Corrinne Burns: With purported activity against cardiac disease, cancer and even ageing, the pressure on resveratrol to deliver is enormous
In an increasingly chemophobic world, one chemical – resveratrol – is doing rather well for itself. This polyphenolic stilbenoid is a natural product found in peanuts, cocoa powder and the roots of Japanese knotweed, but it only came to public prominence as the health-promoting component of red wine, in which it is present at levels of up to 14 milligrams per litre, depending on the grape variety.
As molecules go, it is certainly a multitasker, with purported activity against cardiac disease, obesity, cancer, vascular dementia and ageing. That’s a lot of pressure to put on one molecule. Can resveratrol live up to our expectations?
Many of these claims centre upon its ability to reduce oxidation in cells: its fabled antioxidant activity. All molecules, including biological ones, carry around their own cloud of electrons. These are most stable when they exist in pairs. Sometimes, though, electron pairs split. Then you’re left with an unpaired electron – and unpaired electrons like nothing more than to mess with other biological molecules.
Left unchecked, molecules carrying unpaired electrons can trigger cascades of damage to other molecules in our cells. Resveratrol is thought to interrupt those destructive cascades by transferring electrons and hydrogen atoms between itself and troublesome, lone-electron-carrying molecules.
Resveratrol can do much more than that, though. It encourages the production of endothelial nitric oxide, which dilates blood vessels. Researchers have demonstrated that this ability to open up blood vessels means resveratrol can protect against hypertension – at least in rats and mice. It is also an anti-inflammatory, disrupting the activity of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2), which is crucial to the production of inflammatory prostaglandins.