(NaturalNews) The naturally occurring plant chemical resveratrol -- made famous for its role in the health benefits of red wine -- may not only prevent but even reverse the dangerous buildup of fat in the liver caused by alcohol abuse.
"Our study suggests that resveratrol may serve as a promising agent for preventing or treating human alcoholic fatty liver disease," the researchers from the University of South Florida Health Sciences Center in Tampa wrote in the American Journal of Physiology -- Gastrointestinal and Live Physiology.
Scientists have known for some time that part of the way that alcohol damages the liver is by inhibiting the action of two proteins, known as AMPK and SIRT1. These proteins play a critical role in helping break down fats to remove them from the liver; when their activity is disrupted, it leads to the fatty buildup associated with liver diseases such as cirrhosis and fibrosis. Left untreated, this fat buildup can eventually cause total liver failure.
In the current study, researchers looked directly at resveratrol's effects on AMPK and SIRT1. They fed mice a low-fat diet, supplemented with either resveratrol, alcohol or a combination of the two. They then observed that mice that had been given both resveratrol and alcohol had higher levels of SIRT1 and higher activity of AMPK than mice that were given alcohol alone.
The higher levels and activity of the two key proteins led to a decrease in other proteins, specifically those involved in the buildup of liver fat. They also led to an increase in levels of the hormone adiponectin, which metabolizes fat.
When the researchers looked at the mice's livers, they found that the livers of resveratrol-treated mice produced less fat than mice that were given alcohol alone, and that this fat was also broken down more quickly.
Previous research has linked resveratrol to a decreased risk of cancer and heart disease, as well as to longer life and reduced age-related decline. Recent research, published in the Nutrition Review, found that it successfully reduced cholesterol and insulin sensitivity, and protected the nervous system.
Resveratrol is widely believed to contribute to the health-protective effects of wine, which are partially responsible for the so-called "French paradox."
"Despite eating a diet equally high in saturated fat as the typical American diet, the French were shown to have about one-third the level of cardiovascular disease," said Debra Miller, director of nutrition at candy company Hershey. "Continued research indicates that moderate consumption of red wine, along with fruits, vegetables, nuts and lower amounts of red meat, may contribute to this lower risk of heart of disease."
The FDA has approved statements that drinking a glass or two of red wine per day can lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer.
Resveratrol is found in high quantities in grape skins, peanuts and products made with them, such as red wine and peanut butter. A new study conducted by Hershey in partnership with Planta Analytica has also detected high levels in cocoa products for the first time.
"This study shows that the levels of resveratrol found in cocoa and chocolate products is second to red wine among known sources of resveratrol and forms yet another important link between the antioxidants found in cocoa and dark chocolate to other foods," said David Stuart, Hershey director of natural product science.
Among the cocoa products tested, the highest resveratrol levels were found in cocoa powder, followed by baking chocolate, dark chocolate, semisweet chocolate chips, milk chocolate and chocolate syrup. The top three chocolate products all contained significantly more resveratrol per serving than peanuts or peanut butter, but less resveratrol per serving than California red wine.
The Hershey study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.