Vitamins A, C, E and quasi-vitamins Coenzyme Q10 and alpha lipoic acid are powerful antioxidants that neutralize the damage caused by free radicals and oxidation. Our body’s cells are undergoing a continuous cycle of oxidation (losing an electron) and reduction (gaining an electron). Oxygen and other atoms or molecules that are unstable because they lack an electron are called free radicals. These free radicals don’t like to exist in an unstable state and will steal another electron from where ever they can and can damage the cell that they oxidize. Free radicals are created as part of the body’s normal metabolic process and if there are insufficient antioxidants available to donate electrons and neutralize the free radicals then cell damage will result. When we are young, the body generates some of the antioxidants it needs and it acquires the remainder from the food we eat. As we get older, the body generates fewer antioxidants and the free radicals outnumber the antioxidants. This means the body is unable to repair the free radical damage and it ages and becomes subject to age-related degenerative diseases like cancer, diabetes, heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease, and macular degeneration. Additional free radicals are created when we expose our body to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation, cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes and other air and water pollutants. Approximately 10 million people in North America have cancer and about 600,000 people will die from it this year. Until recently, we thought the key to slowing the aging process and associated diseases was to ensure the body had an excess supply of antioxidants by eating lots of fruits and vegetables and supplementing our healthy diet with multi-vitamins.
For years we assumed it was the vitamins in fruits and vegetables that provided us with a defense against aging and age-related diseases. We also wanted to ensure we had an adequate supply of vitamins so we took low dose once-a-day-type multivitamins for insurance. However long term studies have shown that low dose multivitamins had no impact on the survival of healthy people. Recently scientists have theorized that the health benefits due to eating fruits and vegetables may be from other nutrients such as phytochemicals or the combination of phytochemicals and vitamins. Phytochemicals or phytonutrients are simply “plant chemicals” that exist in fruits, vegetables and other plants like whole grain and tea. Scientists have already discovered thousands of phytochemicals and think that as well as being powerful antioxidants these phytonutrients provide our body with an entire range of health benefits. A few examples of foods, the phytochemicals they contain, and their health benefits are discussed below.
Blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, cranberries and other berries contain the phytonutrients anthocyanidin and ellagic acid which are antioxidants that can suppress cancer and protect against heart disease. Berries are also rich in soluble fiber which should lower our cholesterol. Citrus fruits such as oranges, lemons, limes etc. contain flavanones such as limonoids which help stimulate the body’s enzymes to detoxify carcinogens. These citrus fruits also contain carotenoids which are powerful cancer fighting antioxidants and flavonoids which are antioxidants that may inhibit blood clotting.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, brussel sprouts, kale, cabbage, cauliflower etc. contain indoles which act to make estrogen less potent and which may reduce the risk of breast cancer. These vegetables also contain isothiocynates such as sulphoraphane which may neutralize cancer-causing chemicals and interfere with tumor growth. Orange and yellow fruits and vegetables like apricots, papaya, sweet potatoes, carrots, sweet peppers, etc. and leafy greens such as spinach contain carotenoids such as beta carotene, lutein and zeaxanthin that are powerful antioxidants that should suppress cancer, strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of atherosclerosis. These colorful foods are also rich in Vitamin C, other vitamins, minerals and fiber and should reduce the risk of macular degeneration.
Non-traditional healthy foods such as tea, wine and soy have also been found to be high in phytonutrients. Both green tea and black tea contain flavonols which combat cancers and catechins which may protect arteries from the buildup of plaque. Red wine contains resveratrol which may prevent internal cell and skin cell damage, inhibit tumor growth and lower blood cholesterol. Other phytochemicals in red wine are flavonols like quercetin and catechins, anthocyanidins and ellagic acid which were discussed earlier. Soy products contain isoflavonoids, lignans, saponins and protease inhibitors which can all provide cancer protection.
Products to combat aging and degenerative diseases are being developed. Both Pfizer and Merck are testing drugs to stimulate the older body to make more growth hormone and develop more lean muscle mass. Controlled studies on seniors are showing a lot of promise. Phytonutrient supplements like lycopene and beta carotene have been available for some time. The next supplements based on groups of phytonutrients that target specific conditions are already being marketed. How effective they will be remains to be seen. For now we should concentrate on obtaining our phytonutrients from our healthy diet and monitor developments in the pharmaceutical and nutritional supplement industries.