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Phytonutrients for disease prevention

By Paul Joseph Nanna
18 April 2019   |   4:12 am
The heart is one organ that has benefitted tremendously from the phytochemicals. I intend to highlight those phytonutrients...

Fruits and vegetables. Photo: Al Peakes and Sons

The heart is one organ that has benefitted tremendously from the phytochemicals. I intend to highlight those phytonutrients that have helped to prevent heart diseases. Phytochemicals are plant components that we eat as food. They can also be sourced from water we drink and from supplements. Also referred to phytonutrients, the phytochemicals are plant chemicals, which protect the plants against insects, bacteria, fungi and Ultra Violet (UV) radiation.

The phytonutrients give colour, peculiar smell and taste to the different parts of the plants such as the fruits (dried or fresh), the leaves, the stem, tubers, flowers etc. With these, the plants are able to destroy or keep attackers at bay.

These phytonutrients, apart from such benefits to the plants, have been shown scientifically to benefit human beings, health-wise. In their activities in the body, they function either as antioxidants, anti-inflammatory agents or immune system boosters. They also act as detoxifiers of foreign substances, especially in the liver where they also support a healthy liver.

Sources of phytonutrients
Generally speaking, phytonutrients can be sourced from veggies, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds, beans (legumes), herbs and spices. Phytonutrient-rich sources can also be identified by the colour, which is conferred on them by pigments, which contain the phytonutrients. For example, the green color of leaves come from the chlorophyll that is predominantly found in them. The orange/yellow colour of carrots, papaya (pawpaw), watermelon and winter squash come from beta-carotene. Blue/purple foods such as blue berries, black berries, and red cabbage are so because of the flavonoids in them. There are also the pink/red color of fruits and veggies such as tomatoes, water melon and guava which are coloured by lycopene. There are some other foods that may not be identified by these striking colors, they appear almost white but have peculiar smell and taste. Commonly, these are the sulfur-containing phytonutrients found in garlic and onions.

In terms of classification, phytonutrients can be grouped according to what type of chemicals they contain which in most cases can be determined by their color. Others may be grouped according to their peculiar smell or taste. It is therefore common to have such a group as carotenoids, flavonoids, glucosinolates, silforazones, phenols, ellargic acid, resveratrol, phytoestrogen, tea etc. In discussing phytonutrients, it is important to note that they are not related to any other groupings in the plant and animal kingdoms. They are a group of their own.

Health benefits of phytonutrients
The advice that human beings should have five-nine servings of vegetables and fruits daily is so that we should have different varieties of the phytonutrients. This is so important because the phytonutrients work in synergy, allowing for optimal cellular function. Phytonutrients are mainly preventive against diseases in their role in the body. However, they may also improve the health status of individuals in certain of the chronic degenerative diseases and some actually have played curative roles.

These are found in the yellow, orange and red vegetables and fruits. Common carotenoids are alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lycopene, lutein and zexanthin. Alpha and beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin are all converted in the body to vitamin A. vitamin A is a member of the vitamin antioxidant defense system. Together with others in this group, they neutralize the harmful free radicals that destroy cells and tissues in the body. By this action, they prevent diseases such as cancer. These carotenoids also boost the immune system and improve the health of the eyes.
Lycopene prevents heart disease.

The secret of catechins is found in the polyphenols that they contain. Polyphenols are natural organic chemicals characterized by the presence of large multiples of phenol structural units. These phenol-structured units give the organic chemicals their unique chemical, physical and biological properties. The metabolic, therapeutic and toxicity function of the polyphenols are dependent on the number of the phenol groups present.
Health benefits of catechins in green tea include lowering the risk of cardiovascular diseases. It does this by its ability to inhibit the abnormal formation of blood clots and its lowering effect on cholesterol. Green tea lowers total cholesterol level and improves the ratio of good High Density Lipo-protein (HDL) cholesterol to bad Low Density Lipo-protein (LDL) cholesterol [it decreases bad LDL cholesterol]. In other words, green tea helps to maintain a healthy blood level of cholesterol. It has also been discovered by researchers that catechins help to lower blood pressure and so can prevent stroke. Catechins both inhibit clot formation and lower the blood pressure, the two commonest ways by which stroke develops. Furthermore, catechins are known to boost the immunity.