Why Wild Plants Can Protect You From Cancer

By Mary Ann Lila, PhD Director, Plants for Human Health Institute North Carolina State University

Posted on | By Mary Ann Lila, PhD

Plants, and most especially, plants growing in harsh, exposed environments out in the wild, produce a bounty of powerful health-protective natural chemical compounds which can provide broad spectrum health benefits against cancer and other chronic human diseases.

Why do plants manufacture compounds (phytochemicals) that uniquely protect against chronic human diseases?

Plants are clearly not producing powerful phytochemicals for the sole purpose of benefitting humans. Plants have no other means to protect themselves except to creatively synthesize and accumulate a sophisticated assortment of natural components in their organs (such as leaves, roots or fruits). This internal phytochemical cocktail helps the otherwise unprotected plants to endure environmental stress and promote their own survival, or at least improve their chances of passing on their seeds to grow the next year. Phytochemicals offer remarkably sophisticated natural defenses that can help plants to thrive in even hostile locations.

How do these phytochemicals work?

For example, the flavonoid set of phytochemicals includes the bright red and blue pigments, and the astringent tannins found in many fruits, flowers and vegetables. These flavonoids can discourage a predatory insect from feeding off of the plant’s leaves, or can act as natural fungicides or bactericides to discourage attack by invading microbes. These same flavonoids can help screen delicate plant tissues from exposure to harsh sunlight or help toughen its tissues to ward off cold temperature or salt stress. Because of the bright colors in some of these compounds, the flavonoids can help attract insects or birds to help pollinate flowers or eat fruit, and therefore help the seeds to be dispersed widely, which will help the plant’s next generations to survive.  

Article written by Mary Ann Lila, PhD
Director, Plants for Human Health InstituteNorth Carolina State University