Phytochemicals and Health: A Deep Dive into Food-Based Plant Compounds and How They Impact Your Health


Unfortunately, vegetation have change into the most recent meals to be demonized within the integrative well being group, primarily because of the rising affect of outspoken carnivore food plan advocates. While people could want meat and fats, phytochemical-rich plant meals are a pure a part of our omnivorous food plan and supply us quite a few well being advantages. Read on to study in regards to the myriad well being advantages of phytochemicals, the meals wherein these substances might be discovered, and particular conditions wherein phytochemicals could act as a double-edged sword.

Many advocates of the carnivore food plan say that phytochemicals are dangerous to your well being—however that’s not the entire story. Check out this text from nutritionist Lindsay Christensen for an in-depth take a look at the function phytochemicals play in your well being. #paleo #diet #wellness

Phytochemicals: An Evolutionary Perspective

Phytochemicals are chemical compounds produced by vegetation that assist the vegetation defend themselves towards pathogens and hungry herbivores, illness, and ultraviolet mild from the solar, whereas additionally regulating important facets of plant well being equivalent to metabolism and pollinator attraction. As such, many phytochemicals might be thought-about delicate “toxins.” Carnivore food plan advocates have grasped this concept with fervor, utilizing it to argue why we shouldn’t eat vegetation. However, there’s much more to this story!

It seems that, all through our historical past, we people have developed to expertise sure well being advantages by the consumption of vegetation. The course of by which the consumption of barely “toxic” plant compounds bolsters our well being and resilience is called xenohormesis.

Xenohormesis is a subcategory of “hormesis,” which is a positive organic response initiated by low exposures to toxins or different stressors. The phytochemicals our ancestors consumed through plant meals, and the resultant xenohormesis they skilled, could have performed a significant function in shaping our physiology. (2) For reference, train, warmth, and chilly publicity are additionally types of hormesis; the right dose and frequency of those stressors have internet advantages for our well being, simply as ingesting an applicable quantity and frequency of phytochemical-containing meals helps our well being. (3)

When we take a look at the diets of remaining hunter–gatherers and horticultural teams worldwide, we see that every consumes a mix of plant and animal meals. Even the Inuit sometimes eat plant matter, within the type of berries and lichen through the hotter months. The meat- and milk-reliant Maasai additionally incorporate vegetation by seasoning their meat-based soups with bitter herbs. Bitter herbs are amongst a number of the most potent phytochemical-rich vegetation in our food plan. (4)

Based on the idea of xenohormesis and the extant anthropological literature on the dietary habits of conventional cultures, there isn’t a query that plant meals have been part of our dietary subsistence for an prolonged interval. Exciting modern-day analysis signifies that dietary phytochemicals are highly effective health-promoting allies, making them a pure a part of a food plan primarily based on ancestral well being rules. Let’s focus on a number of the most notable phytochemicals present in our food plan and the way these compounds can help our well being.

16 Superstar Phytochemicals

1. Allicin

Allicin is a sulfur-based phytochemical present in Allium species greens, together with:

  • Garlic
  • Onions
  • Leeks

In vegetation, allicin acts as a protection molecule, defending vegetation towards pests. It is launched when vegetable tissues are broken, equivalent to by chopping or chewing; the tissue harm stimulates the transformation of the amino acid alliin, which is of course current within the plant, into allicin through the catalytic enzyme alliinase. (5)

In animals, together with people, allicin demonstrates potent antimicrobial properties, together with antifungal and antibacterial exercise. It even exerts exercise towards methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, a infamous antibiotic-resistant pathogen. (6) It additionally demonstrates useful results on metabolic well being, together with blood lipid ranges. I’ll focus on these physiological well being advantages of allicin and different phytochemicals in additional element within the following part, “How Phytochemicals Promote Health.”

2. Anthocyanins

Anthocyanins are flavonoids that impart vegetation with deep purple, purple, and blue colours. In the pure meals trade, they’re often used as non-toxic, natural meals colorants. Foods wealthy in anthocyanins embody:

  • Blueberries
  • Blackberries
  • Purple candy potatoes

Anthocyanins seem to exert antioxidant exercise in tissues all through the physique, starting from the cardiovascular system to the mind. (7)

3. Apigenin

Apigenin is a flavonoid present in numerous edible vegetation, together with oranges, celery, onions, and the herbs chamomile, parsley, thyme, and oregano. It provides an array of well being advantages starting from antidiabetic to neuroprotective properties. (8) Dried parsley is reported to have one of many highest apigenin contents of any edible plant. (9)

4. Berberine

Berberine is a bitter compound discovered within the roots of Berberis species vegetation, together with Oregon grape and barberry. Berberine-containing vegetation aren’t sometimes consumed as a part of the food plan, however quite, are used for his or her medicinal properties. Berberine is without doubt one of the most extensively researched phytochemicals and exerts useful results largely on cardiometabolic well being. (10)

5. Caffeine

While it’s possible you’ll not instantly consider caffeine as a plant-derived compound, it’s really one of the vital broadly consumed phytochemicals on the planet. As Michael Pollan posits in his e book Caffeine, caffeine could have performed a significant function within the cultural evolution of our modern-day society, making it a reasonably distinctive phytochemical!

Despite its controversial status, analysis signifies that caffeine provides useful well being results, together with neuroprotective results; simply remember the fact that particular person tolerance of caffeine varies primarily based on a number of elements, starting from genetics to your present stress stage. (11)

6. Carotenoids

Carotenoids are vibrant pigments that impart vegetation with yellow, orange, and purple hues. Three forms of carotenoids present in vegetation are beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin. Carrots, candy potatoes, and purple, orange, and yellow bell peppers are among the many greens richest in carotenoids. Wild-caught salmon, shellfish, and sure forms of phytoplankton are wealthy in an animal-based carotenoid known as astaxanthin.

Carotenoids have lengthy been appreciated for his or her protecting results on the eyes however can also have useful results on pores and skin and total antioxidant stability within the physique. (12, 13)

Carotenoids attracted some controversy after a research revealed that carotenoid supplementation elevated the chance of most cancers in people who smoke. However, it’s nonetheless up for debate whether or not it is a legitimate affiliation or impacted by different confounding variables equivalent to vitamin C and E standing. (14) This discovering means that remoted, long-term supplementation with sure phytochemicals could have unintended penalties and that we could also be higher off acquiring nearly all of our phytochemicals from complete meals sources.

7. Curcumin

Curcumin is a polyphenol discovered within the vibrant orange root of the turmeric (Curcuma longa) native to Southeast Asia. It has a plethora of organic actions within the physique, starting from antioxidant to anti-inflammatory actions. (15) Curcumin absorption within the gastrointestinal tract is sort of restricted; combining curcumin with one other phytochemical from black pepper, piperine, will increase curcumin bioavailability by 2,000 %. (16) In the nutraceutical world, quite a lot of methods have been utilized to boost curcumin bioavailability, starting from the blending of curcumin and piperine extracts in capsules to the high-tech encapsulation of curcumin into liposomes. (17)

8. Ellagic Acid

Ellagic acid is a polyphenol present in quite a few vegetables and fruit, together with:

  • Pomegranates
  • Cranberries
  • Raspberries
  • Blackberries
  • Strawberries

In preclinical research, it has demonstrated anti-mutagenic and anti-proliferative properties and can also help intestine well being. (18, 19)

9. Fisetin

Fisetin is a flavonoid present in all kinds of vegetables and fruit, together with: (20)

  • Strawberries
  • Apples
  • Persimmons
  • Grapes
  • Onions

It has acquired consideration for its impression on sirtuins, proteins that regulate mobile well being, metabolic well being, and longevity. (21)

10. Glucosinolates, Isothiocyanates, and Sulforaphane

Glucosinolates are sulfur-containing chemical teams discovered primarily in cruciferous greens equivalent to:

  • Broccoli
  • Cauliflower
  • Kale

Isothiocyanates are produced by the hydrolysis of glucosinolates, a course of initiated by cell harm induced by chopping or chewing of isothiocyanate-containing greens. (22)

Sulforaphane is one kind of isothiocyanate created when the enzyme myrosinase acts on the glucosinolate glucoraphanin. It is without doubt one of the most well-studied isothiocyanates, with over 3,000 publications describing its efficacy in animal fashions of illness and over 50 medical trials inspecting its pharmacokinetics, pharmacodynamics, and results on illness mitigation in people. Broccoli sprouts, the immature or “baby” type of broccoli, supply the richest dietary supply of glucoraphanin, which might subsequently be transformed into sulforaphane. (23) Lightly steaming cruciferous greens, quite than utilizing higher-heat cooking temperatures, preserves their sulforaphane content material. (24)

11. Green Tea Polyphenols

Green tea has been part of the human food plan for not less than 4,000 years. It is without doubt one of the hottest drinks consumed worldwide (besides, maybe, for espresso) and thus gives a available supply of phytochemicals. Green tea incorporates a number of polyphenols, together with:

  • Catechin
  • Epicatechin
  • Epigallocatechin gallate

The polyphenols have results starting from hormone-balancing to neuroprotective properties.

12. Luteolin

Luteolin is a flavone, a subtype of flavonoid, present in:

  • Celery
  • Thyme
  • Green peppers
  • Chamomile tea

It has acquired consideration for its neuroprotective properties in animal fashions. It additionally demonstrates anti-inflammatory exercise. (25)

13. Plant MicroRNAs

Plant microRNAs are a gaggle of phytochemicals that you just’ve possible by no means heard of, however nonetheless could have highly effective results on our well being. MicroRNAs are small teams of non-coding RNA molecules that play important roles in cell signaling and different plant features. Emerging analysis signifies that plant microRNAs have cross-kingdom results, that means that they affect plant well being and, upon human ingestion of vegetation, our personal well being. (26)

Upon ingestion, these substances are absorbed intact by intestinal cells. They can subsequently enter the systemic circulation and bind to cell receptors concerned in physiological processes starting from immunity to lipid metabolism.

14. Polysaccharides

Polysaccharides derived from vegetation are a major factor of the human food plan. Polysaccharides are carbohydrate molecules and, whereas they’re a substantial element of dietary fiber, additionally supply useful results past fiber. For instance, edible mushrooms comprise polysaccharides which might be immunomodulatory and anti inflammatory. (27, 28)

15. Quercetin

Quercetin is a polyphenol present in:

  • Onions
  • Apples
  • Capers
  • Berries

Like curcumin, it provides pleiotropic well being advantages, starting from antioxidant to anti-allergy actions. Its absorption can be fairly restricted within the intestine. However, quercetin bioavailability can be topic to interindividual variability and should depend upon genetics and the forms of microbes current in a person’s intestine microbiome. (29)

16. Resveratrol

Resveratrol is one other polyphenol however is discovered primarily in:

  • Red grapes
  • Red wine
  • Peanuts
  • Blueberries

Supplemental types of resveratrol are sometimes constructed from a naturally resveratrol-rich plant known as Japanese knotweed. Resveratrol has results starting from antioxidant exercise to anti-obesity results mediated by modulation of the “gut–adipose tissue” axis. (30, 31)

The dose of food-based resveratrol essential to induce well being advantages stays unsure. In one research in wholesome people, a single 100 mg dose of resveratrol was adequate to induce anti-inflammatory results; for reference, the common glass of purple wine incorporates a mere 1.9 mg of resveratrol. (32) Blueberries, one other supply of resveratrol, have just a few micrograms of resveratrol per berry, that means you’d probably have to eat 100,000 berries to get a 100 mg dose of resveratrol! Resveratrol is thus one phytochemical that individuals could also be higher off supplementing with for particular therapeutic functions since it’s onerous to return by in meals.

How Phytochemicals Promote Health

While xenohormesis is one mechanism of motion of phytochemicals, it’s definitely not the one one. Phytochemicals beneficially impression well being by quite a few pathways, starting from interactions with the intestine microbiome to impacts on proteins concerned in wholesome ageing and longevity.

Antimicrobial Activity

Numerous phytochemicals reveal various levels of antimicrobial exercise. Allicin exerts antimicrobial exercise towards a variety of Gram-negative and Gram-positive micro organism, fungi equivalent to Candida albicans, and parasites equivalent to Entamoeba histolytica. (33) Quercetin, apigenin, luteolin, and fisetin reveal antiviral properties by inhibiting viral entry into host cells and interfering with viral RNA replication. (34)

Brain Health

The impression of phytochemicals on mind well being is an thrilling space of analysis. Studies recommend that diets wealthy in phytochemicals help neuroplasticity and should support within the prevention of neurodegenerative illnesses. Certain phytochemicals have even been known as “neurohormetic” for the site-specific hormetic results they exert on the mind, inducing a gentle diploma of stress that results in total improved mind operate. (35)

Sulforaphane could shield the mind and nervous system from oxidative stress and ageing by upregulating the Nrf2 pathway, an antioxidant response pathway that culminates within the technology of glutathione, a neuroprotective antioxidant. (36) Resveratrol attenuates hypoxia-induced neuron loss of life and mind irritation, whereas apigenin promotes the expansion of recent, wholesome neurons (a course of often called neurogenesis) in animal fashions. (37, 38)

Interestingly, quercetin and apigenin are below preclinical investigation for his or her mood-regulating results as a result of their capacity to cross the blood–mind barrier and work together with monoamine oxidase (MAO), an enzyme concerned within the degradation of assorted monoamine neurotransmitters together with dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. (39) Synthetic MAO inhibitors are used within the remedy of assorted neuropsychiatric issues, equivalent to melancholy and nervousness, and different neurological circumstances with impaired MAO exercise, equivalent to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s illnesses. These strains of analysis recommend that diets wealthy in these phytochemicals might be useful for temper. (40)

Cardiometabolic Health

“Cardiometabolic risk” is a time period used to explain the widespread set of interrelated danger elements that affect the development of coronary heart illness and diabetes, together with:

  • Hypertension
  • Elevated fasting blood sugar
  • Dyslipidemia
  • Abdominal weight problems
  • Elevated triglycerides

In the scientific literature, plant-rich diets and particular phytochemicals are repeatedly related to enhancements in cardiometabolic danger elements.

Garlic demonstrates antihyperlipidemic results in human topics, decreasing whole ldl cholesterol and low-density lipoprotein (LDL) ldl cholesterol. (41, 42) The antihyperlipidemic results of garlic could also be mediated, partly, by allicin, which prompts a metabolic pathway known as AMP-activated protein kinase, or AMPK, to scale back triglyceride and ldl cholesterol manufacturing. (43) Allicin additionally inhibits platelet aggregation, one other contributing consider heart problems. (44)

Resveratrol additionally attenuates cardiometabolic illness danger elements. It decreases arterial stiffness, produces dose-dependent reductions in blood stress, reduces fasting blood glucose, not less than within the quick time period, and reduces pro-inflammatory cytokine signaling, a phenomenon that underlies the event of cardiometabolic illness. (45)

Berberine is one other famous person phytochemical for cardiometabolic well being. It reduces blood glucose and reduces LDL ldl cholesterol and triglycerides fairly potently. (46) Luteolin and fisetin shield towards the pro-inflammatory results of hyperglycemia and oxidative stress. (47, 48)

Many phytochemicals cut back the glycemic response from ingested carbohydrate, a phenomenon known as “postprandial glycemia.” (49) Postprandial glycemia has important results on cardiometabolic well being, with extreme postprandial hyperglycemia contributing considerably to the event of cardiometabolic circumstances. Phytochemicals could inhibit postprandial glycemia by inhibiting the exercise of digestive enzymes concerned in carbohydrate digestion or by delaying gastric emptying, which reduces the speed at which glucose is absorbed within the intestine and enters the systemic circulation.


Uninhibited mobile development and proliferation is an intrinsic course of in most cancers improvement and development. Several dietary phytochemicals reveal inhibitory results on irregular cell development and proliferation and should thus supply chemopreventive properties. In the lab, apigenin induces cell cycle arrest and mobile apoptosis in cancerous cell strains. (50, 51) Sulforaphane, by activation of the Nrf2 antioxidant pathway and results on cell cycle arrest, additionally could supply chemopreventive properties. (52) Curcumin, resveratrol, lycopene, and inexperienced tea polyphenols additionally reveal inhibitory results on cell development and proliferation and epigenetically regulate genes concerned in cancerous cell development. (53)

Enhanced Detoxification

By mildly stressing our our bodies, dietary phytochemicals upregulate our endogenous cleansing pathways, serving to our our bodies metabolize and eradicate the quite a few toxins to which we’re uncovered in the environment.

For instance, sulforaphane upregulates the Nrf2 pathway, which culminates in glutathione manufacturing, serving to the physique detoxify airborne pollution. (54) Other phytochemicals, equivalent to curcumin and ellagic acid, stability Phase 1 and Phase 2 liver cleansing, stopping “backups” within the physique’s cleansing pathways. (55)

Gut Health

Most phytochemicals are poorly absorbed within the gastrointestinal tract, an remark that has led scientists to surprise how precisely these compounds exert such broad-ranging useful well being results. One mechanism by which these poorly absorbed compounds could impression systemic well being is by affecting the well being of your intestine!

Ellagic acid, present in pomegranates and berries, is metabolized by intestine micro organism to create urolithin, a compound with gastroprotective properties. (56) Sulforaphane modulates the intestine microbiota, pruning again Helicobacter pylori. (57, 58) Quercetin could enhance intestinal barrier integrity, restore “leaky gut,” and improve microbial range within the giant gut. (59, 60)

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Several forms of phytochemicals exert hormone-like actions. Isoflavones are phytochemicals with delicate estrogen properties and are thus also known as “phytoestrogens.” Soy isoflavones have lengthy been touted as a remedy for menopausal signs, equivalent to scorching flashes. (61) Soybeans are the richest dietary supply of isoflavones, adopted by different legumes equivalent to chickpeas.

Certain phytochemicals assist stability hormones with out exerting direct hormone-mimicking results. Diindolylmethane, a metabolite of indole-3-carbinol, which is a glucosinolate present in cruciferous greens, modulates estrogen ranges; it will increase the ratio of 2-hydroxyestrone, the “good” type of estrogen, to 16-alpha-hydroxyestrone, a stronger type of estrogen with genotoxic and proliferative exercise. (62)

Isoflavones, nonetheless, are one instance of a phytochemical that acts as a double-edged sword. While the estrogenic results of isoflavones could also be useful for menopausal ladies, they might exert hormone-disrupting results in kids and adversely impression thyroid operate. (63)

Reduced Inflammation

Many phytochemicals upregulate the physique’s anti-inflammatory signaling pathways, decreasing continual irritation. Sulforaphane is broadly anti-inflammatory, decreasing irritation in tissues starting from the intestine to the mind. (64) Resveratrol reduces irritation by activating the exercise of AMPK, an anti-inflammatory nutrient-sensing, and signaling pathway. (65) Quercetin stabilizes mast cells, important cells inside the immune system, inhibiting them from releasing pro-inflammatory mediators equivalent to histamine. (66) Apigenin, curcumin, luteolin, and numerous different phytochemicals discovered all through our food plan additionally cut back irritation. (67, 68, 69)


Scientific curiosity within the biology of ageing is rising, and dietary phytochemicals are rising as a precious instrument for stemming the tide of age-related physiological decline.

Resveratrol is probably probably the most well-studied phytochemical with implications for anti-aging and longevity. Resveratrol prompts sirtuins, a household of seven proteins that play necessary roles in mobile well being and ageing. (70) Resveratrol-induced sirtuin activation has been discovered to enhance healthspan, outlined because the interval of 1’s life lived in good well being, in ageing mice. (71) Healthspan enchancment could also be mediated by optimistic adjustments in glucose metabolism, irritation ranges, and gene expression. Resveratrol additionally helps the ageing mind by sirtuin activation. (72)

Quercetin beneficially influences the ageing course of by performing as a senolytic, or a compound that selectively kills senescent cells, which have ceased to divide and as a substitute secrete an array of pro-inflammatory mediators that hurt neighboring cells. (73)

Promotion of Healthy Gene Expression

A wide range of phytochemicals impression the physique on the DNA stage by influencing gene expression, or the method by which the directions in our DNA are transformed into directions for making proteins that regulate our physiology. (74)

Our our bodies use many complicated mechanisms to control gene expression, and phytochemicals can help on this regulatory course of. For instance, quercetin regulates gene expression by performing as a histone deacetylase inhibitor; histones are proteins round which our DNA is wound; by influencing this DNA-winding course of, quercetin modulates the expression of genes concerned in processes starting from ageing to cardiovascular well being. (75)

Are Phytochemicals a Double-Edged Sword?

While phytochemicals supply quite a few well being advantages, there are some potential drawbacks to consuming remoted types of these compounds as a substitute of the entire meals model. For instance, excessive intakes of curcumin and inexperienced tea catechins can inhibit iron absorption within the small gut; whereas this can be useful for somebody with iron overload, this might have important drawbacks for somebody attempting to spice up their iron standing. (76, 77) High doses of berberine could mitigate the useful results of train by impacting metabolic and inflammatory pathways concerned in exercise-induced diversifications. (78)

The matter of isothiocyanates, equivalent to sulforaphane, and thyroid operate is some extent of rivalry within the Functional Medicine group. It has been instructed that consuming giant quantities of isothiocyanates might adversely impression thyroid operate. However, a randomized medical trial (albeit small) contradicts this perception, exhibiting that 12 weeks of supplementation with a sulforaphane-rich broccoli sprout beverage had no opposed results on serum ranges of thyroid-stimulating hormone, free thyroxine, thyroglobulin, or thyroid autoimmunity. (79) While these outcomes are encouraging, the research was small and short-term, so I nonetheless advocate that you just optimize your iodine standing earlier than consuming important quantities of sulforaphane, or different isothiocyanates, both from broccoli sprouts or a complement.

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Food Preparation Methods Impact the Phytochemical Content of Foods

Different meals preparation strategies, together with chopping, cooking, and fermentation, differentially have an effect on meals’ phytochemical content material. For instance, low-heat cooking strategies could also be finest for preserving isothiocyanate and sulforaphane content material of meals. (80) Conversely, cooking enhances the bioavailability of lycopene, a carotenoid, in tomatoes; the addition of olive oil to cooked tomatoes could render lycopene much more bioavailable. (81) Fermentation could improve the bioavailability of some, however not all, phytochemicals; for instance, lactic acid micro organism fermentation of a mix of apple, pear, and carrot juice was discovered to extend the content material of quercetin. (82) Ultimately, consuming a mixture of uncooked, cooked, and fermented vegetables and fruit will give you a various, bioavailable array of phytochemicals.

Final Thoughts on Phytochemicals

Humans are omnivores; we now have developed to eat all kinds of plant matter alongside animal meals. Fruits, greens, and herbs provide our our bodies with a wealthy array of phytochemicals with health-promoting properties. By “eating the rainbow,” you’ll be able to present your physique with a variety of phytochemicals and benefit from the quite a few well being advantages these compounds have to supply.

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