Phytochemicals: What the heck are they and how do they keep you alive?

Phytochemicals are basically chemicals from plants that “may” affect health. You’ve heard of them, guaranteed. Phytochemicals in non-scientific English are vitamins, minerals and other beneficial nutrients that you can obtain through eating fruits and vegetables. They are broken down into two categories; essential and non-essential.

Essential Phytochemicals

This category of phytochemicals are the ones that you need to consume to stay alive. Without them, deficiencies occur and your health suffers. The reason that we are able to be deficient in the first place is because our bodies are incapable of producing everything we need without sustenance. Some of these necessary chemicals are only gathered from our food or supplements, like vitamins, minerals, essential fats, and amino acids.

Vitamins

Vitamins are organic compounds that cannot be made by the body, but are typically produced by plants. Some of these compounds are also consumed through meat, but they are more concentrated in plants because of the way that energy is lost as nutrients travel up the food chain. Plants are autotrophs or producers of food or energy. As each consumer or animal eats this plant some energy is lost. So yes, you can get iron from steak but the cow got more iron from the grass he ate than you’re getting from eating him. The moral of the story is to eat your vegetables!

The list of vitamins that are deemed to be the most important and essential to your survival are;

  • Vitamin A which is vital to bone growth, reproduction, and immune system health, including helping the skin and mucous membranes repel bacteria and viruses. It is also essential to healthy vision.
  • Vitamin B6, also called pyridoxine, helps support adrenal function, help calm and maintain a healthy nervous system, and is necessary for key metabolic processes including energy production. It also acts as a coenzyme in the breakdown and usage of carbohydrates, fats and proteins.
  • Vitamin B12 helps keep the body’s nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA. It also helps prevent megaloblastic anemia which makes people tired and weak.
  • Vitamin C, also known as L-ascorbic acid, is required for the production of collogen, L-carnitine (a fat transporter that helps the body use fat for fuel), and other neurotransmitters. It is also an important antioxidant which helps regenerate other antioxidants in the body.
  • Vitamin D is actually a hormone that is produced by your body through sun exposure, but it can also be taken as a vitamin and converted into a usable component by your body. Vitamin D promotes calcium absorption in the gut and supports quality bone structure and health. It also modulates cell growth, neuromuscular and immune function and reduces inflammation.
  • Vitamin E acts as an antioxidant helping to prevent the body from free radicals, which are compounds formed when our bodies convert food into energy. We are also exposed to free radicals in the environment from smoke, air pollution and UV light from the sun. Vitamin E also boosts the immune system and helps widen blood vessels to maintain great overall health.
  • Vitamin K is an important vitamin for overall health. It is important in the management of blood clotting and healthy bones.
  • Biotin helps turn carbs, fats and proteins into energy and is beneficial to skin, hair and nail health.
  • Folic Acid is a type of B vitamin that is essential in making DNA and other genetic material.
  • Niacin is another B vitamin that helps the digestive system, skin and nerves to function.
  • Pantothenic acid is also known as B5. It is essential in fatty acid synthesis which is essential in amino acid production and for overall good health.
  • Riboflavin is also known as B2. It is important for energy production, cell growth, and metabolism of fats, drugs and steroids.
  • Thiamin is also known as B1 and is crucial in energy metabolism and the growth and function of cells.

Minerals

Minerals are naturally occurring inorganic compounds that are present in soil, rocks, sediments and waters of the earth. They are technically not phytochemicals in a strict sense but they are present in plants because plants grow in the soil. So good news, you don’t have to eat dirt to get all your nutrients!

Essential Fats

These are fatty acids that your body cannot produce like Omega-3 and Omega-6. They are most commonly consumed through fish, but you can find them in nuts and seeds as well.

Amino Acids

Amino Acids are crucial in the formation of human muscles and tissues, but nearly half of them the body cannot produce, so you absolutely have to eat your greens!

Non-Essential Phytochemicals

These phytochemicals are not required for survival, but they have health benefits. There is not much scientific evidence for these benefits, but there have been obvious correlations between consumption of these phytochemicals and greater health benefits.

Polyphenols

Polyphenols are a large group of phytochemicals that contain flavonoids, isoflavonoids, and lingans. They are found in cabbage, cauliflower, legumes, grape, berries and red wine. Consumption of flavonoids, in particular, have a reported reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, and polyphenols as a whole have shown a positive effect on cell-signaling pathways, preserving regular cell cycle regulation.

Carotenoids

These are a large group of phytochemicals found in carrots. They are responsible for the orange color, but are also found in red and yellow veggies as well. There is a correlation between consumption of carotenoids and a reduced risk in certain cancers, including prostate cancer, as well as eye related disease like mascular degeneration. Carrots, cantaloupe, pink grapefruit, butternut squash, yams, tomato, red pepper, spinach and kale are great sources of carotenoids.

Curcuminoids

An up-and-coming phytochemical in terms of research, but so far they have been shown to be anti-inflammatory and valuable as a supplement for people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Resveratrol

This phytochemical is near and dear to my heart because it was a part of my Lyme Disease treatment. There is not much research on it and its uses but there is a correlation between consumption of resveratrol and reduced risk of cardiovascular disease. It is also a strong antioxidant and helps protect cells from free radicals and disease.

Conclusion

Phytochemicals are essential to human health and there are A LOT of them. Trying to make sure that you consume all of them might seem overwhelming but it is really simple. Simply make sure that your diet includes a rainbow of colors and a ton of vegetables. You want to try to have as many different veggies as you can to ensure you are getting a diversity of nutrients from your food.

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