Clues from Ionizing Radiation
One of the more curious things that has been reported in the scientific literature is that although high-dose ionizing radiation (such as X-rays) is clearly harmful, leading to cancer, premature aging and other problems, under some conditions low-dose ionizing radiation can actually decrease cancer risk and increase resistance to other stressors (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). It does so by triggering a protective cellular response, increasing cellular defenses out of proportion to the minor threat posed by the radiation itself. The ability of mild stressors to increase stress resistance is called "hormesis." Exercise is a common example. I've written about this phenomenon in the past (6).
The Case of Resveratrol
Resveratrol is perhaps the most widely known polyphenol, available in supplement stores nationwide. It's seen a lot of hype, being hailed as a "calorie restriction mimetic" and the reason for the "French paradox."* But there is quite a large body of evidence suggesting that resveratrol functions in the same manner as low-dose ionizing radiation and other bioactive polyphenols: by acting as a mild toxin that triggers a hormetic response (7). Just as in the case of radiation, high doses of resveratrol are harmful rather than helpful. This has obvious implications for the supplementation of resveratrol and other polyphenols. A recent review article on polyphenols stated that while dietary polyphenols may be protective, "high-dose fortified foods or dietary supplements are of unproven efficacy and possibly harmful" (8).
The Cellular Response to Oxidants
Although it may not be obvious, radiation and polyphenols activate a cellular response that is similar in many ways. Both activate the transcription factor Nrf2, which activates genes that are involved in detoxification of chemicals and antioxidant defense**(9, 10, 11, 12). This is thought to be due to the fact that polyphenols, just like radiation, may temporarily increase the level of oxidative stress inside cells. Here's a quote from the polyphenol review article quoted above (13):
We have found that [polyphenols] are potentially far more than 'just antioxidants', but that they are probably insignificant players as 'conventional' antioxidants. They appear, under most circumstances, to be just the opposite, i.e. prooxidants, that nevertheless appear to contribute strongly to protection from oxidative stress by inducing cellular endogenous enzymic protective mechanisms. They appear to be able to regulate not only antioxidant gene transcription but also numerous aspects of intracellular signaling cascades involved in the regulation of cell growth, inflammation and many other processes.It's worth noting that this is essentially the opposite of what you'll hear on the evening news, that polyphenols are direct antioxidants. The scientific cutting edge has largely discarded that hypothesis, but the mainstream has not yet caught on.
Nrf2 is one of the main pathways by which polyphenols increase stress resistance and antioxidant defenses, including the key cellular antioxidant glutathione (14). Nrf2 activity is correlated with longevity across species (15). Inducing Nrf2 activity via polyphenols or by other means substantially reduces the risk of common lifestyle disorders in animal models, including cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer (16, 17, 18), although Nrf2 isn't necessarily the only mechanism. The human evidence is broadly consistent with the studies in animals, although not as well developed.
One of the most interesting effects of hormesis is that exposure to one stressor can increase resistance to other stressors. For example, long-term consumption of high-polyphenol chocolate increases sunburn resistance in humans, implying that it induces a hormetic response in skin (19). Polyphenol-rich foods such as green tea reduce sunburn and skin cancer development in animals (20, 21).
Chris Masterjohn first introduced me to Nrf2 and the idea that polyphenols act through hormesis. Chris studies the effects of green tea on health, which seem to be mediated by polyphenols.
A Second Mechanism
There is a place in the body where polyphenols are concentrated enough to be direct antioxidants: in the digestive tract after consuming polyphenol-rich foods. Digestion is a chemically harsh process that readily oxidizes ingested substances such as polyunsaturated fats (22). Oxidized fat is neither healthy when it's formed in the deep fryer, nor when it's formed in the digestive tract (23, 24). Eating polyphenol-rich foods effectively prevents these fats from being oxidized during digestion (25). One consequence of this appears to be better absorption and assimilation of the exceptionally fragile omega-3 polyunsaturated fatty acids (26).
What does it all Mean?
I think that overall, the evidence suggests that polyphenol-rich foods are healthy in moderation, and eating them on a regular basis is generally a good idea. Certain other plant chemicals, such as suforaphane found in cruciferous vegetables, and allicin found in garlic, exhibit similar effects and may also act by hormesis (27). Some of the best-studied polyphenol-rich foods are tea (particularly green tea), blueberries, extra-virgin olive oil, red wine, citrus fruits, hibiscus tea, soy, dark chocolate, coffee, turmeric and other herbs and spices, and a number of traditional medicinal herbs. A good rule of thumb is to "eat the rainbow", choosing foods with a variety of colors.
Supplementing with polyphenols and other plant chemicals in amounts that would not be achievable by eating food is probably not a good idea.
* The "paradox" whereby the French eat a diet rich in saturated fat, yet have a low heart attack risk compared to other affluent Western nations.
** Genes containing an antioxidant response element (ARE) in the promoter region. ARE is also sometimes called the electrophile response element (EpRE).