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Polyphenols for immune balance

Key Points

  • Polyphenols are plant nutrients being studied for their effects on a variety of aspects of wellness
  • Polyphenols may especially have a positive effect on our immune balance
  • Polyphenols appear to act on the microbiome, the immune system, our metabolism and on pathways related to oxidative stress
  • Polyphenols are found in high levels in spices, teas, coffee, and colorful fruits and vegetables
  • Stress-resistant plants like Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat are also rich sources of unique polyphenols
  • Consuming more polyphenols in their natural forms may help improve our immune balance

What are polyphenols?

When thinking about the nutritional benefits of food, you’ve likely heard about macronutrients aka “macros”. Macronutrients include fats, proteins and carbohydrates. Our food also contains micronutrients, which are vitamins and minerals. But we now understand that the plants we eat can be rich in a third group of nutrients called phytonutrients, which may have a number of important effects on our health. Of all the types of phytonutrients, polyphenols are among the most studied for their effects on our general and our immune wellness

Polyphenols are a unique group of plant nutrients being studied for their effects on human wellness

Polyphenols are a large and diverse group of molecules. In fact, over 8,000 polyphenols have been identified! The biggest group of polyphenols are called flavonoids. In general, polyphenols are most concentrated in colorful fruits, leafy vegetables, tea, coffee, wine, cocoa and certain unique plants like Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat. Plants produce polyphenols to help protect themselves against environmental stressors, so plants that are good at dealing with stress tend to be rich in polyphenols.

What does the research say about polyphenols and wellness?

The first researcher to observe the healthful properties of polyphenols was Nobel prize winner Albert Szent-Györgyi in the 1930’s. Later, research expanded this work to a wide variety of potential pathways that may impact our wellness. Now, scientists across the world are learning how polyphenols may impact specific aspects of our biology.  

What does the research say about polyphenols and immune wellness?

One of the areas where polyphenols may of particular benefit is in balancing immune wellness. Why would this be the case? With 70% of the immune system based in the gut, polyphenols absorbed in our GI tract come into contact with our gut immune cells. Some polyphenols are absorbed in the small intestine directly, but most pass into the large intestine (colon) where they influence and are influenced by our gut microbiome. In fact, it’s thought that polyphenols help influence the microbiome, just as a healthy microbiome helps us benefit from polyphenols.

Here are some recent studies showing a link between polyphenols, gut and immune health:

  • A 2021 paper found that eating a diet rich in polyphenols was linked to markers of better gut wellness
  • A 2020 review paper reported a link between polyphenols and gut immune balance as well as better microbiome health

How do polyphenols work?

A number of studies point to diverse roles of polyphenols in influencing human wellness. While the science here is pretty technical, some important ways that polyphenols work include:

What are the best food sources of polyphenols?

Generally speaking, some of the richest dietary sources of polyphenols are:

  • Berries
  • Apples, grapes, peaches, and plums (especially the skins!)
  • Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits
  • Spices like cloves and turmeric
  • Colorful vegetables like red onions, spinach, and broccoli
  • Coffee, tea, and red wine
  • Olive oil

Unfortunately, top sources of calories in our modern diet are grains that are relatively low in their polyphenol content, especially when they’re refined. Compared to staple cereals like wheat, corn, rice, and even conventional buckwheat. Himalayan Tartary Buckwheat (a non-grain seed) is a unique gluten-free option that has proven to be especially high in polyphenols.

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