Protective Plant Compounds
Any plant that grows in bright sunshine has to protect its delicate DNA from sun damage and they have evolved special compounds and pigments. Many of these are important nutrients for us, which we obtain when we eat leafy green vegetables, berries and fruits. Many of these nutrients are classified as antioxidants and include vitamins C and E and the body uses these to neutralise very reactive, potentially damaging chemicals called free radicals which are produced in large amounts when we get too much sun.
Sun Protection from within
Other nutrients from plants, increasingly mentioned in the news, such as lutein, flavonoids, lycopene, anthocyanidins, and carotenes can also act as antioxidants. But we now know that some of these ‘phytochemicals’ provide protection against sun damage in other ways.
Lutein for example, which is a carotenoid pigment obtained when we eat leafy greens such as kale, is deposited in the macula of the eye where it filters out the dangerous wavelengths of light thereby preventing the delicate photoreceptor cells from being damaged.
Recent research now indicates that the body also uses lutein to provide protection against sun damage to the skin as well as the eyes. In fact other phytochemicals, particularly the anthocyanidins have been shown to offer the same kind of protection. Investigations in to the mechanism of how the protection works has shown a complex effect on skin chemistry and raised the prospects that these compounds may be able to actually reverse pre-existing sun damage.