For thousands of year, pomegranates have stood as a symbol of rebirth, fertility, and eternal life, and according to a new study published in the journal Nature Medicine, the fruit may live up to its expectations and have the power to stop us from aging.

A team of Swiss scientists from Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) have just discovered a potential key to rejuvenation called urolithin A (UA). But the fruit doesn’t produce the magical-seeming molecule on its own — instead, the human gut transforms the pomegranate compound during digestion.

“It’s a completely natural substance, and its effect is powerful and measurable,” said the study’s co-author Patrick Aebischer, the head of the neurodegenerative disease laboratory at EPFL, in a statement. “For it to be produced in our intestines, the bacteria must be able to break down what we’re eating. When, via digestion, a substance is produced that is of benefit to us, natural selection favors both the bacteria and host.”

Pomegranates may induce the human body to produce an anti-aging compound. Photo courtesy of Pixabay, public domain

After drinking squeezed pomegranate juice or eating the jewel-like fruit piece by piece, a natural substance within the fruit, called ellagitannins, are broken down by the intestinal bacterial in the stomach, which converts it into UA.  When humans age, the mitochondria, which are the engines of the cell, begin to degrade over time and lead to muscle weakening. But when researchers exposed UA to elderly nematode worms, they lived nearly twice as long as nematodes that did not receive the UA compound, and researchers believe it’s because the compound has the ability to salvage and restore failing mitochondria.

“It’s the only known molecule that can re-launch the mitochondrial clean-up process,” Aebischer said. “We believe our research, uncovering the benefits of urolithin A, holds promise in reversing muscle aging.”

When they tested UA on mice, researchers found similar results. Older mice were 42 percent better at endurance running than mice that weren’t given UA before exercise. This led the research team to believe UA could unlock the ability to reverse aging in humans. However, everyone’s gut works differently, which means the amount of UA each person produces could change depending on their particular colony of gut bacteria.

“Species that are evolutionarily quite distant, such as [worms and mice], react to the same substance in the same way,” said the study’s co-author Johan Auwerx, a researcher at EPFL, in a statement. “That’s a good indication that we’re touching here on an essential mechanism in living organisms.”

Aebischer and his team are working with biotech company Amazentis to develop a safe nutritional supplement for aging consumers. Until then, you don’t need to chug gallons of pomegranate juice to render some of the benefits for yourself. Any foods that contain the ellagitannins, which start the anti-aging domino effect in the first place, may do the trick.

“Precursors to urolithin A are found not only in pomegranates, but also in smaller amounts in many nuts and berries,” Aebischer said. “Our objective is to follow strict clinical validations, so that everyone can benefit from the result of these millions of years of evolution.”

Source: Auwerx J, Ryu, and Mouchiroud L, et al. Urolithin A Induces Mitophagy and Prolongs Lifespan in C. elegans and Increases Muscle Function in Rodents. Nature. 2016.