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By David Warmflash

David WarmflashAs another school year begins, students are challenged to feed their minds with new facts, ideas, and skills. Harvard geneticist David Sinclair is his own student, as he has been using himself as a guinea pig for resveratrol supplements, according to several interviews. Annual sales of the supplement have exceeded $30 million, just in the United States.

However, recent studies give reason to pause before you start taking it, especially if you are pregnant. A plant–derived polyphenolic phytoalexin (trans–3, 4’, 5–trihydroxystilbene, C14H12O3), resveratrol is present in various fruits, berries, and beans, such that red wine and chocolate have become the most famous food sources for this agent. Hypothesized as a reason why people in France enjoy a relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease, despite high intakes of dietary fat, resveratrol appears to convey several beneficial effects, particularly in the heart, brain, and immune system. It appears promising in treating certain malignancies, such as prostatic adenocarcinoma, as it sensitizes cancer cells to radiation and various chemotherapeutic agents, and may help to prevent cancer in the first place.

Back to School Wine

Additionally, by inhibiting the enzyme cyclooxygenase–2 (COX–2), resveratrol plays an anti-inflammatory role, which may be a reason for the beneficial effects mentioned above. Despite encouraging data from both nonhuman and human studies, major medical treatment guideline associations, such as the American Heart Association (AHA), have held off on recommending resveratrol supplementation for prevention, because the relevant cellular mechanisms are complex, and long-term effects in humans take decades to evaluate. On top of this are some studies elucidating possible negative effects of taking the supplements, including a recent one that should raise a red flag for pregnant women.

Conducted by teams at Oregon Health Sciences University (OHSU) in Portland and the Oregon National Primate Center in Beaverton, the new study is published in the Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and looks at macaque monkeys. Monkeys were grouped based on diet, weight, and resveratrol supplementation. The control group consisted of lean pregnant monkeys consuming a low (14%) fat diet, and these were compared with obese pregnant monkeys on a high (36%) fat diet (which is to model a Western diet), with and without resveratrol supplementation. As expected, resveratrol produced beneficial effects. Fat monkeys on the supplement showed improved glucose tolerance with 30 percent weight loss. Additionally, placental inflammation and fetal liver triglyceride deposition was lower in resveratrol-treated animals, who also exhibited increased uterine artery volume blood flow (measured via Doppler ultrasound).

Notwithstanding these observed benefits, resveratrol was associated with fetal pancreatic abnormities, namely enlargement of the organ by 42 percent. Dovetailing with the anatomic enlargement, immunohistochemistry using the Ki67 marker showed increased proliferation measuring 12 fold compared with the fetuses of non-resveratrol monkeys.

While noting the benefits in fetal liver, the authors of the study conclude that the fetal pancreatic findings should serve as a strong caution to pregnant women; they should not emulate David Sinclair. But a glass of wine or a few chocolates a day may help those of us who are not pregnant handle the full throttle of another school year.

David Warmflash, M.D., is an astrobiologist, science writer, and physician. He is principal investigator on a Planetary Society-sponsored investigation of the effects of the space environment on organisms.