Chinese medicine, this herb has been used for many centuries to help ease cough, treat jaundice and manage hepatitis.11 Knotweed is known to have the highest resveratrol concentration among plant sources.12
It was only in 1976 that the presence of resveratrol in grapes became known,13 and only in 1992 was it discovered to be in wine.14 More studies regarding the potential benefits of resveratrol are still being conducted.
Ditch the wine: Here are other food sources of resveratrol
You can get resveratrol from a number of plant foods, but most people believe the misconception that they can simply drink red wine to reap the benefits of this potent antioxidant. But as mentioned above, this can pose unwanted adverse health effects.
Although some studies claim that resveratrol is highly soluble in alcohol,15 making it more absorbable in red wine, this should not be reason enough to rely on wine as your main source. First of all, alcohol is a neurotoxin that can severely damage your brain, heart and other organs.16 Plus, it increases your insulin levels.17
Some wines and other alcohol beverages like beer have also been shown to be contaminated with glyphosate,18 the active and carcinogenic ingredient in Roundup herbicide. Hence, I would advise you to get this compound from healthier food sources or to take a resveratrol supplement.
Muscadine grapes are known to have high resveratrol concentrations.19 Most of the antioxidants in grapes, including resveratrol, are found in their skins and seeds.20 In fact, one gram of fresh grape skin contains at least 50 to 100 micrograms of resveratrol.21 Other potent sources of this nutrient include:22
The problem with most of these food sources, specifically the grapes and berries, is that they’re particularly high in fructose. Consuming them in excessive amounts may prove to be detrimental to your glucose levels, especially if you are insulin resistant.
In addition, if you want to get resveratrol from cacao, make sure that you consume organic dark chocolate or raw cacao, and not the milk chocolate varieties that are loaded with sugar. Another potent, yet lesser-known, source of resveratrol is itadori tea, made from Japanese knotweed. It has a long history of use as a traditional herbal remedy by the Chinese and Japanese, and is said to help protect against stroke and heart disease.25
If you aren’t receiving enough resveratrol from food sources such as these, I recommend taking a high-quality resveratrol supplement. Ideally, look for a whole food complex that makes use of muscadine grape skin and seeds.
What are the benefits of resveratrol?
As an antioxidant, resveratrol is known for combating damaging free radicals in your body.26 However, its benefits go beyond that, as it has been found to have anti-inflammatory and anticarcinogenic properties as well.27 That’s why this potent compound may be highly useful for helping to fight and reduce the risk of a variety of chronic illnesses.28
One of the standout benefits of this potent antioxidant is its neuroprotective effects, which may help slow or prevent the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia and stroke.29 Resveratrol supplements can cross your blood-brain barrier to quell inflammation in your central nervous system.30 This type of inflammation actually plays an important role in the development of neurodegenerative illnesses.31
Resveratrol also shows promise in improving cerebral blood flow,32 which is responsible for its protective effects against stroke and vascular dementia. To summarize, here are some of the effects that resveratrol can have on your brain (and overall) health:
- May help protect against depression33
- Helps improve brain blood flow34
- Helps suppress brain inflammation35
- May inhibit plaque buildup, which may lead to Alzheimer’s36
- Has antioxidant and antimicrobial properties37
- May improve learning, mood and memory38
Another impressive way that resveratrol can boost your well-being is its ability to improve mitochondrial health. According to a study published in the journal Nature, mice that are on a high-calorie diet exhibited better health and a higher survival rate after taking resveratrol.39
In another study, it was found that improved mitochondrial health through resveratrol helped protect against metabolic disease, diet-induced obesity and insulin resistance. It does this by activating SIRT1 and PGC-1alpha, which are the primary drivers for mitochondrial biogenesis.40 And, at least one other study showed that resveratrol may improve glycemic control and decrease insulin resistance.41
Resveratrol may have potential benefits against cancer
There is a growing number of studies that support resveratrol’s potential effects on cancer, with evidence dating as far back as 1997.42 Cancer researchers took great interest in these findings, particularly resveratrol’s ability to make cancerous tumors more vulnerable to conventional cancer treatments like chemotherapy and radiotherapy.43
A 2011 review of dietary agents that have tumor-sensitizing properties (making them more susceptible to chemo drugs) found that resveratrol was a clear candidate owing to its multitargeting properties.44 Some cancers that resveratrol may have a substantial effect on include:
- Prostate cancer45
- Acute promyelocytic leukemia46
- Lung carcinoma47
- Multiple myeloma48
- Pancreatic cancer49
A 2011 study notes that resveratrol may help alleviate some of the debilitating side effects of chemotherapy and radiotherapy, which include depression, fatigue, anorexia, neuropathic pain and sleep disorders, to name a few. The authors noted that these symptoms occur due to “dysregulation of inflammatory pathways” in your system, which explains the efficacy of this antioxidant.50
Are there side effects of resveratrol?
Resveratrol is generally safe and, according to WebMD,51 there are no severe side effects associated with this supplement, even in high doses. However, it’s still best to exercise caution and consult with your physician before taking this supplement.
You should also be careful if you’re taking drugs to manage a disease. Resveratrol may interact with and increase the effectiveness of medications like blood thinners and NSAIDs, so refrain from taking this supplement if you’re using these prescription drugs.52 In fact, resveratrol has been noted to inhibit aggregation of platelets in high-risk patients who are resistant to aspirin.53
Do not give this supplement to children, as well as pregnant or breastfeeding women, without the advice of a health practitioner.
Resveratrol can reap benefits with a solid nutritional basis
The benefits of resveratrol can be far-reaching, but take note that taking it will be useless if you do not address your overall diet and lifestyle. Make sure that you cover the basics, such as consuming healthy, well-balanced meals, following a regular exercise routine, managing your stress and getting sufficient sleep.
As with other supplements, resveratrol only serves as a complement to your diet and should not be treated as a solution or cure to your health problems.
Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about resveratrol
Q: What does resveratrol do?
A: Resveratrol is a polyphenolic compound that naturally occurs in plants. It works as a potent antioxidant that makes plants resistant to diseases, injury and various stressors, including excessive UV radiation, drastic climate changes and fungal infections. Hence, it is said that when you consume resveratrol, you also get the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects that it offers.54,55
Q: What is resveratrol used for?
A: Resveratrol is basically used to help combat damaging free radicals in the body.56 It has shown promise against chronic illnesses, and has a particularly potent neuroprotective effect, offering protection against diseases like vascular dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and stroke.57 It’s also shown promise in boosting mitochondrial health58 and may even have anticancer benefits.59,60