Send Your Genes a Raspberry Email. The Surprising Nature of Phytonutrients

Late summer in the Canadian Rockies means berries. As I plucked them off their brave little bushes, I thought: “What an amazing plant to grow here, in  – let’s face it –  a rather harsh climate.”

And consider this: Raspberries chronicle their struggle with the environment as tiny chemical messages called anthocyanins, and when we eat them, those messages talk directly to our genes.  As a result, our bodies become more resilient to our own stressful environment.

Think for a minute about this amazing thing: The phytonutrients (plant nutrients) in berries and other plant-food  talk directly to our cells. (And what tastier messenger than an indefatigable red berry?)

Our genes are primed to receive chemical messages from our food, perhaps as a way of adapting to our environment and our food supply. When we eat a phytonutrient rich food, our genes hear the message that they must themselves prepare for a stressful world, not unlike the rocky soil that the plants grow on. This phenomenon is called “xenohormesis” (foreign control), and it is a burgeoning field of research.

We know that anthocyanins, resveratrol and other dark pigments offer an incredible array of health benefits. They prevent cancer, reduce inflammation, and slow degenerative disease. As a kind of short-hand, we have referred to phytonutrients as “antioxidants”, but that does not even begin to explain what they are. Phytonutrients do much more than quench free-radicals. They reach deep into our body and  switch on and off genes. They switch off the genes that promote inflammation. They switch on the genes that slow aging. They switch on the genes the increase metabolic rate, and so on. In their presence, our body takes the cue to be strong. To be well.

Need a take home message?

  • Eat a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables.
  • Eat produce that had to be healthy to survive its own environment (such as organic produce). It will be higher in phytonutrients, and it will send the right message to your genes.
  • Consider that this is how many herbal medicines – including coffee – work. (Stay tuned for more on this topic.)

Yours in Health, Lara Briden

(I wrote this post when I was back working as a country doctor in a small mountain town in Canada in 2011.)

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