Nature's multipurpose tools

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D.

February 2013

Nature is nothing if not resourceful. Phytonutrients are good examples. Phyto refers to their plant origin and there are tens of thousands of them. In recent decades scientists have focused on their antioxidant properties but that is only one of the reasons why they ought to be a large part of our diet.

To be sure, antioxidants are indispensable. Since the first plants and animals populated the planet they had to counteract dangers that included radiation, toxic chemicals and the by-products of ordinary biological activities such as processing food, fighting infection and intense physical activity.

Vitamins have become household words but phytonutrients such as quercetin, allicin, resveratrol and lycopene are only slowly making their way into our vocabulary. Each of these phytonutrients has antioxidant properties but they have other functions as well. Fruits such as apples are rich in quercetin; tomatoes are a source of lycopene. Both nutrients are considered to have anti-cancer properties.

Allicin is a constituent of garlic and onions, both of which were promoted for their supposed infection-fighting properties long before scientists began looking at them. At least in the laboratory, they do have some antibacterial and antifungal effects. Garlic extracts also show some ability to lower blood pressure but their contribution to diminishing the risk of heart disease is still controversial.

Resveratrol is the darling of the media because it is found in red wine, always an attention getter in our society. Grape plants, mostly the red variety, produce resveratrol to protect themselves against fungi. Other plants manufacture it too but they have minimal star quality — like peanuts. Resveratrol became well known because it prolongs the lifespan of a wide variety of living things, from yeasts to worms and mice. Studies in apes and humans are not so conclusive. However, resveratrol does appear to protect the lining of blood vessels and to make them more flexible, and it lessens the ability of blood to clot. These characteristics suggest that it might lower the risk of heart attack and certain types of stroke.

A diet that is high in phytonutrients, namely one that includes more fruits and vegetables than most Americans consume, does indeed provide all these health benefits, and more, that are described above. Individual nutrients in the form of tablets or potions do not, with rare exceptions, and usually only if there is a deficiency. In short, we need plenty of fruits and vegetables — the real thing.

Philip J. Goscienski, M.D. is the author of Health Secrets of the Stone Age, Better Life Publishers 2005. Contact him at drphil@stoneagedoc.com.