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The Potential of Plants

Friday, January 13, 2017

Recently, I was chatting it up with a colleague about the virtues of chocolate.  Much of the conversation was tongue and cheek as we sought to justify our ingestion of the most incredible substance on earth.  At some point, my co-worker said, "and doesn't chocolate have flavonoids? - those are supposed to be good for us, right?"  This exchange reminded me of similar dialogues with folks about the benefits of red wine.  "It has that resveratrol stuff - that's good, right?"  Yes, but what exactly are flavonoids, resveratrol, caretenoids, and isoflavones?  They are phytonutrients, naturally occurring chemicals in plants.  

The word phyto is Greek for plant. So the word phytonutrient simply means plant nutrition. The phrases phytonutrient or phytochemical mean the same thing - natural compounds that come from fruits, vegetables, beans, grains, seeds, nuts or other plant matter.   Some researchers estimate there are 10,000 or more phytonutrients.  These chemical compounds protect plants from disease and the environment. .   Basically, they help keep plants healthy.  They are also the chemicals that give fruits and veggies their color, odor, and strong flavors.  

Traditionally, medicinal plants have been used all over the world.  The ancient Chinese used herbs for healing as far back as 2800 BC.   Hippocrates and Aristotle (460-322 BC) introduced herbal medicine from India and Egypt to Europe and the gold standard for over 1,500 years was the Greek physicians Dioscorides' book De Materia Medica.  This book, written sometime between 50 and 70 AD, was basically a pharmacy book of herbs and plants.  Fast forward to the 19th and 20th centuries and scientists discovered specific medicinal and pesticidal properties in plants - for example, morphine for pain and pyrethriods for pesticides.  It was not until the 1980s, however, that laboratories started identifying phytochemicals that might be used as medicines.  What they have discovered is that the same chemicals that keep plants healthy in the great outdoors seem to prevent and fight disease in humans as well.

According to a 2013 article in the journal, Today's Dietitian, research strongly suggests that consuming foods rich in phytochemicals provides health benefits.  Numerous studies indicate an association between consuming higher levels of phytochemicals through the ingestion of more fruits and vegetables .  Bottom line, folks who eat a largely plant-based diet tend to have lower cardiovascular disease, lower blood pressure, lower incidence of type 2 diabetes, and fewer age related declines in mental and physical abilities.  

The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR)  laboratory studies have shown that phytochemicals have the potential to:

  • Stimulate the immune system

  • Block substances we eat, drink, and breathe from becoming carcinogens

  • Reduce the kind of inflammation that makes cancer growth more likely

  • Prevents DNA damage and help with DNA repair

  • Reduce the kind of oxidative damage to cells that can spark cancer

  • Slow the growth rate of cancer cells

  • Trigger damaged cells to commit suicide before they can reproduce

  • Help to regulate hormones.

Stimulate the immune system

Block substances we eat, drink, and breathe from becoming carcinogens

Reduce the kind of inflammation that makes cancer growth more likely

Prevents DNA damage and help with DNA repair

Reduce the kind of oxidative damage to cells that can spark cancer

Slow the growth rate of cancer cells

Trigger damaged cells to commit suicide before they can reproduce

Help to regulate hormones.

What does this mean for your next trip to the grocery store?  Overall, it means load up with vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and beans.  To give you an idea of specific foods and their possible benefits, the CDC compiled a list of the top phytonutrients, their food source, and proposed benefits.

  • Beta-carotene - found in pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, cantaloupe, apricots and all dark leafy greens like spinach or broccoli.  Potential benefits include:  improved immune system, vision, skin and bone health.

  • Lycopene - found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, red peppers, and watermelon.  This is beneficial for prostate cancer prevention and heart health.

  • Lutein - found in all greens as well as Brussels sprouts and artichokes.  Believed to be good for eye health, cancer, and heart health.

  • Resveratrol - found in red wine, peanuts, and grapes. Studies indicate this is particularly good for heart health, cancer, lung health, and in the reducing inflammation.

  • Anthocyanidins - found in blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, red onions,  red potatoes, and red radishes.  These red and purple foods have the potential to improve blood vessel health.

  • Isoflavones - found in soybeans and soy products.  Studies show that this phytonutrient alleviates menopausal symptoms, may reduce breast cancer risk, lowers cholesterol, and improves joint health and inflammation.

Beta-carotene - found in pumpkin, sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squash, cantaloupe, apricots and all dark leafy greens like spinach or broccoli.  Potential benefits include:  improved immune system, vision, skin and bone health.

Lycopene - found in tomatoes, pink grapefruit, red peppers, and watermelon.  This is beneficial for prostate cancer prevention and heart health.

Lutein - found in all greens as well as Brussels sprouts and artichokes.  Believed to be good for eye health, cancer, and heart health.

Resveratrol - found in red wine, peanuts, and grapes. Studies indicate this is particularly good for heart health, cancer, lung health, and in the reducing inflammation.

Anthocyanidins - found in blueberries, blackberries, cranberries, raspberries, strawberries, red onions,  red potatoes, and red radishes.  These red and purple foods have the potential to improve blood vessel health.

Isoflavones - found in soybeans and soy products.  Studies show that this phytonutrient alleviates menopausal symptoms, may reduce breast cancer risk, lowers cholesterol, and improves joint health and inflammation.

While it is too early to "prescribe" an exact dose of one type of food as medicine for any given illness, the research is now perfectly clear that the consumption of fruits and vegetables is crucial for human health.  The vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and fiber in a varied diet rich in everything from berries to broccoli is going to be beneficial in the prevention of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, and other chronic diseases.  And yes, chocolate lovers, cocoa is rich in phytonutrients but keep in mind dark chocolate is richer in these miracle chemicals than milk chocolate!

For more information about phytonutrients, visit:

American Institute for Cancer Research -

www.aicr.org/reduce-your-cancer-risk/diet/elements_phytochemicals.html

CDC - http://www.fruitsandveggiesmorematters.org/what-are-phytochemicals

Lorraine Wichtowski is a community health educator at Noyes Health in Dansville.  If you have questions or suggestions for future articles she can be reached at lwichtowski@noyeshealth.org or 585-335-4327.  

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