Top 5 Plant Compounds for Longevity
Ever since our youngest years, it’s been instilled in us to eat our veggies—and with good reason, as they are loaded with vitamins, minerals, and fiber. But beyond their nutritional value, plant foods are also rich in bioactive compounds that exert multiple beneficial actions, including providing potent antioxidant, neuroprotective, anti-aging, and inflammation-fighting activity.
With an abundance of these longevity-supporting properties, the molecules resveratrol, curcumin, sulforaphane, quercetin, and EGCG—and the plants they come from—are five of the leading plant compounds to add to your anti-aging arsenal.
How Do Plant Compounds Benefit Longevity?
There are many classes of bioactive compounds known as phytochemicals in plants, with some of the most common including:
- Polyphenols—the most common class of phytochemicals, with over 500 unique compounds, including resveratrol, flavonoids, ellagitannins, lignans, quercetin, and isoflavones.
- Glucosinolates/isothiocyanates—phytochemicals found in cruciferous vegetables, including sulforaphane.
- Carotenoids—compounds that produce color in plants, like anthocyanin in blueberries or beta-carotene in carrots.
Despite their varying classifications, many phytochemicals provide similar or overlapping actions in the body—with the most well-known being their ability to act as antioxidants and support healthier inflammatory responses. Plant compounds are known to reduce oxidative stress and the buildup of reactive oxygen species (ROS), which are key contributors to accelerated aging and disease development.
Phytochemicals also act on other aging-related pathways, including helping with DNA repair and fighting cellular senescence—a buildup of cells that have stopped growing and dividing but remain in the body, causing inflammatory damage to neighboring cells and tissues. Some are also known to support mitochondrial activity or boost sirtuin activity, a class of proteins that regulate DNA repair, cell survival, and metabolism.
Top 5 Plant Compounds for Longevity
Resveratrol is a stilbenoid polyphenol found in several foods, including red grapes, cocoa, peanuts, raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries. Researchers have studied resveratrol for its ability to support the capacity of NMN (nicotinamide mononucleotide) to raise NAD+ levels—a compound that decreases with age but is needed by every cell in the body.
Resveratrol is well-known for its antioxidant activity. It is thought to support the aging process in part by activating SIRT1—an essential enzyme that supports the health of our cells and their mitochondria.
It also promotes autophagy, our body’s internal recycling program that clears damaged and dysfunctional compounds. Low levels of autophagy are linked to aging and disease development, as autophagy is essential for protecting the quality and function of our cells.
However, not all resveratrol supplements are created equal. Many supplements contain a blend of the two forms of resveratrol: cis and trans. Cis-resveratrol is commonly found in lower-quality or lower-priced supplements and is poorly absorbed. Conversely, trans-resveratrol is the more bioavailable form of the compound, meaning your body can absorb and utilize it more effectively.
Curcumin is the active compound of turmeric that provides the spice with its characteristically bright yellow hue—and provides us with plenty of antioxidant activity.
One of curcumin’s most well-known health benefits is its ability to reduce the activity of pro-inflammatory compounds, including downregulating harmful molecules called cytokines, such as TNF-alpha, interleukins 1 and 12 (IL-1 and IL-12), and NF-kB—all of which are associated with accelerated aging.
Other mechanisms behind curcumin’s anti-aging properties include its effects on increasing sirtuin activity and autophagy while slowing down cellular senescence. Dysfunction in these three pathways is associated with accelerated aging, and curcumin may be able to turn them in the right direction.
Although the benefits of curcumin are wide-reaching, the compound is not very bioavailable on its own. This is due to several factors, including poor absorption, rapid conversion and elimination, and low solubility in water.
However, there are several ways to make curcumin more readily available for cells and tissues to utilize it. One method is using liposomal curcumin. Liposomes are bilayer carriers that shield the hydrophobic curcumin in its core while using its outer layers to interact with aqueous environments. This double-layer structure improves curcumin’s problem with low water solubility.
Other methods to increase bioavailability include formulating curcumin into nanoparticles or phospholipid complexes or adding other compounds (like piperine from black pepper) that augment its absorption ability.
Found abundantly in broccoli and other cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, kale, and Brussels sprouts, sulforaphane is a powerful isothiocyanate phytochemical. Sulforaphane supports healthy aging, in particular cognitive and cardiovascular function, by acting as a potent antioxidant and participating in detoxification.
Isothiocyanate compounds like sulforaphane stimulate a signaling pathway known as Nrf2 (nuclear factor erythroid 2-related factor 2), which activates antioxidant enzymes that help to fight oxidative stress.
Sulforaphane has also demonstrated the ability to reduce the activity and movement of the pro-inflammatory protein NF-κB. As NF-κB activity controls the production of other inflammatory signaling molecules called cytokines, sulforaphane plays a role in fighting inflammation—an underlying cause of many age-related symptoms and conditions.
Sulforaphane may also act on longevity pathways by delaying cellular senescence. Research with roundworms has shown that sulforaphane treatment can extend lifespan. In one study, sulforaphane increased the lifespan of aged worms by an average of 17% and boosted their mobility.
However, like so many other phytochemicals, supplemental sulforaphane’s potential is often curbed by its poor stability and bioavailability in the body. One way to circumvent this issue is by using liposomal forms of sulforaphane. These nano-sized, bubble-shaped molecules have a unique structure that significantly boosts absorption and utilization in your cells.
Quercetin is the most consumed flavonoid antioxidant in the American diet, as it’s found widely in many common fruits and vegetables, like apples, onions, and berries. While quercetin is well-known for supporting allergy relief and immunity, recent research has also pointed to its longevity-boosting effects.
One way that quercetin supports longevity is through its functioning as a senolytic—a compound that kills off senescent cells. Quercetin is one-half of the commonly-studied senolytic duo called DQ (dasatinib and quercetin), but the flavonoid on its own has also shown promise for clearing senescent cells. In a lab study, researchers found that treating adipocytes (fat cells) with quercetin significantly reduced markers of senescence, in addition to suppressing inflammation and oxidative stress.
It also has been found to boost levels of some sirtuins, especially SIRT1 and SIRT6. Increased SIRT1 activity is highly involved in longevity and is thought to be protective in brain-related disorders, as the protein is highly active in neurons and plays a role in memory formation.
Animal studies also indicate that quercetin can extend the lifespan of certain species. In a study with yeast, quercetin increased the average lifespan by 60%, while research with roundworms found that quercetin exposure increased the average lifespan by up to 15%.
However, quercetin is not soluble in water and is therefore poorly absorbed, rendering many quercetin supplements ineffective. One way to increase its absorption is by adding compounds like vitamin C and bromelain.
EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) is the primary bioactive compound found in green tea and green tea extract. The high antioxidant content of green tea and its extracts can help to protect the body against damage from oxidative stress—a strong predictor of both aging and cellular senescence progression.
Studies show that EGCG extends lifespan in rats and improves healthspan in worms. Research with aging mice also indicates that EGCG supplementation acts as a potent senolytic, repairs DNA damage, and reduces age-related immune inflammation.
These factors may be one reason why habitual green tea drinkers are some of the longest-lived people in the world—and studies can back this up. In research from 2020, Chinese adults who habitually drank tea three times per week or more were found to have a 1.26-year increase in life expectancy compared to those who never drank tea or drank it less than three times per week.
Plus, in a sub-analysis of specific tea types, green tea consumption was associated with a 25% reduced risk of death from any cause, while no links were found between mortality reduction and black tea—a variety with much lower EGCG activity.
Plants are beneficial to human health for myriad reasons—and their abundance of helpful compounds called phytochemicals is one of them. Plant foods and beverages like red grapes, turmeric, broccoli, apples, and green tea are rich in various phytochemicals (resveratrol, curcumin, sulforaphane, quercetin, and EGCG, respectively) that act as strong antioxidants and provide healthier inflammatory responses.
In addition to acting as antioxidants, these plant molecules can support longevity by boosting sirtuin activity, fighting cellular senescence, repairing DNA damage, increasing autophagy and mitochondrial function, and suppressing pro-inflammatory protein activity.
Although eating these foods directly is certainly beneficial for health, the phytochemical amounts found in each plant are typically substantially lower than the amounts found in supplements. Plus, high-quality supplements also address the persistent issue of phytochemicals’ low bioavailability, making it easier to reap the rewards of these plant compounds.
Reviewed by: Heather L. Makar
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