How Stress in Plants Can Mean Healthy Eating for People

Heightened concerns regarding food safety has led to an increase in the popularity of organic foods and ingredients. In fact, most people have the perception that organic foods taste better and contain higher levels of nutrients – these two areas are under further study. One benefit of eating organically grown foods is that it translates into lower accumulation of pesticides in the body (Lu et al., 2008).

It is believed that organic plants produce unique compounds to help them survive in a harsh environment without the assistance of pesticides or herbicides. Since plants are limited in their ability to move, they have the capacity to produce hundreds of compounds that can ward off insects and other pests. Some of these substances, when eaten by humans, may have some health benefit.

Researchers have proposed that deliberately “stressing” these plants by exposing them to the elements of the environment (sun, water, pests) without the help of chemicals (resulting in pending infection, starvation, dehydration) can lead to greater production of these potentially beneficial compounds, which can be advantageous for human consumption. For example, stressed grapes may make more of a compound called resveratrol. This substance most likely protects the plant and can be a powerful antioxidant and anti-aging substance for humans. Essentially, the plant’s hardship forces it into survival mode with the end result being better nutrition for us. Resveratrol is not only found naturally in grapes, but is included in dietary supplements for that reason. The idea of a plant protecting itself against the environment through the production of protective substances is referred to as “xenohormesis” (“xeno”: foreign or strange; “hormesis”: to excite; xenohormesis [zeeno-hor-meesus] is the ability to sense and respond to signals in the foreign environment) or when applied to health, “nutritional xenohormesis” (consumption of beneficial compounds from stressed organisms).

Of course, you can imagine that creating stress in an organism doesn’t always produce a positive result. It has been proposed that eating animals under stress due to confined living quarters or injecting them with hormones or antibiotics may lead to less health-promoting effects in the body. Whereas environmental stress in plants may serve us, eating meat from psychologically stressed animals may trigger harmful “stress molecules” to signal alarm to our bodies. The current theory is that we can become obese by eating negative stress signals in our diet. A fascinating study by Bray and his colleagues at the Pennington Biomedical Research Center compared biological effects after eating a fast-food beef meal with eating organic beef. The organic beef had less saturated and trans fat than the fast-food beef. Even after a single meal, blood levels of LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” cholesterol) rose higher when these men were given the fast-food beef. Therefore, foods that we might consider the same may not have the same composition due to different growing practices and, as a result, may not have similar effects in the body.

The final takeaway is what you may have heard time and time again – “you are what you eat”. What you eat has effects that ripple through your body to create either a body glowing with vitality or one that is inflamed, tired, or diseased. The more we can support cleaner foods by buying organically grown food, the better for our health, the health of animals, the environment, and ultimately, the planet. It is almost like built-in health insurance. Staying mindful of what we eat throughout our lifetime prevents us from dealing with an avalanche of built up toxicity, which finally comes crashing down on us, burying us in the snow bank of disease.

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