We're only at the starting line for polyphenols' potential in sports nutrition, expert says

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

Polyphenols pack potential in sports nutrition

Related tags Antioxidant

As more research continues to pile up on the effects of free radicals and inflammation on sports performance, the promise of polyphenols in this arena will only grow, said an expert.

Polyphenols are abundant in many plant food sources.  But they may not be abundant in the body; that is completely dependent on an individual’s diet and supplementation routine. The body does not synthesize these molecules.

“For recreational and professional athletes, boosting their intake of polyphenols is particularly important because these compounds benefits to the cardiovascular system are essential to helping the body deliver oxygen to calls throughout the body during physical activity and recovery from exercise, while also contributing to capillary strength, the health of the endothelial lining of blood vessels, which has been shown in vivo to reduce the formation of atherosclerotic lesions,”​ said Alex Schauss, PhD, who is senior research director at AIBMR Life Sciences.  AIBMR, which is based near Seattle, WA, provides scientific and regulatory consulting services.

Polyphenols as a class of chemicals have shown strong antioxidant properties. This is how they function in plants, helping to protect plant cells from ultraviolet radiation, oxidative damage that occurs when dealing with the plants use of oxidation products to deal with pathogens, and/or while trying to overcome stressful climatic conditions. These attributes of antioxidants led to the discovery that these compounds may also benefit humans if consumed in sufficient quantities to supplement the body’s own production of (endogenous) antioxidants.

There is a long history of use and much research backing polyphenols for cardiovascular benefits. Schauss said the evidence for the activity of polyphenolic ingredients for sports nutrition is not overwhelming, but is compellting. When consumed in sufficient amounts, polyphenols may beneficially affect exercise performance and recovery by reducing biomarkers of oxidative stress, and degree of exercise induced damage to muscles and joints. 

Those benefits could be especially helpful to consumers who are just starting to exercise as a sufficient intake of polyphenols can help damp down the post exercise discomfort and soreness that can discourage them and nip a nascent workout regimen in the bud. 

Evidence for athletes

But Schauss said the evidence is even more compelling for highly trained athletes. 

“During any intense exercise session the post-exercise recovery phase causes a condition known as exercise-induced muscle damage. Antioxidants consumed in foods that supplement the body’s efforts to combat the overproduction of oxidation products following intense exercise has been shown to promote recovery. For example, a study in New Zealand​ found that the antioxidants and anti-inflammatories found in blueberries aids in exercise recovery, compared to controls given a beverage without blueberries,”​ Schauss said.

Schauss has long been a proponent of açai, a fruit pulp ingredients from Brazil that is sourced from any of two species (Euterpe oleracea and Euterpe precatoria​), whose pulp was discovered in 2011 to contain a class of polyphenolic compounds known as flavones that exhibited potent anti-inflammatory bioactivity in addition to being antioxidants. In addition, the fruit’s pulp is particularly rich in another class of polyphenols called anthocyanins that have multiple health benefits. 

One of the reasons Schauss is enthusiastic about açai is the fruit’s fatty acid profile, which helps boost absorption of the polyphenolic molecules, which sometimes are absorbed poorly. 

“Açai pulp contains an unusually high concentration of the “good” fats (mono- and poly-unsaturated fatty acids),which means it has the ability to deliver more of the polyphenols in its pulp into the bloodstream compared to other polyphenol-rich food sources low in such fats, such as cranberries, blue berries, black raspberries, and strawberries,”​ Schauss said.

Other polyphenolic ingredients that have made a splash in sports nutrition include grape seed extract​ and tea polyphenols​.

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