Red wine and chocolate could fuel healthy space flight, say scientists

Loren Shriver, the commander of the space shuttle Atlantis, chases floating chocolate sweets on the flight deck in 1992
Loren Shriver, the commander of the space shuttle Atlantis, chases floating chocolate sweets on the flight deck in 1992 - HUM Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Astronauts could drink red wine and eat chocolate to stay healthy, a study has suggested.

While the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin, took chocolate sauce with him on his pioneering trip in 1961, his successors hoping to colonise the moon and Mars may see red wine and dark chocolate on the menu.

A study has found, for the first time, that chemicals in the two foodstuffs can help people cope with the physical stress of space travel.

Compounds called flavonols, whose health benefits have been widely extolled by nutritionists, have been found to keep the immune system working properly in space.

Scientists are investigating the long-term health impact of space travel in preparation for human journeys to the Moon in the next couple of years and to Mars next decade.

Blasting into space and spending months in orbit has a dramatic impact on the health of humans, with intense cosmic radiation and microgravity altering the body’s functionality.

A host of studies published in Nature journals on Tuesday reveal that time in space alters the immune system, the skin, the length of chromosomes, gene activation, gut microbiome, the reproductive system, hormones, blood, liver functionality, and kidney efficiency.

Health problems such as muscle atrophy, frail bones, weakened eyesight and kidney stones, have already been recorded.

One study by Cornell University and the Buck Institute in the US looked at how the immune system copes with microgravity with data from mice experiments on the International Space Station, human data from the Inspiration-4 mission, and the Nasa Twins study.

They found microgravity “alters specific pathways for optimal immunity” and stops infection-killing cells working properly.

American astronaut Marsha Ivins shares a box of chocolates with cosmonauts Aleksandr Kaleri and Valeri Korzun on Russia's Mir space station
American astronaut Marsha Ivins shares a box of chocolates with cosmonauts Aleksandr Kaleri and Valeri Korzun on Russia's Mir space station

Scientists and AI experts used machine learning to look for chemicals which could fix the wayward immune system of astronauts.

A common antioxidant called quercetin, a type of flavonol, was able to reverse 70 per cent of the genetic changes responsible for the immune problems in space, data show.

Flavonols are found at high levels in a range of colourful foods including onions, kale, grapes, capers and berries. They are also present in red wine and dark chocolate.

“Due to the pronounced benefits that quercetin gave to cells in normalising microgravity-induced pathology, we would anticipate that other flavonols could have similar benefits, pending more study,” Dr Daniel Winer, the study author at the Buck Institute, told The Telegraph.

“Red wine and dark chocolate both contain multiple flavonols, including quercetin, and so there might be benefit on immune function in taking these in space.”

Dr Winer added that the scientists have yet to determine a safe level of consumption of flavonols in space.

Zinc and magnesium also aid immunity

Other chemicals that benefit human immune systems in space include zinc, magnesium and catechins similar to those in green tea, the scientists say.

“Quercetin would be a good place to start for astronauts, and future space missions could potentially stress adding more food rich in quercetin, like kale, red onions, apples, berries, citrus fruits, capers, radish, among others,” Dr Winer added.

“We found that flavonols could help reverse about 70 per cent of the spaceflight-related core genes that change, and so any foods, drinks, or formulation that has high amounts of flavonols should likely help,” Dr Chris Mason, the study co-author from Weill Cornell Medicine, told The Telegraph.

The team published its study in Nature Communications and is now working on creating “space nutraceuticals” which could form the foundation for a future astronaut diet.

Dr David Furman, the study co-author and director of the Buck Institute Artificial Intelligence Platform, told The Telegraph the team unearthed the health benefits of flavonols “in a completely unbiased fashion”.

The natural chemicals are now being tested on lab-grown organs including mini-brains by space scientists to see if they could have further health benefits for astronauts.

Women may withstand space travel better

Tuesday’s package of studies is the largest tranche of data on the impact of space travel yet and scientists have now found early indicators that women are naturally better suited to coping with the rigours of space travel than men.

“We can’t make definitive claims on differences between sex but we can start to see some evidence that females might be responding and returning to baseline faster than males,” said Dr Mason.

“There seems to be a little bit of evidence that females might return more quickly to where they were before the flight.”

More data is needed, scientists say, as most astronauts are male. For example, 12 people have been to the moon, but all were men.

Dr Mason speculates that women may be better able to cope with space travel because the processes of pregnancy and labour pose similar physical challenges to going into space.

“It may be related to the fact that women have to give birth and are able to tolerate large changes in physiology and fluid dynamics,” he said.

“It may be that women are great at managing pregnancy but also at managing the stress of spaceflight on a physiological level. My wife asks me this all the time, actually.

“We don’t have the full answer yet as to why women seem to be a little bit more tolerant of the stressors of space flight but we’re looking into it.”

The scientists say that overall the studies show that people are able to tolerate space travel, and that even members of the public can spend time in space safely.

They added that medication will likely be able to protect and treat any issues that do emerge from being in space, particularly for long missions, such as any attempts to live on the Moon or visit Mars.

Mars travellers ‘might need dialysis’

However, one study from UCL published in Nature Communications did find that space could have permanent and severe health implications for the kidneys.

A combination of human data and animal experiments found that kidneys are physically reshaped by the space environment due to microgravity.

Astronauts are prone to kidney stones, the study authors say, because kidney tubules can shrink in less than a month.

“If we don’t develop new ways to protect the kidneys, I’d say that while an astronaut could make it to Mars they might need dialysis on the way back,” said Dr Keith Siew, first author of the study from UCL.

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