Phytochemicals are basically chemicals found in plants. They are naturally occurring chemical compounds which protect plants from environmental pollution, stress, UV exposure and pathogenic attacks. They are also what gives a plant its colour, aroma and flavour.
Phytochemicals are gaining increasing attention as studies are proving that they are not only essential to the plant kingdom but hold many benefits to human health. Whilst they are considered non-essential nutrients and are not required by the human body for sustaining life, phytochemicals contain important properties that may help prevent or fight disease.
Studies show that plant chemicals have the ability to:
With the development of modern science from the mid 20th century, phytochemicals have been extracted from plants and synthetically reproduced. Plant chemicals are the precursor to some of the worlds' most widely used drugs eg. aspirin (from the bark of the white willow tree), salicin (anti-inflammatory, pain relieving), quinone (from the bark of Cinchona) and morphine (from the Opiates family of plants) .
Plant medicine that has been used traditionally for centuries was nearly wiped out with the proliferation of potent synthetic drugs. However, the medicinal value of plants are drawing more attention as modern science is gradually testing and proving that plant medicine is effective; without the contraindications of synthetic drugs.
There are thousands of phytochemicals but less than 200 have been studied in depth. Here are a few of some of the most widely researched categories of phytochemicals.
This group plays an important role for plants' defences. It is the largest and most widely distributed group. The important sub-categories within phenolics are flavanoids, phenolic acids and polyphenols.
Flavanoids are the most studied of all phenolics and they form the largest category within phenolics. In excess of 4,000 flavanoids have been identified and they have caught attention because of their antioxidant, antimicrobial, cytotoxic, antiinflammatory and antitumoural activities.
The antioxidant level of flavanoids are variable and are dependent on their molecular structure. Flavanoids like Luteoline (found in celery, broccoli, green pepper, parsley, thyme, chamomile, carrots, olive oil, peppermint, rosemary, navel oranges and oregano) and Cathechins (found in green tea, black tea, blackberries, apples, dark chocolate, red wine, cherries) are better antioxidants than Vitamin C, E or Beta carotene. Caretenoids known widely known antioxidants and are usually found in red, orange and green fruit.
Polyphenols eg Resveratrol and Ellagic acid, present in grapes, wine, berries, green tea, apples and peanuts have high antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Isothyocianates found in cruciferous vegetables such as brocolli, cauliflower, kale and brussel sprouts have antimicrobial and anticancer properties.
Tannins, commonly found in grapes, persimmon, blueberry, tea, chocolate, legumes, grasses, sorghum, corn. In Asian medicine, tannin containing plants are used as astringents for diarrhoea, diuretics, anti inflammatories, antiseptics, antioxidants and haemostatic (stopping blood flow) remedies. Tannins also have industrial uses as an antioxidant and clarifying agent for wine, beer and fruit juices.
Alkaloids help plants ward off threatening micro-organisms, insects and herbivores. They are anti hypertensive ( high blood pressure), anti arrhythmic (irregular heart beat), analgesic (morphine), anti malarial (eg quinine) and stimulating (eg caffeine and nicotine).
3. Terpenes - subclassified by their isoprene units eg monoterpenes, diterpene, sesquiterpene etc
Terpenoids/terpenes are produced by plants to attract specific insects for pollination or to deter predators. Some terpenes are toxic or bitter tasting as a protection from being eaten by animals. Terpenes are responsible for the flavour and fragrance of plants and is usually a constituent of essential oils.
Research has shown that terpenes have therapeutic properties including anticarcinogenic (e.g. perilla alcohol used in the cancer drug Taxol), antimalarial (in the drug Artemisinin), anti-ulcer, hepaticidal (Glycyrrhizin isolated from the licorice root) and antimicrobial. Other widely used terpenes include, Vitamin A and steroids which are derived from the triterpene squalene.
Terpenes are widespread in nature and form the main constituents of essential oils. Some popular terpenes are geraniol ( geranium,rose) , eucaylptol ( eucalyptus, tea tree, rosemary), limonene (citrus family) or menthol (peppermint, spearmint).
The word saponin is derived from sapo, Latin for “soap.” The root of the Saponaria, or soapwort plant, has been traditionally used as soap. The soap like or foaming quality of saponins is due to it's molecular structure which attracts both (hydro) water and (lipids) fat.
Saponins protect plants from insects and microbes. They form part of a larger group of protective molecules names phytoanticipins or phytoprotectants.
Clinical studies have suggested saponins found widely in legumes and soy, affect the immune system in ways that help to protect the human body against cancers, and also lower cholesterol levels. Saponins decrease blood lipids, lower cancer risks, and lower blood glucose responses.
These are just a fraction of phytochemicals that exist in the plant world. Research is only just tapping into a small part of the complex and intelligent bio system of plants. Just as these chemicals are essential to plant survival, they can also be therapeutic to animals and humans.
Our next blog will uncover why and how phytochemicals are used in beauty and skincare. Our range of organic skincare and beauty harnesses the magic of phytochemicals to help repair and protect your skin in the most natural way.