SEATTLE, Wash. — A substance in pomegranates could hold the key to creating a new anti-aging treatment that strengthens muscles and mitochondrial health. Researchers from the University of Washington say the fruit contains an extract called urolithin A, which they believe can protect against frailty during old age.
Their study found older adults taking urolithin A supplements performed better in physical endurance tests. The metabolite compound is also present in some berries and nuts. It boosts the mitochondria – the power stations of cells – and also shows an ability to increase muscle strength.
“This is relevant both to people with chronic diseases and people who want to be more active later in life,” says lead author Professor David Marcinek in a university release.
Pomegranate compound already on store shelves
The compound is also available in pill form and powders in health food stores. The team notes that urolithin A is produced by gut bacteria after consuming foods rich in ellagitannins. People produce urolithin A at variable rates as diet, age, genetics, and disease affect the makeup of their microbiome.
Normally, mitochondria run down with age, making them less effective or even toxic — leading to muscle weakening and frailty. However, urolithin A helps the body recycle these drained battery packs, recharging cells and holding aging at bay. Experiments found it stimulates “mitophagy” — a phenomenon Prof. Marcinek describes as “mitochondrial quality control.”
“Mitochondria are like batteries that power the cells in your body,” the researcher explains.
“But over time, they break down. The process of mitophagy recognizes this failure and proactively tears down the mitochondria, reducing it to elemental components that a cell can reuse. But with aging, mitophagy becomes less efficient and your body accumulates this pool of failing mitochondria. It’s one way that muscles become less functional as we age.”
Urolithin A can turn back the clock
In the study, 66 participants randomly received either 1,000 milligrams of urolithin daily for four months or a placebo. At the outset, they had average or poor levels of ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which mitochondria produce to help the cells function.
The supplement group’s fitness and ATP production would improve if the supplement improved mitophagy. Results show muscle contractions during exercises involving the hand and leg did indeed increase, supporting the idea that urolithin A can turn back the aging clock. The distance people covered during a six-minute walk also improved significantly, but participants in the placebo group saw improvements as well.
“Even though we did not observe an effect of the supplement in whole body function,” Marcinek notes, “these results are still exciting because they demonstrate that just taking a supplement for a short duration actually improved muscle endurance. Fatigue resistance got better in the absence of exercise.”
Blood tests also showed urolithin A reduced chemicals linked to metabolic disorders involving mitochondria.
A new anti-aging treatment for immobile people?
“I think these changes suggest that the treatment affects the metabolic condition of people. Even though it didn’t affect the maximum ATP production, it improved test subjects’ general metabolism,” Prof. Marcinek says.
The supplements could have the potential to benefit people who cannot get the exercise they need due to poor muscle health or disease.
“Just getting them over that point where exercise is possible – a walk around the block or climbing some stairs – might help a person build their own health,” the study author concludes.
The study, published in JAMA Network Open, was funded by Swiss-based Amazentis, which manufactures the supplement used in the trial.
Previous research has found worms consuming urolithin A live almost 50 percent longer. Elderly mice were also able to run 42 percent further after just six weeks of treatment.
Pomegranates already have a reputation of being a “superfood.” The fruit lowers blood pressure and strengthen bones.
South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.