By Dr. Mercola
Swiss scientists recently found an element in pomegranates with promising potential to slow the effects of aging. The breakthrough catapulted pomegranates into superfood status and earned the focus of at least one biotech company eager to take advantage of the data.
The journal Nature Medicine reported the findings submitted by researchers at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL). They discovered that a compound called urolithin A bumped up the running endurance of aged mice by an average of 42 percent.
Urolithin A is a metabolite naturally produced by your body when compounds called ellagitannins, found in pomegranates, break down bacteria in your gut.
Not surprisingly, the team at EPFL is working with biotech company Amazentis to produce a nutritional supplement, which they hope will increase people's stamina and muscle strength, even in the aging process. Amazentis co-founder, neuroscience professor and EPFL president, Dr. Patrick Aebischer, said:
"We believe our research, uncovering the health benefits of urolithin A, holds promise in reversing muscle ageing [sic]. It's a completely natural substance, and its effect is powerful and measurable."1
How Do Pomegranates Break Bacteria Down in Your Gut to Slow Aging?
When you eat a pomegranate, urolithin A is produced naturally when it's digested by gut bacteria. Tests aren't yet conclusive, but studies on rodents and nematodes (non-parasitic roundworms called Caenorhabditis elegans, or C. elegans), which both exhibited the metabolite, are said to be promising for humans.
Studies over many years have extolled the age-fighting properties of pomegranates, but there was no evidence to prove it. In spite of the hype that made the claim a little dubious, scientists decided to try further evaluation. Medical News Today explained:
"As we age, an important process that our cells rely on for energy slows down and begins to malfunction. This process — called 'mitophagy' — recycles worn-out mitochondria, the tiny powerhouses inside cells that make the chemical units of energy that fuel their work.
If worn-out mitochondria are not recycled, they and their decomposing components build up inside cells, eventually causing problems in many tissues, including muscle, which gradually becomes weaker."2
Clinical evidence reveals that when this "old" mitochondria builds up, it can become toxic and even trigger age-related diseases such as Parkinson's. Further, genetic mutations in the Parkinson's gene, called Fbxo7, prevent the mitophagy or elimination of worn-out mitochondria.3
Only the Urolithin A Molecule Can Kick-Start a Lagging Mitophagy Process
When the process of mitophagy begins getting sluggish, urolithin A is the only substance that can relaunch the clean-up process, Aebischer revealed.
Nematodes were the first subjects in urolithin A testing because they're multicellular, have several things in common with human cells, and develop from a fertilized egg. Further, when C. elegans roundworms are just 8 to 10 days old, they're considered old, so the researchers found them to be the perfect test specimen.
Significantly, when C. elegans worms were exposed to urolithin A, they not only lived an average of 45 percent longer, they also kept faulty mitochondria from accumulating.4
The scientists' next step was to test with mice, which netted the same if not better results, with an extra bit of information: Mice as old as 2 years of age ran 42 percent better than mice the same age that hadn't been subject to the compound.
More tests showed that young rats exposed to urolithin A exhibited enhanced capacity for exercise.
Scientists: Eating Pomegranates May Not Help You
While some people might hear about the EPFL studies for themselves and figure eating pomegranates might net at least some of the anti-aging and strength-bolstering benefits the animals found, scientists say because of the number of steps in its natural production process and the fact that the amount of urolithin A people produce varies widely, it's not quite that simple.
The ellagitannin precursor molecule in pomegranates mixes with water in your gut and breaks down into ellagic acid via bacteria to manufacture the urolithin A compound. You need certain gut bacteria to accomplish this, they say, not just the pomegranate.
The amount of bacteria varies from person to person and is sometimes nonexistent. If your gut bacteria don't produce urolithin A, it's probable that you won't reflect the mitochondria-recycling benefits exhibited in the study.
Urolithin A is currently under observation in human trials to deliver "finely calibrated doses" of the compound. EPFL's Laboratory of Integrative Systems Physiology
Professor Dr. Johan Auwerk explained:
"The fact that it works in two evolutionary distant species, it makes us very hopeful that it will also work in humans. That's the ultimate goal of our research.
Our work showed for the first time the importance of 'mitophagy' in the aging process, and in addition we provided a compound contained in the natural product pomegranate that could activate mitophagy and hence curb age-related disease as frailty, sarcopenia (muscle loss due to aging) or metabolic diseases linked with aging."5
If the human test results duplicate the other studies, it will indicate that urolithin A has the capacity to slow muscle aging in humans. The initial clinical trial on humans is anticipated by 2017.
Pomegranates Are Packed With Powerful Health Potential
Pomegranates are technically a berry, mentioned numerous times in the Old Testament, and are one of the most popular fruits in many areas of the world.
Cut into a pomegranate and you'll find a bitter "pith" — not unlike that found in an orange — and about 600 small, juice-filled seed sacs called arils containing a crunchy, edible seed. To get the most of these bite-sized "jewels," cut off the crown of the fruit, cut it into sections, and roll the arils out in a bowl of water with your fingers.
Pomegranates are highly prized for their free radical-zapping antioxidants. While both red wine and green tea contain high amounts, one study found commercial pomegranate juice to have three times more antioxidant activity.
However, eating whole fruits is better since fiber moderates the amount of potentially damaging fructose.
Additionally, the presence of the tannin punicalagin indicates that more than just the arils are used in commercial juice, and that the pith can be used for juicing, as well.6 According to a study in the Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry:
"This shows that pomegranate industrial processing extracts some of the hydrolyzable tannins present in the fruit rind. This could account for the higher antioxidant activity of commercial juices compared to the experimental ones.
In addition, anthocyanins, ellagic acid derivatives and hydrolyzable tannins were detected and quantified in the pomegranate juices."7
Tests in the same study showed that extracts from the entire fruit exerted more antioxidant activity than just the arils. The aforementioned ellagitannin contains even more compounds such as punicalagins and punicalins, which account for about half of this fruit's antioxidant ability.
So if you're planning to juice pomegranates at home, be sure to include the beneficial rind.
Another study took a comprehensive view of pomegranates in relation to their antioxidants, free-radical-scavenging capacity, total oxygen radical absorbance capacity (ORAC) and other factors in comparison with seven other fruit juices, including blueberry, orange and açaí, plus red wines and several teas, including green tea.
The study found that pomegranate juice "had the greatest antioxidant potency composite index among the beverages tested and was at least 20 percent greater than any of the other beverages tested."8
Antioxidants can decrease your risk of oxidative stress that exposes you to several serious diseases and chronic inflammation. One study said antioxidants may help delay the progression of Alzheimer's9 and the rapid deterioration of your tissues and organs.
In addition, tannins, anthocyanins and ellagic acid are important polyphenols in pomegranates that help with arthritis pain. They also contain vitamins C and K, folate, and the minerals potassium, copper and manganese.10 Together, these micronutrients help protect your cells against reactive oxygen species (ROS), cell damage and, yes, aging.
Disease-Fighting Power of Pomegranates
Pomegranate compounds can improve erectile dysfunction,11 and also squelch cancer cell proliferation and even bring about apoptosis, or cell death. The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC)12 noted that "in laboratory tests, pomegranate shows antiviral, antibacterial, and antioxidant properties." In regard to osteoarthritis, UMMC noted:
"Flavonols (a kind of antioxidant) similar to the ones found in pomegranate fruit have been suggested as treatments for osteoarthritis. Osteoarthritis happens when the cartilage in joints wears down and causes pain and stiffness. Researchers believe flavonols can help block inflammation that contributes to the destruction of cartilage.
… In test tubes, pomegranate extract blocked the production of an enzyme that destroys cartilage in the body. In one review of the scientific literature, researchers concluded that all of the studies reported positive effects of pomegranate juice or extract on osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis."
According to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center,13 pomegranates have been shown to be effective in lowering blood pressure and also in:
✓ Cancer prevention14
✓ HIV 16
✓ Atherosclerosis17 (hardening of the arteries)
✓ Coronary heart disease18
In 2007, Harvard Medical School published a review19 on the way pomegranate juice affects both prostate cancer and the heart:
"Two … studies suggest that pomegranate juice may help fight prostate cancer. In one study, scientists grew cells from highly aggressive cases of human prostate cancer in tissue cultures. Pomegranate fruit extracts slowed the growth of the cultured cancer cells and promoted cell death.
The researchers then implanted the cancer cells in mice. A group of mice that received water laced with pomegranate juice developed significantly smaller tumors than the untreated animals. In a preliminary study of men with prostate cancer, pomegranate juice lengthened patients' PSA doubling time (the longer the doubling time, the slower the tumor is growing) from 15 months before treatment to 54 months on the juice."
The same review discussed the benefits pomegranates may have on heart disease via its ability to protect LDL cholesterol from oxidative damage. Pomegranate juice also decreased carotid artery thickness20 and improved cardiac blood flow, but it may also interfere with some medications.