Since the dawn of civilization, human beings learnt the benefits of fresh fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices. The purpose wasn’t only nourishment or energy production, but also for cure and healing. In our modern time, science has recognized the medicinal benefits of such plants. Active ingredients in natural plants were found capable of inhibiting, retarding and reversing acute and chronic human ailments.
With the alarming increase of cancer cases despite our modern technological advancement, researchers are referring back to those natural cures in an attempt to find some answers.
Phytochemicals are a huge group of natural plant compounds that not only provide much of the flavor and color of our edible plants; but also provide amazing biological and medicinal activity. Many phytochemicals offer anti-oxidant, anti-cancer, anti-microbial activities, organ tonicity, detoxification, hormonal-like actions, and the list goes on.
“Cancer chemoprevention by phytochemicals may be one of the most feasible approaches for cancer control”. These nature miracles have an amazing power of healing the body from inside out. There are thousands of them; each has its specific mechanism of action. Some are anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory, immune-enhancing, or anti-hormonal; others execute their effect through modification of metabolism or enzymatic activity, influencing cellular action and cell differentiation, suppression of proliferation of cancerous cells, or interruption of blood supply to the tumor. Yet, others affect body detoxification, enhance excretion of carcinogens, suppress inflammation, and/or inhibit tumor growth.
Phytochemicals & Cancer Prevention
“According to Harvard University School of public health, poor diet, lack of exercise, and unhealthy lifestyle elements are responsible for about 65% of cancer deaths”. Another good percentage is caused by external factors like environmental pollution from air, water, chemical, pesticides.
Experts believe that all those factors have one thing in common: They increase our exposure to damaging free radicals and/or increase our susceptibility to their damaging effects. This incoming oxidative harm compromises our immune system abilities to maintain health. Our bad eating and living habits like smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity, and chronic stress, add insult to injury.
Hence, controlling free radicals and oxidative damage to our cells and DNA is a primary goal in cancer prevention and treatment. And here comes the role of phytochemicals.
According to Dr. Balch of Harvard University, School of Public Health, “7 to 10 servings of fruits and vegetables are found to reduce cancer risk by about 30%”.
This amazing action is largely attributed to their valuable nutrients and phytochemicals content. For instance, nutrients rich in lutein such as dark green leafy vegetables and broccoli are considered to be powerful antioxidants that decrease the risk of eye diseases, macular degeneration and show promising results in treating prostate and colon cancer.
Other examples are the Genistein and diadzein which are antioxidant isoflavones found in soy products. They protect against prostate and breast cancer, leukemia, and bladder cancer.
In broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cauliflowers you can find D-glucaric acid which is effective against cancer of breast, lung, liver and skin.
On its behalf, Inositol hexaphosphate (IP6) is a form of the B vitamin inositol. It’s an anticancer possessing natural killer cells activity that works on shrinking tumors and prohibiting their growth. It is found naturally in whole grains, beans, lentils, veal, citrus fruits and nuts.
Another useful one is Chlorophyll which is found in green plants. It’s a powerful anticancer, antioxidant and detoxifier.
Cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, horseradish, and cauliflower contain powerful anticancer compounds called Glucosinolates.
The well-known Beta carotenes in yellow and deep orange vegetables like pumpkins, squash, yams and carrots are powerful antioxidants and precursors of vitamin A in the body.
Furthermore, Lycopene which has promising activity against prostate cancer is found in some red fruits like tomatoes and watermelons, orange vegetables such as carrots, and yellow fruits like papayas.
Moreover, the organosulfur compounds in onions and garlic enhance immunity, improve blood circulation, and prevent oxidative damage.
Celery, fennel, beets and citrus fruits are also extremely beneficial to our bodies because they offer a range of anticancer, antioxidant and immune boosting activities through their Coumarins.
A traditionally recognized anticancer remedy called Laetrile is found in raw and bitter almonds.
Cherries and berries as well contain anthocyanidins antioxidant, anticancer, circulatory and heart tonics.
The valuable Lignans and other phytochemicals are found in all grains, seeds, beans and peas. Not only that, but lentils also have the ability to reduce risk of hormone-associated cancers, osteoporosis, and cardiovascular diseases.
And, again, the list goes on and on…
Natural, God-given plants offer the perfect combination of balanced hundreds or may be thousands of phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals that work in perfect harmony and synergy to deliver the needed benefit for our body. They are naturally available, ready for our consumption and suitable for oral or topical usage.
Yet, many challenges are still in the way. Much of the research on phytochemicals has been conducted in vitro or on laboratory and test animals. For effective application in medicinal field, full risk thorough analysis that determines the appropriate dosage, mode of application/administration, bioavailability, metabolism and long-term biological effects are still highly required.
Meanwhile, integrating fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, nuts, whole grain, legumes, herbs and spices in our everyday diet holds tremendous health benefits. The word vegetable comes from the Latin word ‘vegetare’ which means to invigorate or impart energy. And this is exactly what vegetations do to us.
With your everyday food choice you design your own state of health, not only your physical health, but also your emotional, psychological and mental wellbeing. The amazing and varied range of nutrients you choose to put on your plate in every meal gives your body the chance to heal, boost its immunity, detoxify and strengthen.
This article is from Science’s archive and we’ve originally published it on an earlier date.
- Singh, M., Singh, P., Shukla, Y. (2012). New strategies in cancer chemoprevention by phytochemicals. Front Biosci (Elite Ed):1;4:426-52.
- Nishino, H. et. Al. (2000). Cancer Chemoprevention by Phytochemicals and their Related Compounds. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev.; 1 (1):49-55.
- Tsuda, H. et al. (2004). Cancer prevention by natural compounds. Drug Metab Pharmacokinet.;19(4):245-63.
- Johnson, I.T. (2007). Phytochemicals and cancer. Proc Nutr Soc. ;66(2):207-15.
- Balch, P.A. (2000). Prescription for nutritional healing. USA: Avery
- Johnson, 2007.