If you google pomegranates you’ll find a dozen articles claiming various health benefits of the fruit.
Recently there’s been some new research into the effects of pomegranates on aging, and, let me tell you, it’s fascinating.
It all starts with a part of the cell that many internet-obsessed biology students will always remember: the mitochondria, “the powerhouse of the cell.” These are the centers that generate energy for the cell. The problem is that as we age some of these lose their function. The cell is able to generate more, but low-functioning mitochondria accumulate and damage muscle tissue.
So that weakens muscles. Great, but what in the world does fruit have to do with it?
Fruits like pomegranate, seeds, and nuts contain a compound called ellagitannin, which is a precursor to another molecule called urolithin A. This newly-discovered second molecule is really good at getting cells to engage in a process called mitophagy, which is basically the process that gets rid of those harmful and useless mitochondria that are sticking around. And then it recycles their parts.
So far, scientists have been testing out urolithin A on animals. They started by using the nematode C. elegans, a type of roundworm that is popular because it ages in just 8 to 10 days. They found that the roundworms that were treated with urolithin lived more than 45% longer than the untreated worms.
Then they decided that the worms were too far away from humans, so they moved onto rodent trials. The scientists noted that if they had two groups of mice of the same age, but had one that was treated with urolithin A and another that wasn’t, the treated group would do 42% better than the untreated group in endurance tests.
This could seem like an anti-aging miracle treatment, but there’s one catch. Pomegranates don’t contain urolithin A directly. What they have is ellagitannin, which has to be converted into urolithin A.
How does it get converted, you ask?
The crude answer is the tiny stuff that lives in your gut. Intestinal bacteria are able to make the conversion between the two types of chemicals.
Hang on a second, I’m gonna borrow some words from a press release to let that sink in. “Urolithin A’s function is the product of tens of millions of years of parallel evolution between plants, bacteria, and animals.” Isn’t it so cool to think about how complex it is that all of those things work together so seamlessly?
Err, or maybe not so seamlessly for some people.
That’s another part of the reason why we can’t quite proclaim pomegranates as the fountain of youth yet. Because the conversion to urolithin requires the presence of gut bacteria, if some people have little to none of this particular gut bacteria, pomegranates won’t have any special effect on them.
Bummer. The good news is that the scientific company Amazentis, which helped with the original research (Swiss research institution Ecole Polytechnique Féderale de Lausanne also contributed to the pomegranate research), is doing further studies on patients in European hospitals to see if urolithin A can be administered directly to humans.
For now, though, a first study has been published in Nature. And the results of the human trial will be in next year. Some scientists hope that working to slow the decrease of muscle efficiency using this chemical could be a more effective way to deal with the muscle loss that comes with aging. Research is obviously still in the early phase, but eventually, it may be an alternative to pharmaceutical solutions, which usually only try to increase muscle mass.