(Health Secrets) There are many active components that originate in plants and play a role in keeping us healthy. Each serves a particular function, and some plants contain more of these elements or compounds than others. Becoming familiar with the components is empowering because it allows you to select and combine them to achieve the best effect for your particular situation. This article details 16 plant constituents and provides common sources of each.
Top 16 Plant Components for Good Health
1) Alkaloids – The most active ingredient found in plants, these (normally nitrogen bearing) molecules have various medicinal and even cancer fighting effects on the body but are also toxic in high doses. Most plants contain some alkaloids. One of the most popular examples of an alkaloid is the caffeine found in coffee, tea, and cocoa. Another alkaloid is solanine, a toxin found in the nightshade family and one reason why some people are sensitive to tomatoes, peppers and potatoes.
2) Anthocyanins – Antioxidant pigments that give fruits and flowers their blue, purple or red hue, anthocyanins help keep blood vessels healthy. Foods that contain large amounts of anthocyanins include grapes and blackberries.
3) Anthraquinones – Anthraquinones are natural laxative components in plants that relieve constipation, soften stool and cause peristaltic action. Sources of anthraquinones include senna, cascara sagrada and Chinese rhubarb.
4) Bitters – An essential food group and something the human tongue is designed to detect, bitters have largely been factored out of the human diet due to their unpleasant taste. However, bitters are key to digestion, as they cause the secretion of salivary enzymes that nourish and strengthen the body. Some popular herbal products feature concentrated bitters. Examples of bitter foods include coffee, unsweetened chocolate, bitter melon and citrus peel.
5) Cardiac Glycosides – Natural diuretics that directly strengthen the heart by increasing the contraction rate, cardiac glycosides also improve circulation, lower blood pressure and relieve the urinary tract. Examples of plants containing cardiac glycosides are Digitalis lanata and Digitalis purpurea from which digoxin and digitoxin are derived. Caution: plants containing cardiac glycosides such as Foxglove are often poisonous. Consult a trained natural healer before pursuing treatment with cardiac glycosides.
6) Coumarins – Coumarins offer widely divergent strengthening mechanisms that include sunscreen protection, blood thinning and muscle relaxant action. Found in many plants, popular examples include the tonka bean, members of the Umbelliferae family (carrots, parsley, celery, cilantro, cumin, dill, caraway, and fennel), and the Solanaceae family (potatoes, chili peppers, eggplant, paprika, tobacco, and belladonna).
7) Cyanogenic Glycosides – Though based on highly poisonous cyanide, cyanogenic glycosides offer a sedative effect on the heart and muscles in small doses and are also used to sooth congestion and suppress a dry cough. Cyanogenic glycosides are found in Wild Cherry bark and Elderflower. Caution: Due to the risk of cyanide toxicity, consult a trained natural healer before pursuing treatment with Cyanogenic glycosides.
8) Flavonoids – Flavonoids are antioxidants known as polyphenols that improve circulation and relieve tissues damaged by pathogens. Flavonoids play a role in pigmentation and also have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and anti-aging properties. Good sources of flavonoids include onion, garlic, basil, spinach and green leafy vegetables.
9) Glucosilinates – Used to increase blood flow to an affected area, glucosilinates facilitate waste removal, relieve joint problems and reduce thyroid function. Glucosilinates are found exclusively in the mustard family (Cruciferae), including broccoli, cabbage, mustard greens, collard greens, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, arugula, and bok choy.
10) Minerals – Minerals are the basic elements from the Periodic Table. Examples include magnesium, iron and copper. Certain minerals are essential for certain life forms. Minerals are the building blocks of vitamins and are found in all foods.
11) Mucilage – Mucilage is a component of many plants that contain polysaccharides (large sugar molecules). These retain water to produce a jelly-like mass that offers protective and moisturizing effects. Soothing to the skin, throat, lungs and other organs, mucilage is found in aloe vera and psyllium seed husks.
12) Phenols – A component of many compounds, including salicylic acid (aspirin), phenols are antiseptic and anti-inflammatory components of plants. Phenols actually have an irritant effect when applied directly to the skin. Phenols are found in all foods, but high phenol foods that should be avoided by those with sensitive digestive tracts include food dyes, Vanillin flavor, oranges, tomato, peanuts, and chocolate.
13) Saponins – A group of two expectorant elements that induce hormonal activity, saponins (including triterpenoid and steroidal) are similar to naturally occurring hormones found in the human body. Licorice root is perhaps the most popular saponin and is often contained in natural products designed to balance hormones.
14) Tannins – Familiar to wine drinkers as the ingredient that causes headaches, tannins are an astringent element found in bark and leaves of all plants for the purpose of repelling life forms such as grazing animals, insects and pests. Used to “tan” leather, tannins cause tissue to contract, the way Alum does. Sources include beer, wine, chocolate and citrus foods.
15) Vitamins – Vitamins are the essential building blocks of life. More complex than minerals, vitamins are molecules versus atoms. Certain vitamins are required for proper cellular function, without which disease and disorder follow. For example, without Vitamin C one will develop scurvy. Vitamins are found in all foods except iceberg lettuce.
16) Volatile Oils – Volatile substances are constantly breaking down through oxidation or other natural interactions with the environment. Volatile oils are the component of plants that offer the strong aroma attractive to foraging wildlife, and these oils often provide concentrated medicinal benefits as well. Volatile oils are strongly antiseptic and normally have anti-inflammatory properties as well. Aromatherapy involves the use of volatile (essential) oils to alter moods and perception as well as to detoxify the body. Sources of volatile oils include tea tree, black seed, peppermint and oregano oil.
Plant extracts such as the ones described in this article can be extremely potent. Note that all substances have what is called the Therapeutic Index, or the ratio of the lethal dose over the effective dose. For example, one Vitamin E is therapeutic while 25 Vitamin E can be fatal. Thus, Vitamin E has a toxic to therapeutic ratio of 25/1 or a therapeutic index of 25. Many of the substances covered in this article have a fine line between a lethal and effective dose, so use caution and seek the advice of a trained health provider on their proper use.
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Photo by Micah & Erin