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How Phytonutrients Can Help Fight Debilitating Diseases

Dr. Stacy Mitchell Doyle, MD



The phrase “food is medicine” is thrown around quite a bit these days, but the truth behind these words is even more remarkable than we once suspected. The “medicine” part of the equation is phytonutrients. Phytonutrients, also called phytochemicals, are plant-derived compounds (phyto means plant) that have a host of amazing properties, including the ability to remove free radicals from the body, improve the function of the immune system, and stop inflammation in the vessels and organs. This all translates into disease reversal and prevention.

Although scientists knew centuries ago that consuming plants was key to health and longevity, it wasn’t until recently that hundreds of phytonutrients were isolated and studied independently. What has been found is that although ALL phytonutrients have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, specific phytonutrients also have unique properties that allow them to be utilized for specific diseases. This means that food, just like pharmaceuticals, can be tailored based on a particular health condition – but without all the side effects!

Take, for instance, hypertension (also called high blood pressure). 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. has hypertension, and of those, only half have their condition adequately controlled. This is serious because high blood pressure can lead to strokes, heart attacks, kidney failure, and even blindness. Changing to a whole food, plant-based diet has been proven to lower blood pressure. And there are certain phytonutrients that are specific superstars when it comes to reversing hypertension.

"As healthcare costs rise and the prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer skyrockets, it’s imperative that we start addressing the root cause of disease, like poor nutrition and a lack of plant nutrients."

»Celery has the phytonutrient phthalides, which relaxes the smooth muscle cells that line the arteries in the heart and blood vessels. This increases blood flow and lowers blood pressure. Beets also contain similar phytonutrients that make them rich in nitrates which dilate and relax the blood vessels and lower blood pressure.

»Hibiscus & pomegranate are rich in the phytochemical anthocyanin, which is proven to lower blood pressure. In fact, these plants are naturally occurring ACE inhibitors (short for “Angiotensin Converting Enzymes), just like the widely-prescribed prescription drugs lisinopril, benazepril, and captopril. If you have high blood pressure, chances are that you’ve been prescribed this type of medication. But drinking hibiscus tea and eating pomegranate have EQUAL efficacy and no side effects. Cancer is another condition that the phytonutrients in certain plant foods specifically target. Curcumin is the phytochemical in turmeric that makes it such a potent cancer fighter, and it is also one of the most widely-studied phytonutrients for cancer treatment and prevention. It is especially effective in fighting breast cancer because it is also an aromatase inhibitor. This is a vital piece of breast cancer treatment because it blocks the ability of estrogen to stimulate breast tumor cells. The most powerful breast cancer chemotherapy drugs are aromatase inhibitors, such as Arimidex® and Femara®.

»Mushrooms contain phytochemicals that specifically inhibit angiogenesis in tumor cells, meaning they block the tumors’ abilities to create a blood supply, and therefore get food and oxygen. If angiogenesis is blocked, the tumor shrivels and dies. Cruciferous vegetables like kale, brussels sprouts, and collard greens are rich in phytochemicals like indoles and isothiocyanates, which specifically attack cancer cells, stop angiogenesis, and neutralize carcinogens in the body. The examples of how phytonutrients can be tailored to fight specific disease states are numerous, and the growing body of research confirms that the key to optimal health and longevity is the consumption of a wide variety of plant nutrients. As healthcare costs rise and the prevalence of chronic diseases like diabetes, heart disease, and cancer skyrockets, it’s imperative that we start addressing the root cause of disease, like poor nutrition and a lack of plant nutrients. We can use the amazing properties of plants to better treat our population.

Stacy Mitchell Doyle, MD, completed her medical training and residency at UCLA Medical Center and currently resides in LA, where she treats her patients using plant-based nutritional protocols.

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