Longevity researcher takes strawberry antioxidant for healthy aging

Drug researcher Paul Robbins is investigating how a compound in strawberries can fight some of the inflammatory processes associated with aging.
Thanks to Paul Robbins; Getty Images

  • Longevity researchers are working on a new class of anti-aging drugs called “senolytics.”
  • The drugs target and clear out “zombie” cells that build up as people age.
  • One researcher is already using a chemical compound that occurs naturally in strawberries called fisetin.

The same chemicals that give bright red strawberries their vibrant flavor and color may also be a secret ingredient to healthy aging. It turns out that a single, special compound found in strawberries called fisetin is a zombie cell killer.

Paul Robbins, co-director of the Institute of the Biology of Aging and Metabolism at the University of Minnesota, has been studying fisetin for years and is impressed with how it can help lab mice stay healthy. He has already shown in published research that fisetin, which is also found in other red and rust-colored fruits such as apples and persimmons, can extend and improve the life of laboratory mice.

But during the pandemic, he began to wonder: What if fisetin could help? it age better and improve his immunity by reducing inflammation and lowering the levels of powerful “zombie cells” that build up in his body over time? He started taking a dose of fisetin once every two weeks, hoping it would help boost his immunity – and he hasn’t stopped since.

“I have a knee that’s a little cranky — it always seems to feel better after I take it. Is that real? Who knows,” Robbins told Insider.

He says it’s entirely possible that whatever he’s feeling could just be a powerful placebo effect.

“Again, there’s no evidence in humans that this kind of treatment has any benefit,” Robbins said.

Strawberry chemicals can kill “zombie cells” that accumulate as we age

People shop for fruit at the Union Square Farmers Market on July 13, 2022 in New York City.
Liao Pan/China News Service via Getty Images

Scientists call fisetin a “senolytic” because it targets senescent cells in the body, which accumulate as people age and contribute to age-related health problems. These cells are also called “zombie cells” because they have stopped multiplying, but are not dying. Yet they can still release molecules that cause inflammation.

The National Institutes of Health is so concerned about the influence of senescent cells on aging that they are funding $125 million in grants to study them over the next few years. In older mice, when these zombie cells are wiped out, the functionality of major organs such as the heart, liver, lungs and brain improves, while systemic inflammation decreases.

“If you’re a healthy human being in your 20s, 30s or 40s, you really don’t have a lot of senescent cells, it seems,” Robbins said. In fact, senescent cells are crucial to embryonic development, telling our fingers when to stop growing, and they can also fight cancerous tumours.

“It’s not until you get older that you notice it’s really related to conditions like frailty or disease,” Robbins said.

In the lab, he is working on developing fisetin-based drugs that could work to remove these zombie cells from the body.

“These studies are ongoing and I think in a year or two we’ll know if there’s real benefit, or if we need better senolytics, or if we need a senolytic plus another compound,” he said.

Wait for more research before taking fisetin, experts say

Fisetin is abundant in many fruits and vegetables, including onions, grapes and cucumbers.
Dalibor Despotovic/Getty Images

Other longevity experts, such as assistant professor Markus Riessland, who studies senolytics and the aging brain at Stony Brook University, say people should only exercise patience at home for a few years, while scientists like Robbins try to figure out when, how and at what dosage fisetin might work to improve aging.

There are already enough supplement peddlers on the internet selling products that are not regulated in terms of safety or quality. Not only can high doses of fisetin be for sale in an unregulated space, but it can also be toxic. The correct dosage and possible harm for patients with other health problems have also not been discovered. So while Riessland is excited about the promise of senolytic drugs like fisetin, he’s not ready to start taking pills just yet.

“I don’t want to say ‘take it’, I don’t want to say ‘don’t take it’,” Riessland said. It’s still unclear how well fisetin will work and how safe it is. “I’d wait a little longer, to be honest.”

In the meantime, you can find plenty of natural fisetin — as well as other anti-inflammatory compounds that can help fight aging — abundant in strawberries, as well as onions, apples, and a slew of other colorful fruits and vegetables.

And there’s a small but growing body of research suggesting that people who eat more strawberries may reduce their risk of Alzheimer’s, curb cognitive decline, and even improve blood sugar control and heart health. So go ahead, bite into that bright red strawberry.

Leave a comment