The pomegranate is considered a superfood because of its multiple health benefits.

For instance, a study in 2014 discovered that a compound of chemicals from the pomegranate may help slow down the progression of neurodegenerative disorders such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's disease.

Now, a team of Swiss scientists found another reason why pomegranates are good for you: the fruit contains potential anti-aging properties that may improve endurance and muscle strength.

Why Pomegranates Are Good For You

Our cells often rely on a process called mitophagy to recycle worn-out mitochondria — or the tiny powerhouses that create the chemical units that fuel cells.

However, as we age, mitophagy begins to slow down and malfunction, affecting the recycling of mitochondria.

If this "cleanup" process does not occur, the worn-out mitochondria and their decomposing components accumulate inside the cells. This may cause the weakening of tissues and muscles.

In the new research, experts from the école Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) reported that a compound called urolithin A can bring back mitophagy in cells where it has become inactive.

Urolithin A is produced in the stomach when a certain pomegranate ingredient known as ellagitannins is digested by gut bacteria, researchers said.

"It's a completely natural substance," says Patrick Aebischer, a nueroscientist and the co-author of the new study. "[I]ts effect is powerful and measurable."

Aebischer and his team first tested the effects of urolithin A on a nematode worm called Caenorhabditis elegans.

This worm is a useful model because it is multicellular, its cells have many features in common with human cells and it develops from a fertilized egg. And because the worm is considered elderly at eight to 10 days of age, it is a useful model for aging.

Scientists discovered that when C. elegans is exposed to urolithin A, the worms lived more than 45 percent longer on average. Urolithin A also prevented the buildup of worn-out mitochondria as C. elegans aged.

In Young And Elderly Mice

Aebischer and his colleagues repeated their test on lab mice, revealing that exposure to urolithin A also led to a reduction in dysfunctional mitochondria.

Elderly mice at 2 years old that were exposed to the ingredient displayed 42 percent better endurance while running compared to other mice. Among young mice, exposure to urolithin A appeared to have improved exercise capacity.

Human Trials

However, although the results look promising, researchers say they are not suggesting that people should begin consuming more pomegranates to slow aging on the basis of their findings.

Scientists pointed out that it is not urolithin A present in pomegranates, but only a precursor known as ellagitannins. When this molecule is mixed with water in the gut, it is broken down into ellagic acid, which is processed by gut microbiome to yield urolithin A.

Furthermore, the amount of urolithin A produced may vary from person to person. In fact, this bacteria may even be absent in some individuals. If this is the case, researchers say it is possible that pomegranates will not give the person the benefits seen in the study.

With that in mind, Swiss scientists launched a biotech startup called Amazentis, which is on its way to developing finely calibrated doses of urolithin A.

The startup is testing the substance on human trials to determine its effects. Study authors hope that they will find similar results in humans.

Details of the report are published in the journal Nature Medicine.

Photo: Stuart Webster | Flickr

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