The Power Of Plant Phytochemicals

fruit and vegetables

learn more about the healing power of vegetables

Dr Jess says: Throughout the site, we advocate ‘eating the rainbow’ of fruit and vegetables. This is not only to optimise our nutrition, but because plants are nature’s medicine. They are packed full of vital plant phenols, phytochemicals and flavonoids that can help our bodies to perform at their best and prevent many treatable illnesses and diseases, thanks to their anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects.

In our Rainbow Challenge lesson, we briefly discussed the sources of vegetables and plants that are the major sources of each major phytochemical. But what does each phytochemical do and how do they work? 

Polyphenols: If you have read our article on natural anti-inflammatories, you may remember that curcumin, the main compound in the spice turmeric, is a polyphenol that is being used widely to help prevent and reduce inflammation and even as an alternative support to certain kinds of cancer. Whilst it is likely that many more polyphenols will be discovered to be powerful, you can get the greatest health benefit by eating a wide variety of whole plant foods rather than taking individual supplements. Read more about the main types of polyphenol below:

anthocyanins

Anthocyanins are found in purple, blue and some red coloured fruit and vegetables, including blackcurrants, elderberries, aubergines, blackberries, blueberries, cherries, strawberries, raspberries, purple sprouting broccoli, purple kale, kalettes and red cabbage. 

Studies show that:

  • Eating blueberries for six weeks can increase NK cells (the cells that help to fight viruses and eliminate cancer cells), reduces oxidative stress (damage to cells), reduce high blood pressure and increase anti-inflammatory chemicals.1,2
  • 12 weeks of supplementation with blueberry concentrate has been shown to improve cognition (mental ability) and working memory in healthy older adults.3
  • This same improvement in memory has also been seen using cherry juice for 12 weeks, in mild to moderate dementia.4
  • Purple potato extract or strawberry juice have been shown to reduce blood sugar, insulin response and inflammation markers after eating a meal.5, 6

apigenin

Apigenin is a yellow flavonoid, found in the highest concentrations in medicinal herbs like Tanacetum parthenium (feverfew), Achillea millefolium (yarrow) and Matricaria chamomilla (chamomile) but is also present in parsley, celery and celeriac. 

Studies show:

  • In animals, apigenin has been shown to; be anti-inflammatory, reduce inflammatory markers, inhibit tumour growth in cancer, antidepressive, support memory and cognition, reduce stress, improve blood sugar control and be protective against diabetes damage.7
  • A small pilot study of apigenin, taken daily, showed a promising improvement in clinical symptoms and cognitive performance over 12 months in patients with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s disease and multiple sclerosis.8
  • Chamomile essential oil (high in apigenin), used topically, reduced the need for pain relief in patients with knee arthritis.9
  • Chamomile extract (standardised for apigenin content) had a significant impact on depression and general anxiety symptoms in human trials.10, 11

ellagic acid 

Ellagic acid is a natural polyphenol antioxidant. It is highest in pomegranate, blackberries, raspberries, cloudberries, strawberries and walnuts. It is also found in high levels in the medicinal herb Quercus robur (oak tree bark). 

Ellagic acid has been shown in animal studies and a handful of pilot human studies to have strong antioxidant activity and antiproliferative (anti-cancer) effects.12 Pomegranate extract (standardised for ellagic acid), has also been shown to improve sperm count and motility in subfertile men.13 The health benefits of ellagic acid are thought to be because of its ability to change the bacterial balance in the microbiome.14 Ellagic acid is also being developed as a promising anti-wrinkle treatment as it has been shown to increase collagen in the skin.15

epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG) & catechins 

EGCG & catechins are the main polyphenols measured in green tea (they are also found in black tea) and are found in the medicinal herb Hypericum perforatum (St John’s Wort). These polyphenols have been shown to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-infective (kills a wide range of bacteria, viruses and fungi), neuroprotective and anti-cancer properties.16

Studies show:

  • Gargling with tea extract helped prevent influenza in elderly nursing home residents in a small study.17
  • Green tea extract given to healthcare workers considerably reduced their risk of upper respiratory tract infections.18
  • A small trial of bowel cancer patients after surgery showed a combination of apigenin and EGCG could significantly reduce the risk of cancer recurrence.19 Patients at very high risk of bowel cancer who took green tea supplements also showed a significantly lower chance of developing cancer.20 The large MIRACLE study following thousands of patients at high risk of bowel cancer, taking green tea extract, is due to complete in 2028.21
  • Chronic lymphocytic leukaemia patients given EGCG showed a sustained reduction in lymphocytes and reduction in enlarged lymph nodes that was signifciant.22
  • Patients at high risk of prostate cancer who took green tea catechins showed a significantly lower risk of developing prostate cancer and urinary infections in a pilot study.23 A reduction in PSA levels and other cancer markers has also been observed after EGCG supplements were given.24
  • Patients at high risk of cervical cancer with HPV were successfully treated with green tea extract to prevent the development of cervical cancer.25
  • EGCG has also been shown to help prevent and treat radiotherapy related side effects.26, 27
  • A trial of EGCG showed it improved blood flow in vessels of patients with heart disease in a small study.28
  • A pilot study showed EGCG has benefit to patients with ulcerative colitis, significantly improving the chance of remission.29
  • EGCG, given to patients with multiple sclerosis, improved function, decreased inflammatory markers and decreased anxiety in a randomised controlled trial.30
  • A small, randomised trial of EGCG applied to half the face of acne patients showed a significant improvement in acne over eight weeks.31 Taking green tea extract orally for four weeks has also been shown to significantly reduce acne lesions in women.32
  • A combination of EGCG, curcumin, resveratrol and soy isoflavones significantly blocked the main long term inflammation pathway (NF-κB) when consumed for just two weeks.33
  • Green tea extract has been shown to significantly aid weight loss and cholesterol markers in obese patients in just three months.34, 35, 36, 37

fisetin

Fisetin is a natural flavonoid antioxidant. It is highest in strawberries, apples, persimmons, grapes, kiwi, kale, onion and cucumber. Fisetin is also found in the Middle Eastern spice sumac, and the traditional Chinese herb Lignum Dalbergiae odoriferae (Jiang Xiang ). It has been shown in animal studies to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anticancer, antibiotic and memory-enhancing effects.38 It is currently being investigated for its ability to slow down ageing, as it has activity on sirtuins (proteins that aid DNA repair) and can aid removal of senescent cells (‘zombie’ cells, that contribute to the ageing process).39 A study in mice showed those fed a diet rich in fisetin lived 10% longer and had reduced signs of ageing in all organs.40

genistein 

Genistein is a natural isoflavone and phytoestrogen (plant oestrogen) from soy*, fava beans, broad beans, black beans, pistachios and chickpeas. It is also present in large amounts in the medicinal herb, red clover (Trifolium pratense). Genistein has been extensively researched and whilst many people know that soy isoflavones can support menopause and hormones, they are unaware of other health benefits including:

  • Epidemiological studies show the consumption of soy in Japan and China (mostly fermented) is associated with a lower risk of prostate cancer in men.41
  • Animal studies show that genistein can: inhibit liver cancer growth and kill liver cancer cells,42 reduce stomach cancer growth and development43 prevent the growth of lung cancer cells44 and may prevent the development of colorectal cancer.45
  • Studies show that genistein may lower the risk of cardiovascular problems and maintain heart health in postmenopausal women.46 It has also been shown to reduce cholesterol, reduce body fat and improve obesity markers in animal and human studies.47
  • Genistein given to patients with non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD) showed it improved insulin resistance (the precursor to diabetes), inflammatory markers and fat metabolism.48
  • It had a significant impact on insulin sensitivity, by improving the gut microbiome and muscle fat markers in obese patients.49

*Whilst genistein has multiple health benefits, unfermented soybeans have high levels of phytates, which bind minerals and stop you from absorbing them.50 They also inhibit digestive enzyme breakdown, making them difficult to digest. Soy is also a commonly allergenic food (a large number of the population have an allergy to soy, especially if they have a hay fever problem from birch pollen)51 and over 90% of soy is genetically modified.52 If you wish to consume soy, then only consume the fermented versions: miso, tempeh, tamari soy sauce and natto – these actually contain true more bioavailable genestein53, 54 (not its precursor genistin, which is found in unfermented soya beans or soya milk). The fermentation process increases nutrient content and removes the phytates and digestion blockers above.50

kaempferol 

A natural yellow, anti-inflammatory and antioxidant55 flavonoid. It is highest in capers, pumpkin, saffron, cauliflower, carrot, dill, parsley, cress, chives, caraway, cumin, watercress, rocket and broccoli. Kaempferol is also found in the medicinal herb Ginkgo biloba. It has been shown in human studies to significantly reduce blood markers of inflammation in diabetic patients like TNF-α, IL-6 and CRP56 and male smokers.57 Animal studies show that Kaempferol likely has anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, antidiabetic and anti-ageing effects.58

luteolin 

Luteolin is an anti-inflammatory flavonol polyphenol. This is found in its naturally occurring form at the highest levels in radicchio (a relative of chicory), green and yellow peppers, chicory, celery, lemon, pumpkin, lettuce, artichokes, kohlrabi, spinach and broccoli. It is also in the medicinal herb chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla). It has strong anti-inflammatory activity and is also being investigated for its anti-allergic and neuroprotective effects, particularly against Alzheimer’s.59 A study of patients with metabolic syndrome showed chlorogenic acid and luteolin combined improved weight loss, insulin resistance and cardiovascular risk markers.60 A small pilot study over six months showed that luteolin, in combination with quercetin, significantly reduced the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder in children.61

myricetin 

Myricetin is an antioxidant flavonoid polyphenol. Highest in Swiss chard, parsley, blackcurrants, cranberries, blueberries, tea, grapes and swede. Cellular and animal studies show it to have strong antioxidant, anticancer, antidiabetic and anti-inflammatory activities and to have a range of cardiovascular and neuroprotective actions that make it a potential support for diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.62  Animal studies show it has an antihypertensive effect (can reduce high blood pressure),63 is anti-lipidemic (cholesterol-lowering)64  and may help cataracts,65 glaucoma66  and improve insulin sensitivity in diabetes.67

quercetin

Quercetin is 0ne of the most well-known antioxidant flavonoids. Quercetin is found in  high levels in capers, red onions, elderberries, kale, okra, apple, cranberries and asparagus. It is also found in traditional Chinese goji berries (Lycium barbarum) and medicinal herbs Ginkgo biloba and Hypericum perforatum (St John’s Wort). Quercetin has been extensively researched and has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic properties. Human studies of quercetin showed that:

  • Quercetin reduced the total number of sick days and the severity of symptoms of upper respiratory infections in middle-aged and older adults.68
  • Quercetin reduces the blood inflammatory marker uric acid, which is a risk factor for inflammation in healthy males.69
  • Supplementation with quercetin improved clinical symptoms, disease activity and inflammatory markers in women with rheumatoid arthritis.70
  • Quercetin reduces inflammation and improves oxidative stress (leading to tissue damage) in patients with sarcoidosis.71
  • It improves blood pressure in hypertensive (high blood pressure) patients.72
  • Quercetin improves pain and symptoms in male patients with chronic prostatitis and pelvic pain, an inflammatory disorder.73
  • Quercetin seems to have positive effects on tumour markers and may affect cancer risk.74
  • It appears to be nephroprotective, improving outcomes in kidney transplant patients.75
  • Quercetin may help cardiovascular disease, as it improved blood vessel health and flow in overweight and high-risk patients.76, 77, 78 It also improved heart health in a study of patients with coronary heart disease.79
  • High-dose quercetin and fish oil supplements have been shown to increase antiviral and antiinflammatory gene markers in overweight and obese women.80
  • Quercetin may reduce hay fever symptoms when taken through hay fever season.81, 82
  • Red grape juice, high in quercetin, improves cholesterol and inflammatory markers, decreasing heart disease risk.83, 78
  • Topical quercetin relieved pain and sensitivity in a small trial of peripheral neuropathy in diabetics.84
  • Red vine leaf, high in quercetin, was shown to improve venous flow and reduce leg swelling and oedema in patients with chronic venous insufficiency.85, 86
  • Quercetin supplements were shown to lower metabolic and hormonal markers in overweight women with PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome).87

resveratrol

Resveratrol is one of the most well-known anti-inflammatory and heart-protective polyphenols. Resveratrol is high in mulberries, lingonberries, redcurrants and cranberries, strawberries, grapes, blueberries, pistachios, peanuts, cocoa powder and rhubarb. Resveratrol has been extensively researched and has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, anti-allergic, anti-diabetic and cardioprotective properties. Human studies of resveratrol showed that:

  • Resveratrol improved symptoms, clinical markers of disease activity and inflammatory markers in patients with rheumatoid arthritis over three months.88
  • Resveratrol reduced disease activity and inflammatory markers in patients with ulcerative colitis and improved quality of life over six weeks.89
  • A randomised, double-blind, controlled trial of patients with autoimmune disease, Takayasu arteritis, showed that resveratrol supplements significantly improved treatment outcomes and reduced inflammatory markers over three months.90
  • Children with severe pneumonia showed a much better response to antibiotics, when given alongside resveratrol in a large randomised, double-blind, controlled trial.91
  • Adults with allergic rhinitis had a significant improvement in symptoms when treated with resveratrol.92
  • Micronized resveratrol supplementation may increase the death of cancer cells in metastatic colon cancer showing its potential as a cancer support.93
  • Supplementation of healthy volunteers with Polygonum cuspidatum (the traditional Chinese herb, Hu Zhang), which is high in resveratrol, reduced multiple inflammatory blood markers like TNF-α, IL-6 and CRP,  inhibited inflammatory pathways of NF-κB and had significant antioxidant activity in just six weeks.94
  • Markers of atherosclerosis in patients with cardiovascular disease all decreased after six months of grape extract supplementation, high in resveratrol.95
  • Resveratrol supplementation for three months improved heart function, cholesterol markers and blood vessel health in heart disease patients.96  In a third study, inflammation and heart disease markers TNF-α, IL-6, IL-10, hsCRP and PLA-1all decreased in high-risk cardiovascular disease patients who were given resveratrol supplements for one year.97 Resveratrol increased oxygenation and tissue perfusion in patients with heart failure.98
  • An active grape formulation, high in resveratrol, prevented the decline in the early stages of Alzheimer’s in a small study.99
  • High-dose resveratrol has been shown to increase bone density in obese men, supporting its role in osteoporosis.100
  • Resveratrol significantly improves pain, function and symptoms of knee osteoarthritis after three months of supplementation.101
  • Resveratrol supplements helped weight loss and insulin resistance in patients with metabolic syndrome in three months.102
  • Resveratrol may be a good supplement to reduce hot flushes in menopausal women, as a small study showed a reduction in hot flushes of 78% with supplementation.103
  • Three months of supplementation with resveratrol significantly improved blood sugar levels in type 2 diabetic patients.104 

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