The role of non-energy-yielding nutrients on health has been meticulously studied, and the evidence shows that a compound can exert significant effects on health even if not strictly required by the organism. Phenolic compounds are among the most widely studied molecules that fit this description; they are found in plants as secondary metabolites and are not required by humans for growth or development, but they can influence a wide array of processes that modulate health across multiple organs and systems. The lower gastrointestinal tract is a prime site of action of phenolic compounds, namely, by their effects on gut microbiota and colonic health. As with humans, phenolic compounds are not required by most bacteria but can be substrates of others; in fact, some phenolic compounds exert antibacterial actions. A diet rich in phenolic compounds can lead to qualitative and quantitative effects on gut microbiota, thereby inducing indirect health effects in mammals through the action of these microorganisms. Moreover, phenolic compounds may be fermented by the gut microbiota, thereby modulating the compounds bioactivity. In the colon, phenolic compounds promote anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidant and antiproliferative actions. The aim of the present review is to highlight the role of phenolic compounds on maintaining or restoring a healthy microbiota and overall colonic health. Mechanisms of action that substantiate the reported evidence will also be discussed.
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