Pass the polyphenols

Considering that virtually nothing was written about the health benefits of polyphenols before 1995, it continues to amaze me the amount of health benefits this group of nutrients generates. This is primarily due to our growing understanding of how these phytochemicals interact with the most primitive parts of our immune system that have been conserved through millions of years of evolution.

Three new studies add to this growing knowledge. In the January 2011 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, it was reported that eating one serving a week of blueberries could reduce the risk of developing hypertension by 10 percent (1). Since a serving size of fruit is defined as ½ cup, that serving size contains about 65 grams of blueberries. Put that into more precise molecular terms, this serving size would provide about 4,000 ORAC units or about the same amount of ORAC units as a glass of wine. The researchers speculated that there was a subclass of polyphenols (which includes delphinidins) that appear to be responsible for most of the effects. So if eating one serving of blueberries (½ cup) once a week is good for reducing the risk of hypertension, guess what the benefits of eating 1 cup of blueberries every day might be? The answer is probably a lot.

Speaking of red wine, in the second study in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications researchers found that giving high levels of isolated polyphenols from red wine demonstrated that exercise endurance in older rats could be significantly enhanced. Very good news for old folks like me. They hypothesized the effects may be directly related to “turning on” genes that increase the production of anti-oxidant enzymes (2). The only catch is that the amount of red wine polyphenols required to reach these benefits would equate to drinking about 20-30 glasses of red wine per day.

The final study in Medicine & Science in Sports and Exercise demonstrates that cherry juice rich in polyphenols reduces muscle damage induced by intensive exercise in trained athletes. This reduction in muscle damage was correlated with decreased levels of inflammatory cytokines (3). The reduction of cytokine expression is one of the known anti-inflammatory benefits of increased polyphenol intake.

Three pretty diverse studies, yet it makes perfect sense if you understand how polyphenols work. Polyphenols inhibit the overproduction of inflammatory compounds made by the most ancient part of the immune system that we share with plants. The only trick is taking enough of these polyphenols. To get about 8,000 ORAC units every day requires eating about a cup of blueberries (lots of carbohydrates) or two glasses of red wine (lots of alcohol), or half a bar of very dark chocolate (lots of fat) or 0.3 g of highly purified polyphenol powder in a small capsule (with no carbohydrates, no alcohol, and no saturated fat). And if you are taking extra high purity omega-3 oil, exercising harder, or have an inflammatory disease, you will probably need even more polyphenols. It doesn’t matter where the polyphenols come from as long as you get enough. That’s why you eat lots of colorful carbohydrates on an anti inflammatory diet.


  1. Cassidy A, O’Reilly EJ, Kay C, Sampson L, Franz M, Forman J, Curhan G, and Rimm EB. “Habitual intake of flavonoid subclasses and incident hypertension in adults.” Am J Clin Nutr 93: 338-347 (2011)
  2. Dal-Ros S, Zoll J, Lang AL, Auger C, Keller N, Bronner C, Geny B, Schini-Kerth VB. “Chronic intake of red wine polyphenols by young rats prevents aging-induced endothelial dysfunction and decline in physical performance: Role of NADPH oxidase.” Biochem Biophys Res Commun 404: 743-749 (2011)
  3. Bowtell JL, Sumners DP, Dyer A, Fox P, and Mileva KN. “Montmorency cherry juice reduces muscle damage caused by intensive strength exercise”. Med Sci Sports Exerc 43: online ahead of print doi: 10.1249/MSS.obo13e31820e5adc (2011)

Nothing contained in this blog is intended to be instructional for medial diagnosis or treatment. If you have a medical concern or issue, please consult your personal physician immediately.

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About Dr. Barry Sears

Dr. Barry Sears is a leading authority on the impact of the diet on hormonal response, genetic expression, and inflammation. A former research scientist at the Boston University School of Medicine and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Dr. Sears has dedicated his research efforts over the past 30 years to the study of lipids. He has published more than 30 scientific articles and holds 13 U.S. patents in the areas of intravenous drug delivery systems and hormonal regulation for the treatment of cardiovascular disease. He has also written 13 books, including the New York Times #1 best-seller "The Zone". These books have sold more than 5 million copies in the U.S. and have been translated into 22 different languages.

40 thoughts on “Pass the polyphenols

  1. Is the ORAC value a good measure of the ability for a particular food’s polyphenols to ‘inhibit the overproduction of inflammatory compounds’?

    • ORAC is a convenient measure of the anti-oxidant ability of a polyphenol. To measure its anti-inflammatory potential requires culture culture studies on its ability to reduce the activation of NF-kappaB when the cell is exposed to an inflammatory cytokine such as TNF.

      We are doing those types of experiments in our labs to confirm the anti-inflammatory effects of the polyphenols we use.

      • How do you do it? It seems impossible to maintain the required Zone Diet intake of carbohydrates and get your 16 servings of polyphenols. I MUST BE MISSING SOMETHING!

  2. Please comment on ORAC as to what is required daily, how this is measured, the best source, and do we really need these to maintain health. Thank you.

    • I usually recommend at least 8,000 ORAC units per day. This can be achieved with about 8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day. If you are taking supplemental omega-3 fatty acids, you will need even more to protect the omega-3 fatty acids from oxidation. I usually recommend an additional 8,000 ORAC units per day for every 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA that you are adding to the diet. That means adding a lot more vegetables or fruits to the diet or taking polyphenol supplements.

  3. Dr. Sears:
    Please, I’d like to know which would be the equivalent to 1 serving, because you’ve said that we should have about 8 servings of fruits and vegetables per day, and that sounds a lot to me, it seems like if we’d have to be eating all day long, please I’d appreciate your help, than you, maria.

    pd. by the way I can’t find the testimonial section that your web page used to include and was so interesting.

  4. Here are some typical ORAC values. You will see that outside of a few fruits, you have to eat lot of vegetables to get to the 8,000 ORAC and that’s before you add extra high purity omega-3 oil.

    We are reworking the testimonial section and it should up on the web site shortly.

    [PER 100 GRAMS OR 3.5 OUNCES]

    Grapes, Red———–739
    Kiwi fruit—————610
    Grapefruit, pink——-495
    Grapes, White———460
    [PER 100 GRAMS OR 3.5 OUNCES]

    Garlic clove———1,662
    Yellow Squash——1,150
    Brussels sprouts—–980
    Alfalfa sprouts——–930
    Steamed Spinach—–909
    Broccoli Flowers——-890
    Red bell pepper——-710
    Beans, Baked———503
    Beans, Kidney——–460
    Peas, Frozen———375
    Sweet Potato——–295
    Leaf Lettuce———-265
    String Beans———200

  5. Hi,
    I was wondering if the “zone” could help out a very ill friend?? Or, if this is the wrong approach..if you could refer me to ANYONE you may be aware of I’m sorry…but I’m desparate! I have a dear friend who is SUPER obese @ “approx” 1200 lbs and is having breathing issues, pessure sores, infections, and now we are at the point of physically being UNable to care for him, yet; no hospitals are equipped or willing to assist. I am a nurse and what I see..scares me. We need help and don’t know WHERE to turn. PLEASE let me know if there is ANY direction that you can lead me in. Much thanks in advance!
    Angela L., LVN, SBSN

    • The answer is yes. One of my best examples was Manuel Uribe in Mexico who started out at 1,230 lbs several years ago. Today his blood cholesterol, blood pressure, blood glucose, and resting heart rate are all normal. He followed a very strict anti inflammatory diet and used very high levels of high purity omega-3 oil to reduce the underlying cellular inflammation.

  6. Polyphenols are incredible. Out there is a small controversy about one polyphenol: resveratrol. No one knows optimal dose of (trans-)resveratrol for humans, some think about very high dose (250-500mg daily and even more), others have a more conservative approach in resveratrol doses.

    About resveratrol and polyphenols topic I liked a lot THE LONGEVITY FACTOR book by Dr Joseph Maroon. He recommends as supplements: fish oil, polyphenols and a good multi-vitamin-mineral. I think most important thing about polyphenols is variety. Does Dr Sears have any opinion about resveratrol? Thanks once more for opening this interesting blog.

    • Resveratrol is one of 4,000 known polyphenols. All have anti-oxidant properties that can be measured by their ORAC values. However, I feel the most important polyphenols will those that have anti-inflammatory properties, and in particular the inhibition of NF-kappaB. Resveratrol does have some anti-inflammatory properties, but I believe delphinidins will ultimately have more powerful anti-inflammatory effects. Delphinidins are found in blueberries, bilberry (Russian blueberries) and maqui berry (Patagonia blueberries) with the maqui having the greatest amounts (about 13 times greater than blueberries). Polyphenols also can activate the SIRT1 gene that activates AMP kinase that acts as a master switch to control cellular metabolism.

  7. If I’m taking some 8-10 grams of EPA/DHA daily, would you recommend 2 caps of your polyphenol/plus? I bought a few bottles recently, but was wondering if only 1 cap per daily would prevent oxidation of the fish oil consumed?


  8. I usually recommend about 8,000 ORAC units for every 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA taken on a daily basis. At the levels of EPA and DHA that you are taking, this would require about 24,000 ORAC units or three of the Zone Polyphenol capsules per day. That’s about what I take.

  9. Hi Dr Sears

    I’m wondering what you would recommend for children taking fish oil? Getting them to eat 8 servings of fruit and veggies is nearly impossible : ) My little guy takes approx 1 gram of fish oil daily.

    Thanks, Leeanne

    • It is always easier to add more fish oil than fruits and vegetables. For most children older than 2, I usually recommend about 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA. That is the amount found in a tablespooon of cod liver oil that your grandparents gave your parents every day.

  10. Hi Dr Sears,

    I have a very strong psoriasis, how much omega 3 do you recommend me to take? Which EPA/AA ratio can I reach? (I believe 2 is good, is 1 too little?)


  11. As a retired cell/molecular biologist, I have long been a fan of your Zone books and have given them to friends since they are the best explanations of the molecular level events leading to inflammation that I am aware of. I wonder if you can comment on two things – the use of undenatured why protein isolates, and the value of pure pomegranate juice.
    Thank you,
    Marcia Falconer PhD

    • Whey protein is rich in branched chain amino acids, but it is rapidly absorbed by the body so that little of it reaches the lower part of the gut (i.e. ileum) where it can initiate the release of hormones, such as PYY, that increase satiety. For that purpose, casein is a better protein choice.

      Pomegranate juice contains polyphenols, but it also contains a massive levels of sugar. The anti-inflammatory benefits of polyphenols can be significantly reduced by high levels sugar that stimulate insulin secretion. Removing the sugar from the polyphenols is a difficult and expensive process, but the resulting isolated polyphenols will provide a much greater anti-inflammatory effect.

  12. Hi Dr. Sears, My zone doctor gave me 1 capsule of polyphenols and i’ve been taking them ever since… i haven’t noticed much difference while taking them, as I did with omega 3′s (the difference was remarkable!) but I still will continue to take them. Thank you for the article!

    • The polyphenols are there to protect the omega-3 fatty acids from oxidation in the body. The higher the intake of polyphenols, the greater the benefits both on enhancing the actions of the omega-3 fatty acids and also providing additional anti-inflammatory benefits on their own.

  13. Barry, does this post indicate that you are rethinking a comment you made a while back tot he effect that consuming anti-oxidants was overblown as a key to health? Or did I misunderstand you then?

    • My comment was relative to traditional anti-oxidant vitamins. Polyphenols are not considered vitamins even through the body can’t make them. I believe within 10 years, polyphenols will be recognized as vitamins essential for human nutrition.

      Relative to the benefits of supplements for an anti-inflammatory diet, I put polyphenols in a different class than anti-oxidant vitamins. Keep in mind that an anti-inflammatory diet by definition is rich in polyphenols because is rich in vegetables and fruits. On a scale of 1 to 10 for supplements to an anti-inflammatory diet, I give vitamins and minerals a 1. I give vitamin D (really a hormone) a 2, and I gave isolated polyphenols a 5. But on that same scale, I give omega-3 fatty acids a 12. These rankings assume you are taking a therapeutic level of each of those supplements.

  14. Regarding the 100 grams of prunes. Is that canned or partially dehydrated to achieve the 5770 ORAC score? That is about 15 partially dehydrated prunes.

  15. Dr. Sears,

    The information regarding your ranking of your polyphenols at a level of 5 (ranking was based on a 1 to 10 scale) and of omega 3′s at a level of 12 to help control and reduce inflamation was informative and helpful. But you also said these ranking were based on taking theraputic levels of the polyphenol supplements and fish oil to help achieve the desired results. Please help us by defining what you mean by or what amounts you consider theraputic levels of each supplement. This information would be not only practical but very helpful. Thanks, Jeff

    • Currently the best way to determine polyphenol content is the ORAC rating for serving size. I feel that one needs at least 8,000 ORAC units per day. This might be 10 servings of fruits and vegetables, 2 glasses of red wine, or 100 grams (and 500 calories of fat) of very dark chocolate (greater than 90% cocoa). If you are taking fish oil supplements, then I would recommend another 8,000 ORAC units for every 2.5 grams of EPA and DHA you are taking.

      Recent data indicates that about 16,000 ORAC units per day will reduce the levels of oxidized LDL particles and help reduce insulin resistance.

  16. I am confused. I take 4 capsules of Omega Rx and 1oz of Sea Health Plus a day. It that enough of the Sea Health Plus? Would it be better to take the polyphenol supplement in capsule form and if so how many?

  17. Hello Dr Sears,
    My question regards a small 9yr old boy in Australia who has been diagnosed with quite severe rheumatoid arthritis. His parents are keen to work with omega 3Rx and any further suggestions. He is currently taking 6 capsules daily. The fish oil has only started in the past week … so little result so far. Any further suggestions?

    Kind regards,

    Fiona Valkhoff

  18. In reference to cherry juice and inflammation. My grandmother ate cherries and drank the juice every day of her life. She did this to help her arthritis….she always claimed that the cherries had to be canned or they didn’t work near as well. This was back in the 1960′s….she lived until she was 97. I and some of my friends have tried this….and it does work. You notice the difference within days. Pain was almost gone and it was easier to get around. My one friend even quit wearing her knee brace that she always had on.

    • Cherries are a moderate source of polyphenols meaning that you have eat a lot of them. The canning process would break down the cell walls of the cherries making the polyphenols more easily absorbed.

  19. Dr. Sears,

    P.S: If this is stuff you do not want published on this blog you can delete it but please reply to me on my email address. Would me much appreciated. Thanks.

    I’m from Norway. 8 hours ago I read an old thread from 2004 in a health forum about a guy claiming to have lost 22 lbs in 6 weeks with eating the same 4 times a day. He ate 35g 90% pure protein powder, 10 hazelnut kernels, 2 oranges or apples or 1 1/4 banana + he took 8-10 capsules (each 1000 mg) of omega 3 fish oil. And he claims he is not hungry! … And he tells people to check out three of your books.

    I’ve already ordered one of the books but I have some questions, if you don’t mind.

    My last 8 hours has been dedicated researching this statement. I’ve found that in 4 other well respected Norwegian health forums this has started a riot. Nobody believes this guy. And some even claims it’s a lie and that it is dangerous to eat that much fish oil?

    I so bad want to prove them wrong.

    Then I checked out what the Norwegian government says about the daily intake of omega 3. This really surprised me. They say you should not take more than 3 grams of this per day or you should consult with a doctor before taking more. They say if you take more than 3 grams per day this could lead to an overdose and that if taken more you should have the phone number to “venom center” handy? I find this hard to believe. The capsules only contain vitamin A, D, E and Omega 3 fish oil! Can’t be dangerous eating 8-10 capsules of this per day? Besides, I’ve now read several post here and in other U.S forums that people are eating more than this and they are doing fine.

    Guess I just want to be reassured by you that this diet this guy has mentioned is safe and that it is ok for me to do the same diet as him or is this diet perhaps carefully designed his body, his weight and height?

    • And also, the guy didn’t mention anything about polyphenols. But this sound very important. You said we need the polyphenols to protect the omega-3 fatty acids from oxidation in the body. Should I order a bottle from your blog as well or is this not absolutely necessary for loosing weight?

      • The person you were describing was consuming about 30 grams of protein at each meal providing a total of 120 grams of protein per day. The two apples provides about 40 grams of carbohydrate. The ten nuts would provide about 15 grams of fat. This is basically the Zone diet with an extremely limited meal choices. The total weight loss that he experienced is within reason.

        Ten capsules of typical fish oil products would supply about 3 grams of EPA and DHA. This is in line with the recommendations of the American Heart Association for reducing triglyceride levels.

        These are exactly the recommendations I would make to any overweight individual to lose weight without hunger. Add the extra polyphenols to protect the omega-3 fatty acids from oxidation is just a great nutritional insurance policy besides improving the overall anti-inflammatory benefits of the Zone diet.

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