What Are Stilbenes?

red wine
Resveratrol is found in red wine. Quentin Houyoux

Stilbenes are natural compounds found in some types of plants. Some stilbenes may have health benefits. They belong to a sub-group of phytochemicals called polyphenols.

Stilbenes aren't as common as other polyphenols. You've probably read about numerous different flavonoids, lignans or phenolic acids, but there are only two stilbenes of note: resveratrol and pterostilbene. They are only found in small amounts in some of the foods you eat.

Resveratrol is quite well known (or to be honest, over-hyped). It's found in grape skins, red wine, peanuts, blueberries and cranberries and has been studied for it's potential health benefits. Observational studies show people who drink red wine tend to have lower risks of cardiovascular disease. But it isn't known how much of that effect is due to resveratrol or if people who have lower risks of heart disease just happen to drink a little more wine than individuals who have higher risks.

Laboratory studies show that resveratrol acts as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent in some laboratory animals, but there is very little information on resveratrol use in humans, or how much would be needed to show any health benefits.

Chances are, however, that the amount required is too high to achieve with dietary sources alone, so any advantage would come from supplements. But, dietary supplements aren't regulated for all that well for efficacy.

And we don't know how much to take, or if it will do anything anyway. 

Pterostilbene is found in blueberries and grapes. It's an antioxidant that has shown promise in the treatment and prevention of cancer and cardiovascular disease, but (like resveratrol) it's only been tested in lab animals. Currently, there aren't any studies in humans.

Some of these stilbenes are sold as supplements, but please speak to your healthcare provider before taking any types of dietary supplements.

Sources:

Borriello A, Cucciolla V, Della Ragione F, Galletti P. "Dietary polyphenols: focus on resveratrol, a promising agent in the prevention of cardiovascular diseases and control of glucose homeostasis." Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2010 Oct;20(8):618-25. Accessed February 22, 2016. http://www.nmcd-journal.com/article/S0939-4753(10)00177-8/abstract.

Gresele P, Cerletti C, Guglielmini G, Pignatelli P, de Gaetano G, Violi F. "Effects of resveratrol and other wine polyphenols on vascular function: an update." J Nutr Biochem. 2011 Mar;22(3):201-11. Accessed February 22, 2016. http://www.jnutbio.com/article/S0955-2863(10)00168-3/abstract.

Manach C, Scalbert A, Morand C, Ramasy C, Jimanez L. "Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability." Am J Clin Nutr. 2004 May;79(5):727-47. The United States Department of Agriculture. "Pterostilbene's healthy potential." Accessed February 22, 2016. http://www.ars.usda.gov/is/AR/archive/nov06/health1106.htm.

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