• Dietary lignans are phenolic compounds that come mainly from plant-based foods, especially seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, wine, tea and coffee.
  • Consumption of lignans is associated with a reduced risk of developing cardiovascular disease, according to several well-conducted studies.

There are over 8,000 phenolic and polyphenolic compounds found in plants. These compounds are not nutrients, but they have various beneficial biological activities in the human body. They are generally grouped into 4 classes: phenolic acids, flavonoids, stilbenes (e.g., resveratrol), and lignans. Lignans are dimers of monolignols, which can also be used in the synthesis of a long branched polymer, lignin, found in the walls of the conductive vessels of plants. From a nutritional standpoint, lignins are considered to be a component of insoluble dietary fibre.

Figure 1. Structures of the main dietary lignans

Dietary lignans, the most important of which are matairesinol, secoisolariciresinol, pinoresinol and lariciresinol, come mainly from plant-based foods, particularly seeds, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, wine, tea and coffee (see Table 1). Other lignans are found only in certain types of food, such as medioresinol (sesame seeds, rye, lemon), syringaresinol (grains), sesamin (sesame seeds). Lignans are converted into enterolignans by the gut microbiota, which are then absorbed into the bloodstream and distributed throughout the body.

Table 1. Lignan content of commonly consumed foods.
Adapted from Peterson et al., 2010 and Rodriguez-Garcia et al., 2019.

Several studies indicate that lignans can prevent cardiovascular disease and other chronic diseases, including cancer, and improve cardiovascular health, through its anti-inflammatory and estrogenic properties (the ability to bind to estrogen receptors).

A recently published US study indicates that there is a significant association between dietary intake of lignans and the incidence of coronary heart disease. Among the 214,108 people from 3 cohorts of healthcare professionals, those who consumed the most lignans (total) had a 15% lower risk of developing coronary heart disease than those who consumed little. Considering each lignan separately, the association was particularly favourable for matairesinol (-24%), compared to secoisolariciresinol (-13%), pinoresinol (-11%), and lariciresinol (-11%). There is a nonlinear dose-response relationship for total lignans, matairesinol, and secoisolariciresinol with a plateau (maximum effect) at approximately 300 µg/day, 10 µg/day, and 100 µg/day, respectively. Canadians consume an average of 857 µg of lignans per day, enough to benefit from the positive effects on cardiovascular health, but residents of some Western countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Germany do not have an optimal intake of lignans (Table 2).

The favourable association for lignans was especially apparent among participants who had a high dietary fibre intake. The authors of the study suggest that fibre, by supporting a healthy microbiota, may promote the production of enterolignans in the gut.

Table 2. Daily intake of lignans in Western countries.
Adapted from Peterson et al., 2010.

PREDIMED (Prevención con Dieta Mediterránea), a recognized study conducted among over 7,000 Spaniards (55–80 years old) at high risk of developing cardiovascular disease, compared the Mediterranean diet (supplemented with nuts and extra virgin olive) to a low-fat diet advocated by the American Heart Association for the prevention of cardiovascular disease (CVD). In this study, the Mediterranean diet was clearly superior to the low-fat diet in preventing CVD, so the study was stopped after 4.8 years for ethical reasons. Further analysis of the PREDIMED data showed that there is a very favourable association between a high dietary intake of polyphenols and the risk of CVD. Participants who consumed the most total polyphenols had a 46% lower risk of CVD than those who consumed the least. The polyphenols that were most strongly associated with reduced risk of CVD were flavanols (-60%), hydroxybenzoic acids (-53%), and lignans (-49%). It should be noted that the nuts and extra virgin olive oil that were consumed daily by participants in the PREDIMED study contain appreciable amounts of lignans.

Another analysis  of data from the PREDIMED study showed a favourable association between total polyphenol intake and the risk of death from any cause. A high intake of total polyphenols, compared to a low intake, was associated with a 37% reduction in the risk of premature mortality. Stilbenes and lignans were the most favourable polyphenols for reducing the risk of mortality, by 52% and 40%, respectively. In this case, flavonoids and phenolic acids were not associated with a significant reduction in mortality risk.

No randomized controlled studies on phenolic compounds and the risk of CVD have been performed to date. There is therefore no direct evidence that lignans protect the cardiovascular system, but all the data from population studies suggests that it is beneficial for health to increase the dietary intake of lignans and therefore to eat more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and extra virgin olive oil, which are excellent sources of these still too little known plant-based compounds.

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