The Essential Power of Phytochemicals

Medicinal or Toxic?

by Ana Lucia Carrizo

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Phytochemicals are bioactive compounds produced by plants to fight off pests, predators, and pathogens.

While they are not considered to be essential nutrients, many of these compounds are thought to have beneficial effects for human health.

Phytochemicals have had longstanding significance throughout history despite a lack of clear knowledge about how they function. It is these compounds that give plants a range of medicinal and toxic qualities.

On the harmful side of the spectrum, there are phytotoxins, antinutrients, and pro-oxidants which plants produce to defend themselves from predators as mentioned previously. These can be neutralized through the process of soaking or fermentation, as is done with soybeans and cassava.

Phytochemists study plant chemistry and work at extracting and isolating the compounds from the original source, followed by defining and studying their structure and effects in laboratory model systems. Basically, it's an extremely complex field that turns a painstaking process into conclusive, clear, and categorical evidence. Although, what is suggested on the other side of that same coin, and the benefits we get from them, mostly by simply eating a balanced diet high in fruits, vegetables, grains, legumes, and nuts are by no means anything to scoff at.

'Salicin' is the active, anti-inflammatory and pain-relieving phytochemical found in willow bark. It would be the process of synthetically isolating and reproducing it that would simplify it to the commonly used, over-the-counter, pain-relieving, Aspirin.

'Scopolamine' and 'Hyoscyamine' (both found in deadly nightshade) have been used in the past as poison for arrow tips, assassinations in ancient Greece, and later on as anesthesia in the early 1900s.

'Paclitaxel' found in the English Yew Tree, a plant known for a long time as highly toxic for animals and people who so much as grazed it, was isolated in 1971 and became an important anti-cancer drug.

'Beta-carotenes' in Carrots are powerful antioxidants that work to protect the cells in our body from the damage caused by free radicals.

'Allicin' produced by garlic through a self-protective enzymatic process is the substance that gives the vegetable its strong odour, and it is also the compound that makes it a powerful bactericide, anti-fungal, and antiseptic powerhouse.

'Theophylline' found in green and black tea, mate, and cocoa lowers blood pressure, and improves respiratory health, with a focus on the diaphragm.

'Lycopene', found in tomatoes, fights premature aging and endorses eye, and prostate health.

'Resveratrol', found in the skin of red grapes, partially explains the 'French Paradox', or the low incidence of heart disease among the French, who generally eat a large amount of fat in their diet, but also drink resveratrol-packed red wine.

'Tangeretin' found in citrus fruits helps to lower cholesterol and helps protect the nervous system, as was shown in a study with a rat model of Parkinson's disease in which it was shown to improve dopamine levels and displayed potentially neuroprotective properties.

'Caffeine' in coffee helps to stimulate the central nervous system, respiration, and blood circulation (although too much of it will have a negative impact with symptoms such as decreasing bone density). In the past, tea drawn from caffeine-producing plants was used to treat headaches, coughing, and even the plague. It is a recent development to use it to stay awake and fight off fatigue, making it one of the most widely used phytochemicals today.

Only the phytochemicals that are understood as to be necessary to perform physiological functions are recognized as essential nutrients. However this doesn't seem to be the perfect criteria to do so, as it is the year 2018, and the biological activities of most phytochemicals are still either unknown or poorly understood.

There are thousands of these powerful compounds spread throughout Nature, and a substantial percentage of them share the spectacular commonalities of being anti-inflammatory, anti-tumor, and anti-cancerous, while also fighting off fungus, improving heart health, and helping with the symptoms of diabetes.

Our planet is still, clearly, full of serendipity and mystery, and it always will be.

As we study the world around us, we often unconsciously assume that progress and innovation can only come forth from somewhere 'new', in an abstract future.

Nevertheless, a reality that we are finding ourselves contending with, more and more with each passing day, is that it is almost certain that we are, and always have been, surrounded by the untapped cure of every single ailment and malady known, and unknown, to man.

As for what little we do know, does nothing more than hint and point, unequivocally, at the latent, raw power of plants all around us.

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