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Flavonoids and the French Paradox.

How can the French lead a lifestyle far unhealthier than Americans--smoking more, eating rich, fatty foods, and exercising Less--yet have a much lower rate of heart attacks?

People in France eat more rich, fatty foods than those in the U.S. The French exercise less and smoke more than Americans. In general, the French choose a lifestyle that many medical experts warn can lead to heart attacks. Yet, the so-called French Paradox is that the death rate from heart disease is markedly lower in France than in other industrialized countries, including America. It just doesn't seem fair!

We have been told for years to eat less fat, exercise more, and stop smoking if we want to live a long and healthy life. Medical experts tell us that too much fat in the diet clogs our arteries and leads to heart attacks. Lack of physical activity makes the blood sluggish and the heart weak. In addition, smoking has been linked to free radical damage of blood vessel linings and lungs. Making healthy lifestyle choices--including a low-fat diet, vigorous exercise, and not smoking--is no guarantee for cardiovascular health. Just look at the French.

Studies suggest that one of the reasons people in France have less heart disease may be their regular consumption of red wine. A fine bottle of French wine is renowned around the world for contributing to the pleasure of a good meal and company. The real value to the French, though, may be due to certain heart-healthy substances in the wine they consume, particularly red wine. Scientists now believe that natural chemical compounds in red wine called biologically active flavonoids may confer important health benefits to the heart and blood vessels, and help explain the French Paradox.

Red grapes are one of the richest known sources of biologically active flavonoids. Specifically, the seeds and skin of red grapes are packed with them. These nutrients are what make red wine the heart-healthy choice, compared to white wine. Red wine is made by allowing the red grape juice to remain in contact with the seeds and skins during the fermentation process. In contrast, white wine is made by juicing grapes--which immediately separates the seeds and skins from the wine before fermentation. The negligible contact between white wine and the grape seeds and skins during the fermentation process minimizes enrichment with flavonoids. On the other hand, the extended contact between red wine and grape seeds and skins ensures a high flavonoid content in that beverage. Medical studies show that red wine confers greater protection against cardiovascular disease than white wine, beer, or other spirits.

However, you don't have to drink red wine--or any alcoholic beverage for that matter--to get the benefits of biologically active flavonoids. Scientists have discovered a way of extracting a particularly potent form of flavonoids from red grape seeds, where they are concentrated. The dried, powered extract of red grape seeds is starting to appear in nutritional supplements and natural foods and beverages, possibly providing the benefits of red wine without the alcohol. If the research results on red grape seed extract continue to be as favorable as they have been, one day you routinely may find red grape seed extract in your favorite beverage, snack food, candy bar, or multi-vitamin supplement.

Meanwhile, the suggested link between the French Paradox and red wine is the subject of ongoing research. Scientists think that biologically active flavonoids from red grapes may work in three ways to lower the risk of heart disease: by reducing production of harmful oxidized LDL cholesterol, boosting beneficial HDL cholesterol, and cutting blood platelet aggregation.

Oxidized LDL cholesterol is especially harmful to the cardiovascular system. This form of "bad" cholesterol injures the smooth lining of blood vessels, leading to injury, scarring, and the buildup of fatty plaque in the blood vessel walls. Plaque blocks the flow through the blood vessels, causing fatigue, shortness of breath, and angina. If a piece of plaque breaks free, it can get lodged in and block a small blood vessel in the heart, potentially triggering a heart attack.

Reducing the amount of oxidized LDL cholesterol in the blood is a great way to decrease the chances of heart disease. LDL cholesterol becomes oxidized when it is attacked by free radicals--highly reactive molecules that can damage cell membranes and destroy DNA. Fortunately for humans, there are friendly compounds that can neutralize free radicals and inhibit their destructive effects in the body. These compounds are known as antioxidants and include vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene. They help protect the cardiovascular system from the ravages of oxidized LDL cholesterol. Among the most potent antioxidants in nature--even more so than vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene--are the biologically active flavonoids concentrated inside the seeds of red grapes.

Another benefit of flavonoids may be their role in boosting "good" HDL cholesterol, thus helping to "soak up" harmful cholesterol from the bloodstream and arteries. Whatever people can do to increase HDL cholesterol will be of benefit to their cardiovascular systems.

Reduced platelet aggregation is yet another benefit of biologically active flavonoids in red grapes. Platelets are small cell-like structures floating in the bloodstream which help to heal the microscopic nicks and tears that occur in the blood vessel walls daily. A normal response to these nicks and tears is for the platelets to become "sticky," or aggregate together to block the damage and begin the healing process. Sometimes, though, platelets become too sticky, causing blood to become thick and sluggish and increasing the risk of heart attack and strokes. Thus, reducing platelet aggregation, or stickiness, is another important goal of a heart-healthy lifestyle.

Free radicals and aging

Aging is a sensitive subject, particularly for the 80,000,000 baby boomers grappling with middle age. We all are looking for that fountain of youth to save us from the sagging, bagging, and dragging that occurs as we get olden For those of us who work hard at eating properly, exercising, and doing all the right things to stay healthy, we want answers as to why we still fall apart!

Scientists have discovered that many degenerative processes and diseases may be linked to free radicals--highly reactive oxygen molecules. Think back to your eighth-grade science class. Remember what happens to iron and paper when they are exposed to oxygen? Over a period of time, iron rusts and paper yellows. Now, imagine what is happening inside your body as its tissues and cells react with free radical molecules.

Free radicals are by-products of the body's normal routine of processing the oxygen we breathe and the food we eat. Exercise, smoking, and exposure to pollutants and excess sunlight contribute to the production of free radicals in the body. Problems develop because free radicals attack vital cell components, such as cell membrane lipids and DNA, the body's genetic material. Because of these harmful effects, there is the strong possibility, supported by observational and experimental evidence, that free radicals participate greatly in a wide variety of chronic and degenerative diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer, as well as the aging process itself.

The "grandfather" of biologically active flavonoids is Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1937 for his discovery of vitamin C. He devoted the rest of his career to the study of other powerful compounds in foods, including biologically active flavonoids. Szent-Gyorgyi felt that biologically active flavonoids were more important than vitamin C. Recent studies suggest he may have been correct.

Research from the Creighton University Health Sciences Center has shown that a flavonoid compound extracted from red grape seeds called Activin is a more powerful antioxidant than vitamin C, E, or betacarotene. Activin was found to be significantly more effective than other antioxidants in its ability to neutralize harmful free radicals and protect cells against lipid peroxidation and DNA fragmentation. This new "super" antioxidant is being sold as a nutritional ingredient to a variety of health, drug, and consumer goods companies for use in products ranging from dietary supplements to fortified foods and beverages.

Extraction of biologically active flavonoids from red grape seeds is critical to their potency and purity. The preferred extraction process uses only environmentally friendly liquids such as water and ethanol. In contrast, harsh chemical solvents such as chloroform, ethyl acetate, and methylene chloride often are utilized in more aggressive extraction processes. Residues of these solvents, known carcinogens, can be left behind with the flavonoids during extraction and drying. The solvents are damaging to the environment as well and may be objectionable to those dedicated to a natural lifestyle. Ecologically concerned consumers will want to seek out those products that do not use toxic solvents.

Eating a healthy diet, specifically fruits and vegetables, provides the body with the antioxidants needed to protect and repair itself. Yet--and be honest now--how many of us actually get the recommended five-plus servings a day of fruits and vegetables in our diet? Are you eating an apple, a third of a cup of raisins, a six-ounce portion of broccoli, a green salad, and half a cup of carrots a day? The answer probably can be found in the millions of dollars Americans spend every year on vitamins and other dietary supplements as a part of the $17,000,000,000-a-year nutrition industry.

As the population continues to age, vitamins and other dietary supplements increasingly are being seen as important allies in the battle against aging and disease. Recent research suggests that antioxidants may retard the aging process and help prevent many of the chronic and degenerative diseases that plague modern society. As part of a comprehensive antioxidant "cocktail" mixture including vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene, nutritional supplements containing red grape seed extract may provide the body with additional protection against free radical damage and help individuals achieve a longer, healthier life.

Dr. Hackman is executive director, Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine Research, University of California, Davis.
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Title Annotation:unhealthy-living French have low rate of heart attacks
Author:Hackman, Robert M.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Sep 1, 1998
Words:1648
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