Healing Compounds from our Plants
From Chapter 29 of "Healthy Garden Healthy You" by Milo Shammas
Every plant we eat has hidden jewels. Nutritional scientists used to think we take in just a few vitamins and minerals when we eat fruits and vegetables. However, research is beginning to reveal the added benefits of “phytonutrients” and high fiber in plants. Chlorophyll from green foods supports intestinal health. Soluble fibers in these foods help remove heavy metals from our bone marrow and living cells. This also supports joint health and helps normalize primary hormonal levels in both men and woman. Phytonutrients and antioxidants help us resist age-related illnesses and cellular damage caused by free radicals.
Trauma can come from poor diet, exposure to environmental toxins, a car accident or a genetic disposition to a disease. Trauma causes permanent damage to the extent we cannot fight off the effects with a strong immune system. Homegrown produce supports our immune system by delivering more complete nutrition. When we absorb a diverse set of trace nutrients that support the functions of digestion, circulation, metabolism, detoxification, bone formation, cardiovascular support and blood sugar control, we benefit from stronger immunity to trauma and stress.
Phytonutrients are Powerful Healers
Consuming plenty of fruits and vegetables takes the guesswork out of finding nutrient balance. Mother Nature is the best chemist we have. Vitamins and minerals, micronutrient supplements, and plant-based super foods are all great, but nature in its most raw form gives the most abundant bioavailability.
Phytonutrients are recently discovered. In the 1990s, scientists first acknowledged phytonutrients, which they now recognize for their disease protective compounds. When you eat fruits and vegetables, your body absorbs phytonutrients which act as nutraceuticals. They support healthy blood vessels, connective tissue, organs and all other parts of the body. Phytonutrients protect us from toxics in the environment and in conventionally grown food we eat. They also help control different bacteria and pathogenic fungi, free radicals and carcinogens. The worldwide nutritional science community is working to understand and connect the disease preventive characteristics of these phytochemicals.
The natural world contains tens of thousands of different phytonutrients. So far, we have identified only about one thousand. Of all these recognized nutrients, fewer than one hundred have been analyzed effectively for their disease preventive properties and nutritive qualities. Perhaps the most beneficial attributes of these phytonutrients is their protective quality against the destructive action of free radicals, degenerative diseases and even the oxidation of our physical body. (Yes, your body literally rusts out over time.)
Phytonutrients in the whole foods we eat control the most basic functions of human chemistry. As free radicals begin to destroy our body and our physical integrity, our bodies rust and deteriorate. Phytonutrients come to our defense, protecting us from disease. They protect cellular membranes from free radical damage. If free radicals cannot penetrate into cells, they cannot oxidize them. Remember the discussion of plant cells in Chapter 12, which reviews cell wall thickness. Cell walls provide structural integrity in plants, defending them from insect attack. Human cells are similar in the sense that the thicker the membrane surrounding our cells, the more structural integrity we have to support muscle mass and skin tissue. This directly translates to tight, glowing skin and a lean, muscular body. Phytonutrients clean the blood. By keeping our blood clean and pure, our bloodstream more effectively controls bacteria and fungi, toxins, environmental pollution and all destructive bioaccumulation.
Everything we need to know about the beauty and benefits of phytonutrients exists in a bowl of salad. Phytonutrients are potent chemicals that can help us make up for lost time nutritionally. Despite the scientific research and advances in understanding human health, we suffer from increasing rates of obesity. We still contend with heart health issues and joint conditions associated with aging. What is the optimum diet? The volume of literature on this subject would require a lifetime commitment to read and comprehend. My instinctive compass tells me to go back to where we evolved more than 10,000 years ago. Raw foods with minimal processed ingredients offer the most simple, safe approach to a healthy diet.
When I was a kid in nutrition class, my teachers explained the six basic food groups and showed us how to separate them, but the instruction never included phytonutrients. Modern science had not yet discovered them. I have always gravitated towards the raw green diet. Consuming raw, green foods seemed to be the most natural and healthy approach to living disease free. Our backyards held hidden jewels we never discussed in nutrition class. A good nutritional advisor can offer you a list of foods with the highest amounts of phytonutrients suited to your age, weight, activity level, sleep habits, stress and living environment. I have included some examples of plants in this book with their phytonutrient properties.
Cruciferous vegetables (so named because their cells are arranged in a cross-like shape) like kale and broccoli contain powerful antioxidants called sulforaphane, which has demonstrated properties to prevent a host of diseases, including breast cancer. In general, the cruciferous vegetables are powerful carcinogen inhibitors, support all the organs that detoxify the bloodstream and increase the bioavailability of other nutrients. Phytonutrients come in all colors including green, yellow, red and purple. By growing the widest color variety of fruits and vegetables in your garden, your crop has a wider spectrum of phytonutrients.
Antioxidants and Disease Prevention
The word antioxidant literally means “against oxidation.” This takes us back to the idea of the body literally rusting away from free radicals that oxidize our blood. Oxidation breaks the human body down on the cellular level. If you have ever smoked, drunk alcohol, lived in a city, or painted or remodeled your home, you have been exposed to environmental factors that damage the body on the molecular level. Free radical oxidizers literally rob electrons from molecules in the body and the cellular membranes that encompass the DNA of our genetic makeup. As molecules within our body react with each other, free radicals damage the connective tissue of muscles, organs and complex structures that make up the human body. Molecular disruption by free radicals ultimately leads to the breakdown of the body and creates conditions like heart disease and cancer.
However, antioxidants have the ability to stop this chain reaction by releasing electrons. This neutralizes free radical oxidizers and minimizes damage. For some reason, antioxidants do not become reactive or unstable when they lose an electron. The released electrons from antioxidants combat molecular breakdown in the body caused by free radicals, helping to prevent a variety of degenerative diseases associated with aging. Free radicals can cause cognitive impairment, macular degeneration, cataracts, Alzheimer’s disease, immune dysfunction, cardiovascular diseases and a variety of cancers. Nothing will stop the human body from breaking down eventually, but antioxidants help to keep us together longer.
Antioxidants are found in a variety of different foods you can grow in your backyard. These foods help blood circulation and protect the body from free radical damage. As mentioned earlier, the body literally rusts away primarily through the damage of free radicals. Antioxidants over time can affect genetic makeup, the DNA that carries our genetic code and determines our lifespan. For example, the Japanese diet, rich in raw vegetables and fish, has been effective in health and life extension due to the high antioxidant foods they eat. In raw form, such as in sushi, the fish loses none of its nutrients to cooking. The Japanese also drink a large amount of green and white teas that are potent antioxidants. You may not be able to grow these teas in your climate zone, but you can buy them from an organic source.
While antioxidants play a major role in human health, what are they really? It is a collective term for micronutrients, trace elements, vitamins, polyphenols, and carotenoids. The most common antioxidant sources include liver, fish, dairy, grains, nuts, citrus, berries, tomatoes and colored fruits and vegetables. When you visit your local nursery to start your healthy garden, keep color in mind. The wider color variety you choose, the wider the variety of antioxidants.
The media we watch and hear flood us with messages touting the healing properties of antioxidant foods. This is one time I join the chorus of popular culture. However, most commercial fruit juices and supplements have been processed to a degree that reduces their antioxidant beneficial properties. Nothing can replace a well-balanced diet. The best supplements on earth cannot replace a healthy homegrown meal.
Vitamin A and E are fat-soluble and can potentially be stored in your liver and fatty tissues instead of being used quickly or excreted through your urine, as are the water-soluble B vitamins and C. Taking too many supplements can run the risk of toxic concentration in your system. It is safer to grow and eat a wide variety of fruits and vegetables to ensure that you get the widest variety of antioxidants in a natural form.
Grow it. Eat it.
Milo Lou Shammas
Founder and Formulator