Faculty Peer Reviewed
For thousands of years, humans have been fascinated with the idea of slowing and perhaps even reversing the process of aging. From Ponce de León to modern research into substances like telomerase and resveratrol, philosophers, explorers, and scientists have dedicated countless hours to this pursuit.
Resveratrol, a substance found in the skin of red grapes and other plants such as eucalyptus, spruce, and lily, has developed a buzz for its hypothesized potential to slow the aging process in humans while improving quality of life and reducing the incidence of chronic disease. The idea that resveratrol has the ability to produce positive change in humans stems from research that has been conducted on its effects in animals, including mice, worms, fish, and fruit flies. In some of these studies, resveratrol has been demonstrated to increase life expectancy and exercise capacity as well as decrease the incidence of cancer[1,2].
While resveratrol is found in the skin of red grapes and is a constituent of red wine, it is not naturally found in sufficient amounts to produce the hypothesized benefits. It is being sold as a nutritional supplement that is produced by extraction from plants or directly from chemical synthesis. As a result of marketing and advertising, patients will be asking their doctors about resveratrol and its potential benefits.
Resveratrol exerts some of its effects through a mechanism similar to that of calorie restriction. When mice in a lab are fed reduced-calorie diets while maintaining appropriate levels of vitamins and minerals, they have an increased lifespan and a decreased incidence of obesity and chronic disease. During periods of calorie restriction, the body activates genes that focus more of its energy on repair and less on growth. One of the best known of these genes, SIRT1, helps to stabilize DNA; by reducing damage to DNA, the rate of aging is decreased and the risk of cancer is reduced. Resveratrol activates SIRT1, providing a scientifically plausible mechanism for these effects. In addition, resveratrol has been shown to decrease free radical formation, another major cause of DNA damage, and modulate other substances in cells, leading to a reduced risk of tumor formation.
While the theoretical benefits of resveratrol are promising, there has not yet been definitive research demonstrating either its effectiveness in increasing lifespan and preventing disease or its long-term safety in humans. Although the animal studies are exciting, we must be cautious in extrapolating these benefits to humans. Indeed, resveratrol may in fact be partly responsible for some of the positive health benefits that have been associated with the consumption of moderate amounts of red wine, although studies have yet to confirm this association. Resveratrol is believed to be relatively safe for consumption as a supplement. As with all nutritional supplements, its sale is not regulated by the FDA, and consumers should buy it from reputable producers. It is also recommended that those considering adding resveratrol as a daily supplement consult with their physician first.
Lee Rasamny is a 4th year medical student at NYU Langone Medical Center
Peer reviewed by John Papadopoulos, B.S., Pharm D., Pharmacology Section Editor, Cinical Correlations
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
1. Bass TM, Weinkove D, Houthoofd K, Gems D, Partridge L. Effects of resveratrol on lifespan in Drosophila melanogaster and Caenorhabditis elegans. Mech Ageing Development. 2007;128(10):546–552. http://www.ucl.ac.uk/iha/pdfs/160_-_Effects_of_reservatol_on_lifespan.pdf
2. Valenzano DR, Terzibasi E, Genade T, Cattaneo A, Domenici L, Cellerino A. Resveratrol prolongs lifespan and retards the onset of age-related markers in a short-lived vertebrate. Curr Biol. 2006;16(3):296–300. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16461283
3. Pearson KJ, Baur JA, Lewis KN, et al. Resveratrol delays age-related deterioration and mimics transcriptional aspects of dietary restriction without extending life span. Cell Metab. 2008;8(2):157-168.
4. Leonard SS, Xia C, Jiang B, et al. Resveratrol scavenges reactive oxygen species and effects radical-induced cellular responses. Biochem Biophys Res Commun. 2003;309(4):1017-1026. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/13679076