The word ‘phyto’ has been derived from a Greek term denoting plant. Therefore, when we say phytonutrients, we actually denote specific organic elements enclosed by plants and these elements are believed to be helpful for human health. For instance, all fruits, vegetables, legumes, grains, nuts and even teas are valuable sources of phytonutrients. Dissimilar from the conventional nourishing substances, such as vitamins, proteins, fat and minerals, phytonutrients are never indispensible for our survival. Therefore, a number of people like to call them as ‘phytochemicals’.
In other words, phytonutrients may be defined as organic chemical substances which facilitate plants in protecting themselves from the threats posed by the environment, for instance, destruction or harm caused by insects or ultraviolet (UV) rays. In addition, when they are used by humans, these phytochemicals also help to defend against various environmental hazards and diseases. Increasing number of studies have shown that they are very effective in the prevention as well as treatment of an assortment of medical conditions, counting all things from cancer and heart ailments to high blood pressure (hypertension) and diabetes.
As mentioned earlier in this article, phytonutrients are also sometimes referred to as phytochemicals, which are actually bioactive amalgams present in fruits and vegetables, which work in combination with vitamins, proteins, fiber and minerals to encourage our well-being.
Phytonutrients are basically plant chemicals that do not contain nourishments, but compounds that help in putting off as well as treating diseases. The function of phytochemicals in the plants is to defend against insects, ailments, injuries, drought, extreme heat, poisons, ultra violet (UV) rays and/ or contaminants present in the soil and air. In effect, the phytochemicals are basically a part of the immune system of the plants.
While phytochemicals are not categorized as nutrients, they have been recognized as compounds enclosing attributes that assist in preventing diseases. Hence, it may be precisely said that phytochemicals are compounds obtained from plants and are related to the prevention as well as cure of a minimum of four major causes of deaths in the Western nations – diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular ailments and high blood pressure (hypertension). The phytonutrients are concerned with numerous procedures, counting those that assist in avoiding cell damage, defending against cancer cell reproduction and lowering cholesterol levels.
It may be noted that phytohormones and phytosterols comprise the most significant clusters of phytochemicals. Phytohormones and phytosterols are basically sterols, which function in the form of forerunner to human sterols and work to adjust to the endocrine system in human beings. Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) is among the most significant sterols found in humans. DHEA is a hormone that is produced by the adrenal glands of the humans and performs a wide range of functions. Often, this hormone is denoted as the ‘mother’ hormone, since it possesses the aptitude to transform itself to various different hormones, including testosterone, estrogen, progesterone, as well as corticosterone, when required. Hence, DHEA can be called a forerunner of all the different other hormones and active metabolites found in humans. It may be noted that forerunners or precursors are chemical compounds that are employed by the body to generate other materials/ substances.
A scientific study undertaken to determine the health benefits offered by phytochemicals showed that sufficient amount of DHEA in the human body is likely to decelerate the aging process as well as put off, enhance and even usually reverse a number of health conditions, for instance, heart ailments, cancer, obesity, memory loss and also osteoporosis. The amount of DHEA in our blood level is highest in people in the age group of 20 years and 25 years. Subsequently, the DHEA level in blood begins to fall in men as well as women.
Then again, DHEA is also the precursor of cortisol and adrenaline, which are known as stress hormones. In other words, the human body makes adrenaline and cortisol from DHEA. While the body is making these stress hormones, the level of DHEA in the blood falls. As the lives of people in contemporary times is full of stress, it is not surprising that majority of the people suffer from a deficiency of DHEA, as well as the health conditions and degenerative ailments which have been discussed in this article earlier.
It may be noted that phytochemicals are considered to be accountable for protecting the body against diseases and are taken in by the body by means of consuming high amounts of fruits, vegetables, cereals, beans and beverages prepared from plant materials, for instance tea and wine.
While people have generally accepted that eating diets that are rich in vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes help in lowering the hazards of developing heart diseases, cancer as well as other diseases, very recently, scientists have started studying the consequences of the various dissimilar phytonutrients present in these foods.
Similar proves have been provided earlier too. Cultures that consume diets based on plants and have much lesser incidences of specific types of cancers and heart ailments have corroborated this belief. The comparatively lower incidences of endometrial and breast caners in a number of cultures in Asia, for instance, have been attributed partially to their food inclinations. These types of cancers are very widespread in the United States, perhaps owing to the usual diet most Americans have – foods that have high fat content and less of vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes. This has been stated by the American Cancer Society.
According to several experts, consumption of foods enclosing phytonutrients will help people to significantly lower their risk of developing cancer. There is proof that demonstrates that phytonutrients may work by facilitating in putting off the development of potential carcinogens, obstructing the activities of carcinogens on their intended tissues and organs or by taking action on the cells to hold back the development of cancer.
A scientific study proposes that flavonoids, which are considered to be among the most assorted cluster of phytochemicals, may possibly be a vital phytochemical group that helps in lowering mortality rates, which are seen in individuals ingesting elevated levels of foods based on plants. The Zutphen Elderly Study discovered that increased consumption of flavonoids resulted in the decrease of incident of myocardial infraction (MI) or heart attack. Likewise, the Seven Countries Studies that evaluated the diets of men residing in different Western nations, counting the United States, hinted that flavonoid intake has been accountable for about 25 per cent of the differences examined in death rates prevailing in different countries.
Common classes of phytonutrients
- Sulfides and Thiols
- Phenols and Cyclic Compounds
- Lignans (Phytoestrogens)
- Isothiocyanates and Indoles
- Inositol Phosphates (Phytates)
- Flavonoids (Polyphenols) including Isoflavones (Phytoestrogens)