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In this age and era where we are all working towards living healthy lifestyles, you might have come across the word phytochemicals. So, you are wondering what are phytochemicals?
Well, phytochemicals are compounds released by plants. You can find phytochemicals in fruits, beans, grains, vegetables, and other plants.
The origin of phytochemicals
Phytochemicals came into existence to assist plants to survive in environments that are hostile. In the early years of the earth, the atmosphere had minimal oxygen.
Oxygen composition increased through plants as they take in carbon dioxide and give out oxygen. However, by increasing the oxygen composition in the atmosphere, plants ended up polluting their environment.
With their environment polluted with highly reactive oxygen, plants developed antioxidants compounds like phytochemicals to protect themselves. Thanks to these phytochemicals, plants don’t struggle to thrive in today’s oxygen-rich environment.
Phytochemicals and the human body
Phytochemicals are not essential to sustain the human body. However, despite phytochemicals not being essential nutrients, these chemicals are useful in the protection of human beings against diseases.
According to some scientists, eating vegetables, fruits, and other foods high in certain phytochemicals, you can reduce the risk of contracting cancer by 40%.
Research states that phytochemicals reduce cancer risks by:
• Assisting in stopping the creation of substances (carcinogens) that could potentially cause cancer.
• Phytochemicals assist the body by protecting cells against attacks by carcinogens.
Benefits of phytochemicals
The number of phytochemicals known to man is more than a thousand. Here are some of the phytochemicals identified by research and their benefits.
• Boosting immunity
Plants like cooked carrots, broccoli, squash, and tomatoes contain Carotenoids. This is the chemical that gives these plants their colors such as orange, yellow, and red.
Carotenoids can prevent the development of cardiovascular diseases and the growth of cancer by boosting your body’s immunity.
• Fighting tumor growth and inflammation
Fruits and vegetables like apples, berries, onions, and soybeans contain flavonoids. Flavonoids are chemicals that combat inflammation in your body as well as fight the growth of tumors.
• Berries and red wine contain Anthocyanins, chemicals that help in lowering blood pressure.
• Grapes, dark chocolate, and red wine have one plant chemical in common, Resveratrol. Resveratrol is a chemical that contributes to longevity in some animals.
• Some phytochemicals contribute to the better functioning of the arteries’ lining as well as assist in reducing blood pressure. These phytochemicals are Proanthocyanidins and Flavanols. These two chemicals are present in apples, cocoa, grapes, and red wine.
• Our bodies get protection against cancer and cardiovascular diseases from foods like broccoli, kale, and cabbage. The chemical that these foods have in common is Isothiocyanates. Isothiocyanates prevent cancer cells from attacking our bodies.
• If you suffer from inflammation or blood pressure, you might want to include citrus fruits, apples, and onions in your diet. This is because these foods contain Quercetin, a phytochemical that works to reduce inflammation and high blood pressure.
• To fight viruses and slow the growth of cancer cells you need Terpenes. Terpenes are found in citrus fruits and cherries.
• Eye health – the phytochemicals linked with improved eye health are Zeaxanthin and Lutein. These chemicals are in dark, leafy greens.
Other health-promoting phytochemicals
We have highlighted the benefits of phytochemicals to our bodies and what foods contain useful phytochemicals. However, there are other phytochemicals that promote good health in different ways. These are:
Antioxidants act as your body’s protector against free radicals. Free radicals are molecules that are unstable usually created during normal cell functions. Free radicals can be created in your body through pollution, herbicides, radiation, and inhaling cigarette smoke.
Free radicals are harmful to your body since they can cause damage to the genetics parts of a cell and trigger the cell’s growth that is out of control. These changes to the cell may lead to the development of diseases like cancer.
Antioxidants are present in foods like brussels sprout, cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, mangos, corn, sweet potatoes, blueberries, nuts, strawberries, among many more foods. If you are looking for foods with the most antioxidants go for the fruits and vegetables that are dark-colored.
Sulfides are known to help in strengthening the immune system. Sulfides are found in onions and garlic. Sulfides and Thiols are known to help in lowering LDL, the “bad” cholesterol.
Stimulation of enzymes
Cabbages contain phytochemicals that are useful in reducing the risk of breast cancer. These phytochemicals are Indoles. Indoles reduce the effectiveness of estrogen by stimulating enzymes that lower the hormone’s effectiveness. Interference with estrogen lowers a person’s risk of contracting breast cancer.
Protease inhibitors like soy and beans as well as terpenes like cherries and citrus fruits are other phytochemicals that cause interference to enzymes.
Interfering with DNA replication
The multiplication of cancer cells is preventable through the interference of cell DNA replication. Beans contain Saponins, phytochemicals that prevent cell DNA from replicating. Protecting DNA from carcinogens is possible through Capsaicin, phytochemicals found in hot pepper.
Allicin is a phytochemical found in garlic and it contains anti-bacterial properties.
Urinary tract infections
Phytochemicals found in cranberries help in the improvement of dental health and protection against urinary tract infections.
Phytochemicals role in reducing Type 2 Diabetes
According to research, foods that are rich in phytochemicals have a direct impact on the reduction of type 2 diabetes.
These foods alleviate the risk of type 2 diabetes through the reduction of inflammation and improvement in your body’s sensitivity to insulin.
Photochemical rich-foods also indirectly lower the risk of type 2 diabetes by reducing the possibilities of weight gain.
Weight gain is a risk factor associated with type 2 diabetes. Foods that are rich in phytochemicals are healthy and contain little to no saturated fats hence contributing to keeping excess weight away.
Consumption of Polyphenols has been found to produce positive effects in the improvement of insulin sensitivity and glucose levels of the blood.
Polyphenols work by inhibiting the digestion of carbohydrates and the absorption of glucose in the intestines. They then stimulate the secretion of insulin from the pancreas and regulate the release of glucose from the liver.
After regulating the release of glucose, polyphenols stimulate receptors of insulin as well as tissues that are sensitive to insulin to take up glucose before finally modulating gene expression.
Some studies confirm that consumption of green leafy vegetables provides the highest protection against type 2 diabetes because these foods are rich in phytochemicals.
Tea and cocoa contain polyphenols that contribute to the improvement of sensitivity to insulin and lower the risk of type 2 diabetes.
Research undertaken in several European nations shows a 16% lower risk of type 2 diabetes for people who drink at least four cups of tea daily compared to people who don’t drink tea.
There has also been research on a controlled group of diabetes patients for one year.
During the research period, one group of diabetes patients was given chocolate enriched with flavonoids.
This group recorded a significant reduction in their insulin levels, a decrease in total cholesterol, and improved sensitivity to insulin.
Consumption of between 48 to 80g of whole grains every day also contributes to a lower risk of type 2 diabetes.
Phytochemicals and Neurodegeneration
Protection against neurodegenerative illnesses like Alzheimer’s may come from phytochemicals. According to research, phytochemicals like curcumin present in turmeric and Capsaicin present in red pepper protect against the effects of neurodegeneration.
In general, flavonoids are considered helpful in the reversal of cognitive functions declines associated with aging.
Flavonoids reduce the decline of cognitive functions by improving the flow of blood to the brain and increasing the neurons’ connections.
An increase in the neurons’ connections and blood flow to the brain leads to the protection of neurons that are vulnerable and enhancement of the functions of the existing neurons.
Consuming foods that are high in flavonoids throughout one’s lifetime contributes to the limiting, prevention, or reversal of abnormal deterioration of an aging brain’s cognitive functions.
There are studies that show the development of Parkinson’s diseases can be lowered through the consumption of tea. Tea consumption is also seen to slow down the onset of Parkinson’s disease.
The caffeine content in tea is one of the factors that cause this beverage to slow down Parkinson’s disease. Caffeine is a phytochemical that occurs naturally.
However, apart from caffeine playing a role in reducing the chances of Parkinson’s disease, intake of flavonoids and more specifically berries are associated with a lowered risk in contraction of the disease.
To keep neurodegenerative disorders at bay as well as treat them, the production of free radicals that are damaging to the body should be slowed down.
To slow down the production of the free radicals, consider a combination of flavonoids that are diet-specific and which sieve through the blood or brain barrier.
These flavonoids keep harmful substances in the blood from accessing the brain and with the brain protected, neurodegenerative disorders are slowed down.
Cerebral blood flow
Drinking cocoa that is rich in flavanol, a phytochemical, contributes to improved cerebral blood flow. Cerebral blood flow is very important as it contributes to the brain’s optimum functioning and reduces the risk of Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Research suggests that if you consume foods that are rich in flavonoids like berries and cocoa, there’s a high chance of reducing neurodegeneration and alleviating cognitive decline.
Cognitive decline and menopause
Cognitive decline may start happening during menopause. To prevent menopause-induced cognitive decline, phytoestrogens are crucial.
Phytoestrogens are phytochemicals that have activities similar to those of estrogen that prevent any cognitive decline from taking place at menopause. Phytoestrogens are present in whole grains and soy.
Metabolism of phytochemicals
Phytochemicals’ bioavailability is not similar for all the chemicals. The storage of phytochemicals isn’t yet well established. However, according to research, polyphenols are not stored for long in the body.
Apart from the storage of phytochemicals varying, their absorption also varies. This is because the microflora of the gut and the genetic makeup of individuals differ from one person to another.
The bioavailability of phytochemicals is also affected by processes like frying, boiling, steaming, and freezing, that the phytochemicals-rich foods undergo before reaching their final product.
How to get adequate phytochemicals
You are probably wondering how you can get enough phytochemicals. This is not something to worry about. Our daily diet already consists of foods that are rich in phytochemicals. It is only a small number of foods like refined sugars that lack phytochemicals.
There are foods that contain lots of phytochemicals like beans, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Therefore, the simplest method to follow to acquire more phytochemicals is consuming fruits and vegetables in large portions. The recommended intake of fruits and vegetables per day is at least 5 to 9 servings.
Eating fruits and vegetables not only provide you with phytochemicals but also you get minerals, vitamins, and fiber from these foods. It’s also vital you practice eating a “rainbow diet”.
This involves eating seeds, nuts, and legumes in addition to fruits and vegetables. Each food provides a different type of phytochemicals and together, they complement each other.
Can phytochemicals be harmful?
We have looked at the many health benefits of phytochemicals. However, can these plants compounds cause harm to our bodies?
Well, although phytochemicals are present in many foods there is no accurate database that is comprehensive regarding these chemicals. Therefore, it becomes difficult to estimate the intakes of phytochemicals.
Researchers are then unable to determine the optimal level of phytochemicals intake or the intake level that could cause health risks on the person consuming these compounds.
There is yet to be a conclusive answer as to the long-term effects of consuming phytochemicals in large amounts and therefore phytochemical supplements are not recommended.
Therefore, the best way to consume phytochemicals without any fear is through moderation. Consume a wide variety of foods including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes.
Also, take beverages like cocoa and tea in moderation to get the benefits of flavonoids. When you want to have some chocolate, go for dark chocolate as it is richer in phytochemicals compared to milk chocolate.