Appropriating Plant Defenses

Appropriating Plant Defenses
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Plants and animals share similar biochemical pathways and signaling systems, which may explain why so many phytonutrients are beneficial to our physiology.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Plants live the ultimate sedentary lifestyle. “Most of us [usually] think of plants more as objects than as organisms. But because…plants [can’t move],” they’ve had to evolve a whole other way to escape threats to their well-being. Plants can sense and respond dynamically to all sorts of stimuli: chemical concentrations in the air, soil, water, touch, motion, vibration, pathogens, predators, and, of course, light. And how do they respond? They respond biochemically. They manufacture, from scratch, a dizzying array of compounds to deal with specific threats.

If we get too hot, we can move into the shade. But if plants get too hot, they’re stuck—they are the shade! “As a result, the complexity of the plant stress response humbles that of animals. Plants and their stress response have been evolving for almost [a] billion years.” And, in that time, they’ve created a whole chemistry lab of protective substances—some of which can induce similarly protective responses in those that eat them.

Why is it that “the best grapes in terms of…health benefit often result from relatively dry, sun-exposed, infertile soil”? “Similarly, drought-stressed strawberries have [more] antioxidant[s]” and phytonutrients. “Indeed, commonly-consumed foods, like lettuce and fruits, can be nutritionally enhanced by cold stress, light stress, water deficit, or nutrient deficit stress.” Why is it that stressed plants are often the healthiest?

We used to think it was just a matter of using the same tools to deal with the same problems. “[S]tudies suggest that plants and animals largely share the molecular pathways in order to respond to stress, so [it’s] conceivable that a molecule produced in plants [might] also be effective…[in people].” Plants have DNA; humans have DNA. The UV rays in sunlight can damage the DNA in plants in the same way it can damage our DNA—by creating free radicals. Plants figured out how to cook up all these complex antioxidants, and instead of just reinventing the wheel, animals can just expropriate those antioxidants from plants, and commandeer them for the same purpose.

We get attacked by bacteria; plants get attacked by bacteria. So, for example, when this fungus doesn’t like getting muscled in on by bacteria, it creates a molecule called penicillin—provided free to us. What a nice guy, what a fungi! 

When plants get infected, they produce aspirin—which can come in handy when we get infected. Plants heal wounds; we heal wounds, using similar fatty-acid signaling systems. “It is increasingly evident that plants and animals differ less than we thought in [terms of] how [we all] respond,” sharing elements “of fatty acid, protein, steroidal, neurotransmitter, [free radical], nitric oxide, and even plant growth hormone signalling systems.”

So, in a sense, we’re just opening up nature’s drug store when we pull out the crisper in our fridge.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Noodles and Beef via flickr, purzen via OpenClipArt, and Bios and Miansari66 via Wikimedia

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

Plants live the ultimate sedentary lifestyle. “Most of us [usually] think of plants more as objects than as organisms. But because…plants [can’t move],” they’ve had to evolve a whole other way to escape threats to their well-being. Plants can sense and respond dynamically to all sorts of stimuli: chemical concentrations in the air, soil, water, touch, motion, vibration, pathogens, predators, and, of course, light. And how do they respond? They respond biochemically. They manufacture, from scratch, a dizzying array of compounds to deal with specific threats.

If we get too hot, we can move into the shade. But if plants get too hot, they’re stuck—they are the shade! “As a result, the complexity of the plant stress response humbles that of animals. Plants and their stress response have been evolving for almost [a] billion years.” And, in that time, they’ve created a whole chemistry lab of protective substances—some of which can induce similarly protective responses in those that eat them.

Why is it that “the best grapes in terms of…health benefit often result from relatively dry, sun-exposed, infertile soil”? “Similarly, drought-stressed strawberries have [more] antioxidant[s]” and phytonutrients. “Indeed, commonly-consumed foods, like lettuce and fruits, can be nutritionally enhanced by cold stress, light stress, water deficit, or nutrient deficit stress.” Why is it that stressed plants are often the healthiest?

We used to think it was just a matter of using the same tools to deal with the same problems. “[S]tudies suggest that plants and animals largely share the molecular pathways in order to respond to stress, so [it’s] conceivable that a molecule produced in plants [might] also be effective…[in people].” Plants have DNA; humans have DNA. The UV rays in sunlight can damage the DNA in plants in the same way it can damage our DNA—by creating free radicals. Plants figured out how to cook up all these complex antioxidants, and instead of just reinventing the wheel, animals can just expropriate those antioxidants from plants, and commandeer them for the same purpose.

We get attacked by bacteria; plants get attacked by bacteria. So, for example, when this fungus doesn’t like getting muscled in on by bacteria, it creates a molecule called penicillin—provided free to us. What a nice guy, what a fungi! 

When plants get infected, they produce aspirin—which can come in handy when we get infected. Plants heal wounds; we heal wounds, using similar fatty-acid signaling systems. “It is increasingly evident that plants and animals differ less than we thought in [terms of] how [we all] respond,” sharing elements “of fatty acid, protein, steroidal, neurotransmitter, [free radical], nitric oxide, and even plant growth hormone signalling systems.”

So, in a sense, we’re just opening up nature’s drug store when we pull out the crisper in our fridge.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to Noodles and Beef via flickr, purzen via OpenClipArt, and Bios and Miansari66 via Wikimedia

Doctor's Note

The aspirin story is fascinating; see Aspirin Levels in Plant Foods.

This whole co-evolution concept reminds me of Human Neurotransmitters In Plants and The Broccoli Receptor: Our First Line of Defense.

More on the power of plants in Power Plants.

Some of the wilder things that Phytochemicals: The Nutrition Facts Missing from the Label can do are explored in:

We evolved eating a lot of plants: Paleolithic Lessons.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

41 responses to “Appropriating Plant Defenses

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    1. It’s trash! Literally the epitome of what Gregor says NOT to eat. It’s the opposite of “whole foods”. It’s nothing but processed ingredients all added together. It lacks the wealth of natural phytonutrients offered by the real foods. You’d probably be better off on a SAD diet.




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        1. I agree with Brandon. It lacks thousands of antioxidants, flavanoids, phytonutrients, etc which are contained in whole plant foods. It is simply a distillation of 35 essential micronutrients together with a specific ratio of macronutrients. But it is not food. It is like taking multivitamins to replace a proper diet.




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        2. llana, Dr Greger would not recommend drinking our nutrition but eating it. This is not new – reducing food to a supplement. What are you asking – doable for how long? Processed is never better that whole foods for so many reasons.

          For starters – Whole: Rethinking the Science of Nutrition.

          What happens when you eat an apple? The answer is vastly more complex than you imagine.

          Every apple contains thousands of antioxidants whose names, beyond a few like vitamin C, are unfamiliar to us, and each of these powerful chemicals has the potential to play an important role in supporting our health. They impact thousands upon thousands of metabolic reactions inside the human body. But calculating the specific influence of each of these chemicals isn’t nearly sufficient to explain the effect of the apple as a whole. Because almost every chemical can affect every other chemical, there is an almost infinite number of possible biological consequences.

          And that’s just from an apple.

          http://www.huffingtonpost.com/t-colin-campbell/whole-book-excerpt-_b_3308560.html

          http://www.amazon.com/Whole-Rethinking-Nutrition-Colin-Campbell/dp/1937856240




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          1. I dont think it’s fair to assume it’s bad just because you dont like the form it comes in.

            2 points:

            1. Though you may be missing out the “thousands of antioxidants whose names…are unfamiliar to us” you’re also not getting excess elements you don’t need or are downright bad for you. Depending on your diet Soylent could be a net gain.

            2. The production of this product may be more environmentally sustainable than traditional foods.

            I think what she was looking for was a nutritional analysis, not platitudes about the form the food comes in.




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            1. Gabe: With all due respect, I don’t think you understand JacquieRN’s points. As I understand it, JacquieRN gave a nutritional analysis that went something like this: soylent is missing thousands of substances which are likely important to our health not just individually, but together in specified packages. That’s hardly a “platitude”, but a direct response that answers the question.

              At the same time, this site among other sources show that a whole plant food based diet is extremely healthy. So, worrying about, “…excess elements you don’t need or are downright bad for you,” on such a diet doesn’t make sense to me.

              That’s my take on it anyway.




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              1. You can’t really say “with all due respect” and then say something irrefutably insulting.

                I do understand JacquieRN’s argument, but it appears from the tone and the wording that JacquieRN is responding to the product on a categorical level, rather than on the product itself. She says “Whole foods are better than processed foods” which is valid, but I think the original question is asking for a slightly more researched answer.




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                  1. Then as advice please don’t tell strangers what they do or do not understand, but I forgive you :-)

                    To clarify what I just said, by “Slightly more researched answer” I mean to look at the Soylent product before deciding it’s horrible.




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                    1. As advice, please don’t tell strangers that their detailed [within the scope of this medium] explanations of the whole foods concept, with a primary reference included, are platitudes. But I (really!) forgive you.

                      How deep a look at the product are you suggesting? Are you envisioning a response along the lines of, “Hmm, the Vitamin B6 seems a bit low, and the selenium on the high side”? The product is obviously an instantiation of current RDAs/DRIs/DVs, which are mostly based on expert opinion rather than something like randomized controlled trials (which are often impossible in nutrition issues).

                      My first exposure to Soylent was the New Yorker magazine article, and I then perused its web site. I sympathize with the cultural milieu from which it arose and am inclined to respect the integrity of its primary entrepreneur. But anyone intellectually persuaded by the arguments for a WFpb [letter cases deliberate] diet will see immediately that Soylent is dietarily as opposite as can be. It’s conceivable that Soylent would be an upgrade for someone coming from a Doritos-and-Coke diet, but inconceivable that Dr. Greger would recommend it. The first sentence of the “About” page for nutritionfacts.org is, “The typical nutrition facts packaging label shows consumers a miniscule fraction of the estimated 100,000+ biological active constituents of food.”




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                1. Gabe,

                  I asked llana in all clinical sincerity: “What are you asking – doable for how long?”. I can’t answer her question until I know that.

                  I was responding on a categorically level – whole food is the best. This is a non-food, according to Soylent – its a incomplete food replacement. This isn’t really a novel concept/drink but seems the main difference between Soylent and drinks like Ensure and Muscle Milk lies in the marketing: the product—and the balance of nutrients—is aimed at cubicle workers craving efficiency rather than at men in the gym or the elderly.




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            2. You obviously have a financial interest in peddling a glorified Instant Breakfast. Processed powders are not real food. Take it elsewhere…




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        3. It doesn’t have everything we need. The folks at Soylent are arrogant for even suggesting it does. Why? Because everything we actually need is not truly known.
          That is why it is important to get your nutrition from whole foods. Can you use this product? Sure. Should you? Probably not.
          There is still too much left to learn about all of the nutrients available in foods and how they interact with one another. Companies that produce these types of products are just preying on those searching for a magic bullet that will keep them from having to do work to maintain health.
          I want something like this to be the answer, believe me. We are just not there yet, and I don’t know if we ever really will be.




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    2. Soylent is greatly inferior to a WFPB diet because while one can infuse it with the nutritive components that have been identified in the quantities that we believe to be appropriate, it does not contain the wealth of health promoting phytonutrients in the synergistic relations that are found in whole, real foods.

      The creator of Soylent has actually seen benefits from switching to it as his primary dietary regimen. This is not because Soylent is so good, but because his previous diet was so bad consisting of ramen, dollar menu hamburgers and pizza.




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  1. I’m a vegan and love Dr. Greger’s videos but I’m not sure I totally get this one re. eating plants vs. animals. Wouldn’t other animals also produce important stress fighting compounds ? And if they were herbivores maybe they’d be processed in a way that was useful for secondary consumers. I assume that’s not the case but that wasn’t totally clear from this video.




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    1. We’re already producing the “animal” stress response compounds, cause we are animals. We want the compounds from the parts of life we aren’t producing.




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      1. Certainly not herbivores but frugivores we are primates apes, we dont have several stomach or extremly long intestines, no cellulase enzyme etc~




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        1. Frugivores are a type of herbivore.

          “A herbivore is an animal that obtains its energy and nutrients by feeding on plants. Different types of herbivores eat different plant parts. For example, folivores feed on leaves, frugivores feed on fruits, granivores feed on seeds, pollinivores feed on pollen, and nectarivores feed on nectar.”

          http://www.eoearth.org/view/article/171482/

          Humans eat several parts of plants; leaves, fruits, etc. But I think you are probably right that we should be classified frugivore… needing to get most of our sustenance from fruits, I do:)




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          1. Yes, sorry im french and the word in french is the same but it mean more like a herbivore cow who feed on grass and leaves, no way we can eat like them~
            Fruits are healthiest foods(raw of course, cooking is not natural neither optimal by definition, i eat cooked foods and i have no problem admiting it) of all and easiest to digest for our GI system, bonobos are closest to us; no debate on that~

            https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=__tB0Ty0Dtc
            http://fr.scribd.com/doc/214396900/Science-Verifies-That-Humans-Are-Frugivores
            http://fr.scribd.com/doc/214396900/Science-Verifies-That-Humans-Are-Frugivores
            http://nsm08.casimages.com/img/2014/05/22/14052211493917279112259488.jpg




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              1. Np, im myself trying my best at a frugivore diet but not easy at all because it is so different but i eat a ton of fruit at least + some others things~




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            1. That was funny at the end, “conclusive proof that we are frugivores.” It was the opinion of one researcher. Personally, I think humans are very well adapted to fruit, but we do better on a more varied diet, including things like beans, mushrooms, seeds/nuts in moderation and even whole grains. So I would not classify humans as frugivores. See the work of Harvard researcher, Richard Wrangham, how cooking made us human.




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    2. I am very far from having any kind of authority on this, but here’s how I understood Dr. Greger’s point. Herbivores certainly do produce important stress fighting compounds, but not nearly as many as plants do. For one thing, our ability to move enables us to avoid certain stressors that plants can only stand against, so there’s one batch of chemical compounds we don’t need simply because we can walk away. And since we eat plants, we don’t need to produce any of the beneficial chemical compounds that they do. Any biological process that doesn’t help an organism survive long enough to reproduce successfully will not be selected for during a species’ evolution, and so that process tends to decay or disappear over time. So if we every did have the ability to make any of these chemical compounds, it has likely done just that: decayed or disappeared over evolutionary time. And so we now rely on plants for these crucial processes.




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  2. wonderful video, it made me think of the Maca plant, growing at 5000 mts over sea level in difficult environments, fantastic “adaptogenics”!




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  3. If you douse your burgers with a dark beer before cooking them on the barbeque, you get substantially fewer toxic carcinogens from high-heat searing (char) … how is that for plant defenses? (something you won’t hear here) … on the other hand, if you omit meat altogether you don’t have to worry about this! (although it may still come in handy for those who insist of cooking vegetables on the grill).




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  4. If one wants to appropriate plant defenses, it seems that one should select more blemished & damaged fruits and vegetables, as they are more stressed plants or plant parts. (But clearly rotten plants lost the fight against the pathogens so should be avoided). I wonder if there are any studies showing that blemished fruit & vegetables are healthier to consume? They certainly have a more complex taste than the unblemished ones.




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