Phytochemicals derived from herbs and their uses

Podophyllotoxin Anti-cancer precursor
Oleonolic acid Antioxidant
Curcumin Antioxidant, anti-inflammatory
Reserpine Hypotensive
Monoammonium glycyrrhizinate Sweetner
Sodium glycyrrhizinate Water soluble sweetner
18 b-Glycyrrhitinic acid Anti-inflammatory

Description : Phytochemicals are chemical compounds that occur naturally in plants (phyto means “plant” in Greek). Some are responsible for color and other organoleptic properties, such as the deep purple of blueberries and the smell of garlic. Phytochemicals may have biological significance, for example carotenoids or flavonoids, but are not established as essential nutrients. There may be as many as 4,000 different phytochemicals.

Phytochemicals are non-nutritive plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventive properties. They are non-essential nutrients, meaning that they are not required by the human body for sustaining life. It is well-known that plant produce these chemicals to protect themselves but recent research demonstrate that they can also protect humans against diseases. There are more than thousand known phytochemicals. Some of the well-known phytochemicals are lycopene in tomatoes, isoflavones in soy and flavanoids in fruits.

How do phytochemicals work : 

There are many phytochemicals and each works differently. These are some possible actions:

  • Antioxidant – Most phytochemicals have antioxidant activity and protect our cells against oxidative damage and reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer. Phytochemicals with antioxidant activity: allyl sulfides (onions, leeks, garlic), carotenoids (fruits, carrots), flavonoids (fruits, vegetables), polyphenols (tea, grapes).
  • Hormonal action – Isoflavones, found in soy, imitate human estrogens and help to reduce menopausal symptoms and osteoporosis.
  • Stimulation of enzymes – Indoles, which are found in cabbages, stimulate enzymes that make the estrogen less effective and could reduce the risk for breast cancer. Other phytochemicals, which interfere with enzymes, are protease inhibitors (soy and beans), terpenes (citrus fruits and cherries).
  • Interference with DNA replication – Saponins found in beans interfere with the replication of cell DNA, thereby preventing the multiplication of cancer cells. Capsaicin, found in hot peppers, protects DNA from carcinogens.
  • Anti-bacterial effect – The phytochemical allicin from garlic has anti-bacterial properties.
  • Physical action – Some phytochemicals bind physically to cell walls thereby preventing the adhesion of pathogens to human cell walls. Proanthocyanidins are responsible for the anti-adhesion properties of cranberry. Consumption of cranberries will reduce the risk of urinary tract infections and will improve dental health.

HEALTH BENEFITS OF PHYTOCHEMICALS : 

Phytochemicals—the bioactive nonnutrient plant compounds in fruit, vegetables, grains, and other plant foods—have been linked to reductions in the risk of major chronic diseases. It is estimated that more than 5000 phytochemicals have been identified, but a large percentage still remain unknown and need to be identified before their health benefits are fully understood. However, more and more convincing evidence suggests that the benefits of phytochemicals in fruit and vegetables may be even greater than is currently understood because oxidative stress induced by free radicals is involved in the etiology of a wide range of chronic diseases.

Cells in humans and other organisms are constantly exposed to a variety of oxidizing agents, some of which are necessary for life. These agents may be present in air, food, and water, or they may be produced by metabolic activities within cells. The key factor is to maintain a balance between oxidants and antioxidants to sustain optimal physiologic conditions in the body. Overproduction of oxidants can cause an imbalance, leading to oxidative stress, especially in chronic bacterial, viral, and parasitic infections. Oxidative stress can cause oxidative damage to large biomolecules such as proteins, DNA, and lipids, resulting in an increased risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease. To prevent or slow down the oxidative stress induced by free radicals, sufficient amounts of antioxidants need to be consumed. Fruit and vegetables contain a wide variety of antioxidant compounds (phytochemicals) such as phenolics and carotenoids that may help protect cellular systems from oxidative damage and lower the risk of chronic diseases.