Health-promoting molecules are produced in abundance by stressed plants; we get resveratrol from grapes, aspirin from willow bark, metformin from lilacs, epigallocatechin gallate from green tea, quercetin from fruits, and allicin from garlic. This may be evidence of xenohormesis—the idea that plants (our eukaryotic cousins, it should be noted) respond to stress by producing chemicals that tell their cells to hunker down and survive.
Konrad Howitz and I coined the term “xenohormesis” in 2008, theorizing that we animals have evolved to sense these chemicals in stressed plants as an early-warning system, of sorts, to alert our bodies to hunker down and survive. Over the long-term, this provides us with health and longevity, the same way intermittent fasting and exercise are thought to. In fact, they activate the same hormetic pathways.
My philosophy is to look for plants and foods made from plants that have been raised under less-than-ideal conditions. Organic, small farm-raised, or from our own backyard. When plants are stressed, they often add extra color to their stems or leaves. For example, when a plant or a fruit is exposed to too much light, you may have noticed it produces extra red, blue or purple pigments. These are anthocyanins and they are produced not only by radiation damage but drought, adverse temperatures, nutrient restriction, pathogens, and wounding.
Xenohormetic molecules are typically produced alongside anthocyanidins, so I look for leafy vegetables that are bright in color, not light green. I don’t mind if they have holes eaten in them or are limp. You can also find wines that have been made from stressed vines, such as Dry Farm Wines and Stressed Vines, which have higher levels of molecules such as resveratrol. And if you are wondering which wine grapes have the highest resveratrol content, it’s pinot noir, because they are so stress-sensitive.
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Registered dietitian, Sweden.