Foods high in polyphenol compounds, catechins and anthocyanins all prevent aging. Urolithin A (UA) is a chemical by-product that is made by our bodies when we consume pomegranate juice, strawberries or walnuts and studies are showing it is a first-in-class natural compound that prevents aging.
The biological effects of urolithins in pomegranates remain poorly characterized, despite wide-spread human exposure via the dietary consumption of their metabolic precursors. Johan Auwerx at the ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland and his team wanted to investigate whether these foods are as beneficial to health as some have suggested, so they decided to test the effects of UA in rodents and worms.
When they gave UA to Caenorhabiditis elegans worms, the animals lived an average of 45 percent longer. And when the team gave the chemical to elderly mice, they could run 42 percent further. This improvement occurred in the mice without them building any more muscles, which suggests that UA improves muscle-cell quality, rather than quantity.
When Auwerx's team looked closer, they found that UA seems to improve muscle cells by triggering them to eliminate damaged mitochondria — the powerhouses of the cell. When these are purged, the remaining healthy mitochondria divide and multiply. This means that they can produce more energy and work more efficiently.
“The goal is to see if this could be a potential therapy for frail elderly people,” says Auwerx.
As we get older, our muscle function declines, leading to frailty and loss of mobility. Loss of muscle mass — called sarcopenia — is increasingly being seen as an important factor in aging, prompting several researchers to look for treatments that can protect or repair muscles.
Auwerx thinks that UA is the only chemical discovered so far that is capable of building better muscles: other experimental treatments focus instead on building more muscle. His team is now conducting a clinical trial of the compound in people to see whether it can reduce frailty as they age.
If UA affects mitochondria in both worms and rodents, the odds are that this might work for other mammals too, says Nate Szewczyk at the University of Nottingham in the UK. “The promise for this having an effect in humans is very real.”
So should you start guzzling pomegranates? Auwerx suggests that drinking pomegranate juice and eating more berries and nuts may be advantageous for health. However, team member Chris Rinsch estimates that a person would have to drink up to four large glasses of pomegranate juice every day to receive an equivalent dose of UA to that they gave to rats in their study.