Major Health Benefits of Phytonutrients
Long List of Phytonutrients and Their Associated Benefits
Researchers have uncovered thousands of different phytonutrients – beneficial compounds in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and other plant-based foods (“phyto” is Greek for plant). Phytonutrients often act as antioxidants, protecting the body’s cells from the damaging effect of free radicals. Antioxidants help to neutralize these free radicals and are believed to confer protection against many chronic diseases, such as heart disease and cancer. Scientists believe that phytonutrients work in concert to exert their antioxidant and immune boosting effects.
Classes of Phytonutrients
Terpenoids, also referred to as isoprenoids, are naturally occurring chemicals found in all types of living things. Plant terpenoids are known for their aromatic qualities – contributing to the scent of eucalyptus and the pungent flavours of cinnamon, cloves, and ginger.
Carotenoids are the natural fat-soluble pigments that provide the colors of many red, green, yellow and orange fruits and vegetables. They act as powerful antioxidants and are used to make vitamin A. Some well-known carotenoids are alpha- and beta-carotene, lutein, lycopene, zeaxanthin. Carotenoids have been shown to reduce the risk of certain types of cancer – specifically, premenopausal breast cancer and cervical, prostate, digestive tract and lung cancers, however, their consumption by smokers has been linked to an increased risk of lung cancer. Other health benefits attributed to carotenoids include protection against heart disease, cataracts, and macular degeneration, improvement in blood sugar regulation, and protection of nerve cells, which may help prevent or reduce the severity of Alzheimer’s disease.
Bioflavonoids are water-soluble pigments. The flavone molecule, shown here, is the basis of all bioflavonoids. More than four thousand bioflavonoids have been identified, including anthocyanins, which give plants their vivid blue, purple, and deep red hues and are abundant in blueberries and red grape skins. Bioflavonoids have been termed “natural biological response modifiers” because of their ability to adapt and moderate the body’s reaction to microbes – allergens, viruses, and carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). They have the demonstrated antiallergenic, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, and anti-cancer activity. Bioflavonoids also serve as powerful antioxidants, protecting against oxidative stress and free-radical damage.
Isoflavones are a subclass of bioflavonoids that includes phytoestrogens such as lignans, which may help to prevent the development of some types of breast cancer, and flavonols such a quercetin, which has antioxidant properties as well as anti-inflammatory effects.
Quercetin also inhibits the oxidation of low-density lipoprotein (LDL is the “bad” cholesterol that’s linked to an increased risk for heart disease) and appears to offer protection against cardiovascular disease. Preliminary research suggests that quercetin exerts inhibitory effects on various types of cancer, and it may also have antiviral action. Its best-known use is in the treatment of seasonal allergies because of its antihistamine effects. Quercetin has been found to improve the quality of men suffering from chronic nonbacterial prostatitis – inflammation of the prostate gland that is often painful.
There is also emerging evidence that isoflavones and lignans have beneficial effects on diabetes and obesity. Research suggests that a diet rich in isoflavones and lignans improves blood glucose control and insulin resistance. In studies of people with or without diabetes, these phytonutrients appear to moderate blood sugar levels and help to reduce body weight and blood lipid levels.
Learn more to answer the question about Phytonutrients Disease Prevention.
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