The Power of Phytochemicals & Nutrients and Flavonoids
Carrots are perhaps best known for their beta-carotene content. This orange coloured vegetable also houses polyacetylenes. Recent research has identified these carrot polyacetylenes as phytonutrients that can help inhibit the growth of colon cancer cells, especially when these polyacetylenes are found in their reduced form.
These polyacetylenes also have anti-inflammatory properties and anti-aggregatory properties that help prevent excessive clumping together of red blood cells. This explains why polyacetylenes may play a key role in the cardiovascular protection, giving credence to the array of recent studies that have shown that high intake of carrots lowers the risk of cardiovascular diseases.
The rich carotenoid content of carrots in addition to preventing oxidative damage in our body, may also help prevent oxidative damage to the carrot polyacetylenes. With these two groups of phytonutrients working hand in hand, you canít go wrong with carrots!
Did you know that the current nutritional guidelines recommend that you eat
five to nine servings of fruits and vegetables a day? It is not difficult
to understanding the health benefits of eating fruit and vegetables. Most
of us have known for years that a diet rich in plant foods
will provide us
with countless vitamins and minerals, as well as fibre. But what may not
be as widespread is the fact that fruit and vegetables are also chock full
of natural digestive enzymes and phytonutrients, substances that also
significantly contribute to our good health.
Of all the phytochemicals, we probably know the most about carotenoids, the
red, orange and yellow pigments found in fruit and vegetables, like carrots!
Our mothers knew that fruit and vegetables were good for us, but they didn't know that there are some amazing substances in these vegetables called phytochemicals, pronounced "fight-o-chemicals," they fight to protect your health. They can have complementary and overlapping mechanisms of action in the body, including antioxidant effects, modulation of detoxification enzymes, stimulation of the immune system, modulation of hormone metabolism, and antibacterial and antiviral effect. Read more about antioxidants here.
"Phyto" is a Greek word that means plant and phytochemicals are usually related
to plant pigments. So, fruit and vegetables that are bright colours - yellow,
orange, red, green, blue, and purple - generally contain the most phytochemicals
and the most nutrients.
You can benefit from all of the phytochemicals and nutrients found in plant foods by eating 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables a day and eating more whole grains, soya and nuts.
More than 900 different phytochemicals have been found in plant foods and
more will be discovered. These protective plant compounds are an emerging
area of nutrition and health, with new research reported everyday.
Essentially these constituents are the army that protect plants from disease, injuries, insects, poisons, pollutants, drought, excessive heat and ultraviolet rays. They form the plant's immune system, and of course are plentiful in carrots. Phytochemicals are a natural bioactive compound found in plant foods that work with nutrients and dietary fibre to protect our bodies against disease.
Since so many plants are food for humans, it's no wonder that scientists have found that phytonutrients can prevent and relieve a variety of diseases in humans as well as boost our immune system. Carrots contain beta-carotene which may help slow the ageing process, reduce the risk of certain types of cancer, improve lung function, and reduce complications associated with diabetes.
Phytonutrients were unknown until a few years ago, but their discovery is
hailed as being as important to that of vitamins. These non-nutritive compounds
(no, they're not vitamins or minerals) give fruit its flavour and colour.
Most importantly, there is growing scientific consensus that they play a crucial (but little understood) role in the prevention of chronic, degenerative disease, including many cancers.
Phytonutrients can also lower cholesterol, reduce blood pressure, detoxify blood, relieve allergies and are powerful antioxidants.
Just when you thought you'd learned everything there is to know about anti-oxidants, you< may have started reading reports about phytochemicals. They may sound futuristic, but the name is just the most recent label emphasizing the plant source of most of these protective compounds. What is "new" about phytochemicals is recent research about the disease-preventing possibilities they hold. You may be thinking that until now you had never heard of phytonutrients, but this is probably not the case.
Just as vitamins have specific names such as B6 or E, phytonutrients have individual names as well, and lately some of them are getting to be quite well-known. For example, the phytonutrient lycopene has received a lot of attention for its ability to reduce levels of prostate cancer in men, and millions of women are enjoying relief from menopausal symptoms thanks to isoflavone, a phytonutrient found in soybeans. Another common group of phytonutrients is the bioflavonoids, a popular ingredient in many supplements.
Phytochemicals are certain organic components of plants which scientists have isolated as being beneficial to human health in a different way from traditional anti-oxidants. They are sometimes referred to as phytonutrients, but unlike the traditional nutrients (protein, fat, vitamins, minerals), they are not "essential" for life so the term phytochemical is more accurate. Still, a true nutritional role for phytochemicals is becoming more probable every day as researchers uncover more and more benefits. It is possible that phytochemicals may indeed someday be classified as essential nutrients.
Phytochemicals have proven to be beneficial in many ways. They may serve as anti-oxidants in a bodily system when required; for example, the phytochemical beta-carotene can metabolize to create vitamin A, a powerful anti-oxidant. Additionally, phytochemicals may enhance immune response and cell-to-cell communication, allowing for the body's built- in defences to work more efficiently. Phytochemicals may even alter estrogen metabolism, cause cancer cells to die (apoptosis), repair DNA damage caused by smoking and other toxic exposure, and detoxify carcinogens by working with bodily enzymes.
Some of the common classes of phytochemicals include carotenoids, terpenes and polyphenols.
Carotenoids protect the body by decreasing the
risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness and certain types of cancer. They
may also help to slow the aging process, reduce complications associated
with diabetes, and improve lung function. Beta-carotene is an important member
of the carotenoids family and was originally found in carrots. Carotenoids
are the pigments responsible for the colours of many red, green, yellow and
orange fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids are a large family of phytochemicals
which include alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, cryptoxanthin,
canthaxanthin, zeaxanthin, and others.
Carotenoids protect the body by decreasing risk of heart disease, stroke, blindness, and certain types of cancer. Fruit and vegetables that are dark green, yellow, orange or red contain carotenoids
Of all the phytochemicals, we probably know the most about carotenoids, the red, orange and yellow pigments found in fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids are actually a subclass of a phytochemical called terpenes, probably the most common of all the phytochemicals. The subclass carotenoids include alpha- and beta- carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, and lutein, found in carrots, leafy green and yellow vegetables, and citrus or pulpy fruits. Another cartenoid, lycopene, is found heavily in tomatoes. There have been several studies suggesting that these compounds are among the most beneficial components of fruit and vegetables.
Terpenes can be found in almost all plant life and have a beneficial function within plants themselves; in humans, they also seem to battle against certain cancers and even heart disease.
Polyphenols are another common phytochemical and generally come in two classifications: flavonoids and non-flavonoids. Carrots are also a good source of disease-fighting flavonoids that provide antioxidants that neutralize free radicals in our bodies. A diet without antioxidants will allow these free radicals, highly unstable and extremely reactive molecules, to attack the cells of our body everyday. Some sub-classes of polyphenols also inhibit specific enzymes; for example, flavonoids block the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) that is responsible for raising blood pressure. Flavonoids also protect the vascular system and strengthen the tiny capillaries that carry oxygen and essential nutrients to all cells.
Read more about
The understanding of phytochemicals is still in its infancy, but research
in this area is expanding rapidly because it appears that phytochemicals
offer a measurable amount of protection against oral cancer and other diseases.
Will phytochemicals be the preferred "prescription" of tomorrow? Possibly,
but in any case they are helping teach us more about natural defences against
cancer, and that is a good thing by any name.
It is important to make sure you are eating whole fruit and vegetables. The more of the fruit or vegetable you remove, the fewer phytonutrients you get. Peeling that carrot, spitting out those grape seeds, or throwing away the broccoli stalk may make what you eat more palatable but it removes vital phytonutrients. "One gram of preventive phytonutrients is better than a ton of curative drugs" (Dr James Duke of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture)
The highest concentrations of phytonutrients are often found in the least desirable parts of the fruit and vegetables. For example, concentrated stores of phytonutrients are found in the skins and stalks, most of which are usually thrown away.
"At almost every step along the pathway to cancer, phytochemicals slow up or reverse the process" (Dr John Potter, Epidemlologist at The University of Minnesota).
Fantastic findings on flavonoids
Originally, flavonoids were thought to be lacking in any nutritional value, and were only credited for giving fruits and flowers their nice colours. Over time, research has found that these colourful compounds may help ward off cancer, heart disease, and other serious illnesses. In his book "Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine," author Michael Murray, N.D., wrote, "Flavonoids appear to modify the body's reaction to other compounds such as allergens, viruses, and carcinogens, as evidenced by their anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, antiviral, and anti-cancer properties."
Fruit is especially rich in flavonoids. Grapes, grapefruit, and strawberries are full of a flavonoid called quercetin, which has been found to prevent heart disease and stroke, as well as work as a potent anti-allergen. Grapefruit and other citrus fruits contain the flavonoid hesperidin, which when combined with vitamin C can help reduce hot flashes in menopausal women. In a clinical study, 94 women were given a formula containing hesperidin and vitamin C. After only one month 87% of the subjects reported either relief or reduction of hot flashes. Additionally, cherries, cranberries, guava, and raspberries all owe their beautiful rich colours to huge amounts of health-enhancing flavonoids.
One of the most healthful groups of flavonoids is the proanthocyanidins,
which are found in abundance in grape seeds and blueberries. This type of
flavonoid has been found in animal studies to lower cholesterol levels, prevent
damage to the linings of the arteries, and reduce artherosclerosis. Since
proanthocyanidins work harder as antioxidants than either vitamins C or E,
they can be especially effective at warding off heart disease, strokes, and
The link between diet and digestion
In addition to phytonutrients, fruits and vegetables are full of
naturally-occurring enzymes. Enzymes are important for many bodily functions,
but they are especially vital for good digestion. Our bodies produce only
25% of the enzymes we need for proper digestion, and the rest are expected
to come from our diets. The typical American diet does not contain enough
raw foods to provide the missing 75% of enzymes. This undoubtedly explains
why millions of Americans suffer from indigestion and heartburn. Additionally, many scientists feel that good health starts with good digestion, and that
a lack of enzymes is behind many allergies and other serious illnesses.
Pineapple and papaya are both rich sources of digestive enzymes.
Pineapple contains a substance called bromelain, and papaya is rich in papain. Both of these are enzymes that help digest proteins. If you typically feel bloated and uncomfortable after eating high-protein foods such as red meat, supplementing with these two enzymes can really help. Mangoes are another fruit containing digestive enzymes. Other crucial dietary enzymes are amylase, which helps break down sugars, lipase, which works on fats, and cellulose, which converts the cellulose found in plant foods into usable sugars. All of these important enzymes are typically deficient in the average western diet.
Read more about antioxidants here.
Balch and Balch, Prescription for Nutritional Healing, 1997, pages 6, 7, 12, 20-21
Murray, Michael, and Pizzorno, Joseph, Encyclopaedia of Natural Medicine, 1998, pages 48, 94-95, 127, 170
Various internet sources
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