I have been researching phytonutrients for over 12 years now. It is fair to say that this research has led me to conclude that the critical role of these compounds in human health has been greatly underestimated.
PHYTONUTRIENTS: WHAT ARE THEY AND WHY ARE THEY IMPORTANT?
Article by Dr Nyjon K Eccles BSc MBBS MRCP PhD
Phyto-Nutrients are a broad range of micro-nutrients that are found in plants.
They collectively play a critical role in plant health and protecting them against environmental stress. Have any of you ever observed a plant running away from a stress? Of course not, plants protect themselves against environmental threat e.g. bacteria or fungal invasion, temperature extremes etc by increasing their production of defensive “phytonutrients”. Resveratrol for example, found in the skins of red grapes and that colours red wine, is a compound that protects against fungal invasion. There are thousands of these phytonutrients in nature that are found in a broad range of plant foods. The list below shows some of the families of phytonutrients that have been identified and that can co-exist in the same plant. Seven thousand different Flavanoids (which include the polyphenols) have been identified; as well as over 600 carotenoids, the latter giving bright colours to plants. Research has revealed something that is even more curious - that these same compounds that protect plants also are bioactive in humans and seemingly have a profound protective effect on human cells. The aforementioned Resveratrol has been found to be anti-inflammatory, antioxidant as well as a stimulator of metabolism in mammals.
Below: Groups of Phytonutrients found in plant foods
• Flavanoids –(Flavenols, Flavones, Flavenones, Isoflavones, Catechins, Anthocyanidins, Chalcones)
• Isoflavones (Phytoestrogens)
• Organosulphur compounds
I cannot over-emphasise how important this topic is for everyone to be aware of.
I did NOT learn it at Medical school and sadly this situation does not seem to have changed since I graduated in 1992. It is a topic therefore that most doctors are unfamiliar with.
Moreover, surveys suggest that less then 10% of people in the UK eat the recommended minimum of 5-a-day fresh fruit and vegetables. This would mean that majority of people are phyto-nutrient deficient!
What might be the consequence of this apparent and un-acknowledged deficiency? Taking the research on just three of the above families of compounds
(Carotenoids, Flavanoids and Isothiocyanates) the list below shows some of the actions that these compounds have been shown to have in mammals or mammalian cells:
• Decrease DNA damage
• Improve cell communication
• Improve cell detoxification
• Boost Immunity
• Improve circulation
• Alter gene expression
• Critically involved in the regulation of cell growth, cell cycle, programmed cell death
After all of my research it dawned on me that these nutrients are very likely to play a CRITICAL ROLE in the preservation of our cellular health. The data suggest we are coming up woefully short in our intake of these nutrients. It behoves us all to ensure we find ways to get a broad range of these life-giving compounds into us on a daily basis.
How much truth seems to underpin that famous old adage “ An Apple a Day
Keeps the Doctor away?”