Sunflower seeds are packed with vitamins, including vitamin B1 and B5, vitamin E and folate. They also provide a healthy dose of copper, magnesium, selenium and phosphorous–important minerals. Just a quarter of a cup–four tablespoons–of seeds holds half the daily requirement or more of these important nutrients. The fats present in sunflower seeds are also good quality, heart healthy fats that can help increase “good” cholesterol and protect the heart and cardiovascular system.
Of these nutrients, vitamin E in particular is a powerful antioxidant, helping preserve cardiovascular health. Sunflower seeds are quite high in vitamin E, with ninety percent of the recommended daily allowance of this vitamin in a quarter cup. Also helpful to cardiovascular health and cholesterol maintenance are lignans, arginine and phenolic acids. While these substances are less well-known to most people, studies increasingly show benefits from increasing their intake.
Other substances found in sunflower seeds include tryptophan and choline. Also found in pumpkin seeds, tryptophan can help reduce stress, anxiety and depression. Choline appears to help increase brain function, particularly helping to improve memory. With this wide combination of phytochemicals, vitamins and minerals, sunflower seeds are a surprisingly nutrient dense food.
Sunflower seeds come from the big round center of the sunflower, which turns throughout the day to follow the course of the Sun. Sunflowers began to be used over 5,000 years ago by the Native Americans, the Spanish brought them back to Spain, and they were soon introduced to neighboring European countries. Today, the top producers of sunflower seeds are the Russian Federation, Peru, Argentina, Spain, France and China.
Sunflowers are an exceptional source of vitamin E, which plays a very important role in the prevention of cardiovascular disease. Vitamin E is an antioxidant that helps keep free radicals from oxidizing cholesterol. Only when oxidized is cholesterol able to stick to blood vessel walls and cause atherosclerosis, which can lead to blocked arteries, heart attack, or stroke. You can get over ninety percent of the daily value for vitamin E in only a quarter of a cup of sunflower seeds.
Sunflower seeds are an excellent source of vitamin E, the body’s primary fat-soluble antioxidant. Vitamin E travels throughout the body neutralizing free radicals that would otherwise damage fat-containing structures and molecules, such as cell membranes, brain cells, and cholesterol. By protecting these cellular and molecular components, vitamin E has significant anti-inflammatory effects that result in the reduction of symptoms in asthma, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis, conditions where free radicals and inflammation play a big role.
Sunflower seeds are a good source of selenium. Studies suggest a strong correlation between low selenium intake and cancer incidence. Selenium has been shown to induce DNA repair and synthesis in damaged cells, to inhibit the proliferation of cancer cells, and to induce their apoptosis, the self-destruct mechanism the body uses to get rid of worn out or abnormal cells. In addition, selenium is incorporated at the active site of many proteins, including glutathione peroxidase, which is particularly important for protection against cancer. One of the body’s strongest antioxidant enzymes, glutathione peroxidase is used by the liver to detoxify a great many harmful molecules. When levels of glutathione peroxidase are low, these toxic molecules wreak havoc on any cells they come in contact with, damaging their DNA and prompting the development of cancer cells. One quarter of a cup provides over thirty percent of the daily value for selenium. The vitamin E so abundant in sunflower seeds has also been shown to reduce the risk of colon cancer, bladder cancer, and prostate cancer.
Sunflower seeds are particularly rich in magnesium. It’s a well-known fact that calcium is necessary for strong bones, but magnesium is too. Most of the magnesium in the human body is in our bones. Some of it helps lend bones their physical structure, and the rest is located on the surface of the bone where it is stored for the body to use as it needs. Copper found in sunflower seeds is vital for the function of enzymes involved in cross-linking collagen and elastin, providing strength and flexibility in bones and joints. Vitamin E also imparts anti-inflammatory properties to sunflower seeds, effective in the reduction of arthritis symptoms.
Good for the Nerves By preventing calcium from rushing into nerve cells and activating them, magnesium keeps our nerves relaxed and thereby our blood vessels and muscles too. Too little magnesium means too much calcium can gain entrance to the nerve cell, causing it to send too many messages, and leading to too much contraction.
Insufficient magnesium leads to higher blood pressure, muscle tension, migraine headaches, soreness and fatigue. Not surprising that studies have demonstrated magnesium helps diminish the frequency of migraine attacks, lowers blood pressure and helps prevent heart attacks. Sunflower seeds also contain tryptophan, an amino acid that helps produce serotonin, an important neurotransmitter. Serotonin relieves tension, calms the brain and promotes relaxation.
Vitamin E has sometimes been described as the “lightning rod” of the cell, allowing reactive molecules to strike the cell, like lightning, without causing damage. This function of vitamin E is particularly apparent in the case of the skin, since vitamin E directly protects the skin from ultraviolet radiation. In many studies, vitamin E applied topically has been shown to prevent UV damage. A diet containing vitamin E-rich foods promotes this same protective effect.