Polyphenols: Why Just Eat Em’ When You Can Rub ‘Em, Smell ‘Em, and Drink ‘Em?


So, you know about my love for gut bugs by now. I am not alone in my fondness of this topic. The microbiome is one of the hottest topics in medicine today and research is exploding in this area, to many of my fellow geeks’ and my delight.

The more I learn about the health implications of these little bacteria, virus, and fungi that cohabitate in our gastrointestinal track and other mucosa surfaces, the more I wonder if these bugs are living inside of us, or if we are simply the vehicle that they have hitched a ride in?

I have discussed in the past the importance of striving for the right balance of bugs. This is for many reasons. Beyond simply assisting with digestion and assimilation, these little guys do a lot. For example, they also support our immune health, modulate inflammation, optimize cardiovascular health, assist with detoxification and biotransformation, balance hormones, provide feedback to our brain, and so much more!

So, if we want our microbiome to support our health, we have to provide these little hungry critters with the proper fuel. Moving behind swallowing various forms of them via probiotics, which can protect us from the invasion of the belly snackers (bad bugs), we need to feed, tend to, and grow our own garden of bugs. Just like with anything in life, junk in will equal junk out. In other words, an unhealthy diet makes for unhappy and unhealthy inhabitants in the belly, and they will speak out their dissatisfaction in various symptoms.

During my training this week, we were presented with study after study on the importance of using foods to affect the human gut metabolome (the set of chemicals critters produce). The good and bad news is that our bugs respond fast! In fact, you can shift your gut flora within one day of a dietary change. This is one reason why it’s important to stick with a healthy diet long-term and why one day of bad choices can wreak havoc the next day.

One way to influence gut bugs, boost antioxidants, and modulate inflammation is to consume plant foods high in polyphenols. (1-3) Basically, it’s all about the polyphenols, baby!!

Almost twins

And…guess what’s at the top of the list of polyphenol power foods?

Some of our favorite spices are!

According to the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition:

A list of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols was produced, with contents varying from 15?000?mg per 100?g in cloves to 10?mg per 100?ml in rosé wine. The richest sources were various spices and dried herbs, cocoa products, some darkly coloured berries, some seeds (flaxseed) and nuts (chestnut, hazelnut) and some vegetables, including olive and globe artichoke heads. A list of the 89 foods and beverages providing more than 1?mg of total polyphenols per serving was established. A comparison of total polyphenol contents with antioxidant contents, as determined by the Folin assay, also showed that Folin values systematically exceed the total polyphenol content values. (2)

Polyphenols are also present in essential oils. Due to the fact that essential oils are more concentrated than dried herbs, essential oils are another way to give our bugs’ their daily dose of polyphenols (3). Turns out, as I’ve discussed previously, it may even be one of the best ways. Interestingly, I even found several studies that have demonstrated the polyphenol content of some of the not well-known sources, such as valerian (4) and chamomile (5) .

Although I couldn’t find the total polyphenol content of the essential oils themselves, one study that extracted the polyphenol from the root verses essential found the herb to be stronger. (4). However, this was in a study with valerian, which isn’t high in polyphenols. Also, I believe the bioavailability is probably much higher in an essential oil. Here’s why…

As demonstrated in several studies, polyphenols are not well absorbed and assimilated in even an optimal digestive system (6-8). Now, add to this fact that many have a compromised microbiome due to the continue exposure of toxins, stress, and nutrient poor foods, the beautiful benefits of polyphenols may get lost “in the track”.

A 2004 study form the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition reported on this issue:

Polyphenols are abundant micronutrients in our diet, and evidence for their role in the prevention of degenerative diseases such as cancer and cardiovascular diseases is emerging. The health effects of polyphenols depend on the amount consumed and on their bioavailability. In this article, the nature and contents of the various polyphenols present in food sources and the influence of agricultural practices and industrial processes are reviewed. Estimates of dietary intakes are given for each class of polyphenols. The bioavailability of polyphenols is also reviewed, with particular focus on intestinal absorption and the influence of chemical structure (eg, glycosylation, esterification, and polymerization), food matrix, and excretion back into the intestinal lumen. Information on the role of microflora in the catabolism of polyphenols and the production of some active metabolites is presented. Mechanisms of intestinal and hepatic conjugation (methylation, glucuronidation, sulfation), plasma transport, and elimination in bile and urine are also described. Pharmacokinetic data for the various polyphenols are compared. Studies on the identification of circulating metabolites, cellular uptake, intracellular metabolism with possible deconjugation, biological properties of the conjugated metabolites, and specific accumulation in some target tissues are discussed. Finally, bioavailability appears to differ greatly between the various polyphenols, and the most abundant polyphenols in our diet are not necessarily those that have the best bioavailability profile. A thorough knowledge of the bioavailability of the hundreds of dietary polyphenols will help us to identify those that are most likely to exert protective health effects. (6)

Furthermore, this 2010 study discusses how further research is needed in this area:

The evaluation of the bioavailability of polyphenols has recently been gaining increasing interest as the food industries are continually involved in developing new products, defined as “functional food”, by virtue of the presence of specific polyphenols. Despite the increasing amount of data available, definitive conclusions on bioavailability of most polyphenols are difficult to obtain and further studies are necessary. At least three critical lines of research should be explored to gain a clear understanding of the health beneficial effects of dietary polyphenols:

  1. The potential biological activity of the metabolites of many dietary polyphenols needs to be better investigated. In fact, the identification and the quantification of metabolites currently represents an important and growing field of research.
  2. Strategies to improve the bioavailability of the polyphenols need to be developed. Moreover it is necessary to determine whether these methods translate into increased biological activity.
  3. Whereas in vitro studies shed light on the mechanisms of action of individual dietary polyphenols, these findings need to be supported by in vivo experiments. The health benefits of dietary polyphenols must be demonstrated in appropriate animal models of disease and in humans at appropriate doses.

These are important steps for the understanding of the role of the polyphenols in human health, and for optimizing dietary advice to the population. (7)

One study even looked at the complexity of the issue of availability by discussing the various forms of encapsulations that could be used to gain optimal amounts of polyphenols in a pill (8). Poor overlooked essential oils, they weren’t even on the list! Oh Judas, why?!

water drop

Essential oils have the ability to penetrate our skin and enter into our blood stream when we rub them on. Therefore, using essential oils containing phenolics and phenlypropanoids could provide nourishment to feed healthy microflora. This means that by bypassing the ingestion process, those with digestive issues may be able to gain some polyphenol benefit and antioxidant action from simply applying them! This also helpful because although a small amount is broken down in the liver, they are mostly excreted in the kidney.

So to summarize:

  1. Polyphenols are found in genuine oils.
  2. Essential oils penetrate the skin and enter our bloodstream.
  3. Genuine essential oils protect our bodies and help us detoxify.

So, with the ingestion of lemon, for example, the limonene may not just be absorbed by placing a drop in our water, but we can also rub it on our bellies to make our belly bugs happy.

This brings me back to my original question:

Polyphenols: Why Just Eat Em’ When You Can Rub ‘Em, Smell ‘Em, and Drink ‘Em?

Girl on phone


(1) Study on total polyphenols and reducing power of aqueous extracts from selected Lamiaceae species. Journal of Agroalimentary Processes and Technologies. 2009,15 (4), 521-524. http://journal-of-agroalimentary.ro/admin/articole/91369L8_Maria_Cioroi_Vol.4_521-524.pdf

(2) Identification of the 100 richest dietary sources of polyphenols: an application of the Phenol-Explorer database. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition. November 2010; 64:S112-S120. doi:10.1038/ejcn.2010.221

(3) Essential oils, phenolics, and antioxidant activities of different parts of cumin (Cuminum cyminum L.). J Agric Food Chem. 2010 Oct 13;58(19):10410-8. doi: 10.1021/jf102248j.

(4) Antioxidant Activity of Essential Oil and Extracts of Valeriana jatamansi Roots. BioMed Research International. 2014 (2014). http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2014/614187

(5) Content of essential oil, terpenoids and polyphenols in commercial chamomile (Chamomilla recutita L. Rauschert) teas from different countries. DOI: 10.1016/j.foodchem.2011.09.042

(6) Polyphenols: food sources and bioavailability. Am J Clin Nutr May 2004. 79(5): 727-747. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/79/5/727.full

(7) Bioavailability of the Polyphenols: Status and Controversies. Int J Mol Sci. 2010; 11(4): 1321–1342. Published online Mar 31, 2010. doi: 10.3390/ijms11041321

(8) Encapsulation of Natural Polyphenolic Compounds; a Review. Pharmaceutics. Dec 2011; 3(4): 793–829. Published online Nov 4, 2011. doi: 10.3390/pharmaceutics3040793


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Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic, Grade A essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been AFNOR and ISO standardized. There is no quality control in the United States and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin.

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