If you pay any attention to health news, you’ve no doubt heard about the miraculous healing powers of antioxidants, polyphenols, flavonoids, and a whole host of hard-to-pronounce chemicals. All of these substances fall under the broad category of phytochemicals—literally, chemicals in plants. While not technically nutrients, research has shown that many phytochemicals play a critical role in our health.
There are several major groups of phytochemicals:
- Polyphenols include the subgroup flavonoids, such as resveratrol, quercetin, hesperidin, and anthocyanidins, found in grapes, berries, broccoli, kale, and many other fruits and vegetables. Flavonoids may help prevent heart disease and cancer, lower blood pressure, and destroy some bacteria in foods. One group of flavonoids found in soy, called isoflavones, may mimic the actions of estrogen (and are therefore also sometimes called phytoestrogens) and play a role in easing menopausal symptoms and protecting against hormone-dependent cancers such as some types of breast cancer.
- Carotenoids , such as beta-carotene, lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin—found in carrots, tomatoes, and watermelon—may also reduce the risk of some cancers and have powerful antioxidant effects.
- Allyl sulfides, found in garlic and onions, help strengthen the immune system.
Vitamin D may be best known for its role in protecting your bones. But experts are looking into whether this vitamin might ward off a variety of other problems, too. In a 2012 article from the journal Pharmacotherapy, experts cited some evidence to suggest that vitamin D may help:
- Prevent falls, especially in older people
- Prevent and treat muscle pain in people taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs
- Reduce the risk of multiple sclerosis
- Ward off depression
- Prevent and control asthma
- Prevent different types of cancer, including colorectal cancer
Despite this impressive list, vitamin D is not a cure-all. The effectiveness of vitamin D for preventing many health problems still needs a lot more research. But if you’re older, obese, vegetarian, have dark skin or little exposure to sunlight, or suffer from Crohn’s disease, cystic fibrosis, or celiac disease, you’re at high risk of having low vitamin D and should ask your doctor to measure your level and recommend supplements if needed.