Written by Dr. Robert Verkerk
Our health and our genes are inexorably linked to a rich and diverse range of plants that deliver information driving metabolic pathways essential to our survival and wellbeing. Plants don’t just provide us with energy for sustenance, neither is our food just a means of supplying energy to the body.
Plant foods, herbs and spices, are all about information – information that regulates the hundreds of different metabolic pathways and processes that keep a healthy individual in balance, both internally and externally. Traditional systems of herbal medicine are widely used both in the developing and developed world. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that over 100 million Europeans are currently users of “traditional and complementary medicine”, with one fifth regularly using such systems and the same number again preferring health care that includes their usage. People opt to use natural systems of healing because of their cultural acceptability, the fact they often work and are generally free of side effects and because they’re cost effective (also see our article Are herbs safe?).
Why are we so into plants?
Put simply, in the same way we can’t do without water, we can’t do without plants. Our metabolic systems and our genetic code – our DNA – has co-evolved with plants over millennia. Much more than food or medicine, plants are themselves complex substrates that supply energy and information to the body, which in turn controls almost all the metabolic pathways that keep us functioning. Without enough information – a situation that might arise when we don’t consume a sufficient diversity of plants – we can start to malfunction, suffering from fatigue, becoming less resilient in the face of stress and more susceptible to disease. It’s not just the human side of us that needs plants; it’s also the microbial side. A healthy adult gut harbours a complex community of around 100 trillion microbial cells, referred to as the gut microbiome. That’s about 10 times the number of human cells we have in our bodies. These gut microorganisms use plant compounds that we’ve consumed to regulate a wide range of critical functions including our appetites, our immune systems, our brain function and the way we store and use energy. Traditionally, thousands of different species of plants have been used as foods or medicines.
Today however, when it comes to foods, there has been a trend, one that’s run alongside industrialised agriculture, food processing and globalisation, that involves a quite dramatic simplification of our diets. Most of us now consume, in the main, a narrow range of vegetables, often less than 10 types, and an equally narrow range of fruits. The genetic stock, and hence the phytochemical diversity, of these is often very limited, and these same, limited varieties of fruits and vegetables are being prioritised for commerce all over the world. Many crops are harvested early and then shipped to the other wide of the world, being artificially ripened with ethylene gas before they hit the supermarket shelf. Culinary herbs and spices may be added for some flavour, but these herbs are often irradiated and have lost a lot of their bioactivity before they reach our cooking pots and dinner tables.
Plants as Information
For our bodies, plants have three main components and many different functions:
- Macronutrients: (i.e. carbohydrates, proteins or fats), which are present in varying ratios and qualities in different plants and plant parts. These supply energy and a wide range of information that drives or regulates metabolic pathways in the body.
- Micronutrients and Phytochemicals: (i.e. vitamins, minerals, amino acids, phenolics, glycosides and alkaloids), used by the body for communication between cells and organs, for defense and repair, for nutrient assimilation, for biotransformation and elimination (detoxification), and as cofactors in a wide range of metabolic processes.
- Fibre: (either soluble or insoluble), that helps processes such as transit and gut function In some cases, we might use the fruits, leaves or other aerial parts, and in others, the underground parts, such as the roots, tubers or rhizomes.
But whatever the plant part, our bodies use the information coded in their genes to inform our own genes. This is how we have co-evolved with plants – they have literally made us what we are today!