Phytochemicals are an important aspect of human diet and consequent athletic performance. "Phyto" is a Greek work for plant life, and the phytochemicals are a very broad range of substances that are ingested through food, but that do not themselves possess any nutritional value, in terms of energy, vitamin, or mineral contribution. Most foods, except those that are heavily refined such as sugar, contain one form of phytochemical or another. The primary sources of these substances are fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and most beans.
The phytochemicals are substances that influence the function and the outcome of various bodily systems, as opposed to directing or dictating that function. The phytochemicals that are of most interest to humans are those that act to protect the body from illness or disease.
Phytochemicals have long been recognized by various cultures throughout the world as possessing special qualities in relation to human health. The ancient system of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), and its reliance upon herbs such as ginseng, is an example of the extent to which various phytochemicals have been used. A more recent phytochemical medicinal application was the synthesis of salicylic acid, first extracted from the bark of a willow tree, in the manufacture of the most commonly used of aspirin, the nonsteroidal anti-drugs (NSAIDs), created in 1899.
As phytochemicals enter the body as the components of a broad range of plant products consumed as food, each with its own chemical complexity, the action of the various phytochemicals on the human systems is equally diverse. No phytochemical is believed to be essential to optimal body function as, in many cases, the action of the phytochemical is a counteraction of an unrelated environmental impact on the body. The following are the more common types of desirable actions and related food sources for each phytochemical:
While phytochemicals can be added to an existing diet by way of supplements, the best and most absorptive fashion that such chemicals can be introduced into the body is through a balanced diet that has significant fresh fruits and vegetables. As a general rule, the closer to the natural or whole food state, the more likely the food is to possess phytochemicals. An example is whole grain products; much of the phytochemical presence is contained in the grain or kernel shell. When the grain is removed during processing, a large measure of the phytochemicals in the grain are removed.
Two food types that are sometimes overlooked by those seeking the advantages of phytochemicals are dried fruits, which lose little of their natural phytochemical effect in this state, and various herbs and spices commonly employed in food preparation. Most dried herbs such as basil, thyme, and oregano are rich in various phytochemicals. The active ingredient in many types of red pepper, capsicum, is an effective antioxidant agent.