The Many Medicinal Properties of Food
By Dr. Mercola
Your lifestyle can be generally healing and supportive of good health, or the root of disease. Exercise, for example, has been shown to be as effective as modern drugs for heart disease and diabetes.
Likewise, food has tremendous healing potential, and can rightfully be viewed and approached as “medicine.”
In some cases, specific food items can help speed healing of an acute health problem, such as a bout of cold or flu. In other cases, the effect is more long-term and preventive in nature.
Either way, keeping your kitchen stocked with REAL foods, i.e. unprocessed, whole, and non-GMO (ideally organic and locally grown) is a wise move if you seek to optimize your health and quality of life.
Here, I’ll review and summarize a few of my “medicinal superfood” favorites.
Supporting your gut microbiome is perhaps one of the most beneficial things you can do to boost your overall health. Indigestion, gas or bloating, constipation or diarrhea, or virtually any chronic disease, are signs indicating your gut flora is out of balance.
Traditionally fermented, unpasteurized foods are key here, as they help reseed your gut with a wide variety of beneficial bacteria. Not only does about 80 percent of your immune system originate in your gut, microbes carry out important roles in many other biological systems as well.
Examples of foods known to support your gut health include (but are not limited to) the following:1
- Fermented vegetables, which you can easily make at home, typically contain higher levels of probiotics than probiotic supplements, making them ideal for optimizing your gut flora.
Ideally, you’ll want to consume a variety of fermented foods to maximize the variety of beneficial bacteria, as each have their own set of benefits.
Kimchi, for example, a traditional Korean dish made from fermented vegetables and a spicy blend of chili peppers, garlic, scallions, and other spices, is an excellent source of lactic acid bacteria, which research suggests can help you detoxify insecticides.
These man-made neurotoxic chemicals bioaccumulate in your body, where they can remain for long periods of time if you don’t take steps to eliminate them.
According to a 2009 study,2 the organophosphate insecticide Chlorpyrifos degraded rapidly during kimchi fermentation, and was over 83 percent degraded by day three. By day nine, it was degraded completely.
- Bone broth is extremely healing to your gut and forms the foundation for the GAPs diet, which is based on the Gut and Psychology Syndrome (GAPS) principles developed by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride.
The GAPS diet is designed to heal leaky gut, which is the root of many allergies and autoimmune disorders. When combined with toxic overload, you have a perfect storm that can lead to neurological disorders like autism, ADHD, and learning disabilities.
- Moringa, a plant native to India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan, has a long history of medicinal use. The leaves contain plenty of vitamins and minerals, and can be used in the same ways as spinach (raw, steamed or cooked).
It’s also high in fiber, and has antibacterial activity. Importantly, moringa contains isothiocyanates shown to protect against Helicobacter pylori (H. pylori) infection, which has been implicated in ulcers, acid reflux, and gastric cancer.
- Aloe vera aids the absorption of nutrients, and helps heal your gut lining to prevent leaky gut and other intestinal problems, including Crohn’s disease, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), and acid reflux.
Aloe vera juice (made from the inner clear gel) should ideally be made from home-grown aloe with leaves that are one half to one inch thick before harvesting. Species that produce thick leaves are best.
It takes about two years to grow a tiny four-inch aloe plant to one that you can regularly harvest leaves from. I have about 300 thick leaved aloe plants in my front yard but only started with a few dozen.
- Chia seeds contain about 10 grams of fiber in just two tablespoons, and they’re rich in anti-inflammatory phytochemicals for soothing gastrointestinal distress.
Along with fermented foods, fiber is very important for optimal gut health. Some microbes ferment fiber, and the byproducts nourish your colon.
Some of these fermentation byproducts also help calibrate your immune system, thereby preventing inflammatory disorders such as asthma and Crohn’s disease.
Psyllium is another excellent choice, but make sure it is organic as this is a crop that is typically very heavily contaminated with pesticides.
Taking psyllium three times a day could add as much as 18 grams of soluble and insoluble fiber to your diet. In addition to supporting healthy digestion, soluble fibers such as organic psyllium are prebiotics that help nourish beneficial bacteria.
Foods with Specific Medicinal Value
While nourishing your microbiome with gut-healthy foods helps lay a solid foundation upon which to build good health, other foods are known to have medicinal qualities that can help you address more specific problems. CNN3 and the Epoch Times4 recently reviewed a number of foods that have potent medicinal benefits, including the following:
Ginger for menstrual cramps According to Dr. John La Puma, a practicing physician and professionally trained chef:
“Ginger probably works as well as ibuprofen for menstrual cramps. It works taken as a ginger capsule or chewed.”
A recent meta analysis5 concluded that taking 750-2,000 milligrams of ginger powder during the first four days of your menstrual cycle was an effective treatment for cramps.
Peppermint for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) Peppermint is another food commonly used to treat cramps; in this case those associated with IBS. Dr. Gerard Mullin, associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine told CNN:
“[W]hen compared to the various medical therapies for IBS, peppermint is the most effective and the least toxic.”
In fact, in a 2005 review6 of 16 trials the authors suggest peppermint oil “may be the drug of first choice in IBS patients with non-serious constipation or diarrhea to alleviate general symptoms and to improve quality of life.”
Hibiscus tea for hypertension Hibiscus flowers contain anthocyanins — water-soluble pigments that give the plant its color — which can be helpful to lower your blood pressure. According to the featured article,7 “multiple studies back up the blood-pressure-lowering abilities of hibiscus, including one published in the Nigerian Journal of Physiological Sciences.”8 Turmeric for rheumatoid arthritis Research9 shows curcumin, the active ingredient in the curry spice turmeric, possesses potent anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic properties. One highly bioavailable form of curcumin was found to be more effective in alleviating rheumatoid arthritis (RA) symptoms than the NSAID drug Voltaren. Not only that, but those who took the curcumin actually experienced the most improvement across the board, with no adverse side effects. Wild-caught Alaskan salmon for inflammation Salmon is an excellent source of healthy omega-3 fats that are important for the prevention of inflammation in your body. Omega-3 fat is also important for brain and heart health. Avoid farmed salmon, however, as it contains far less omega-3 than wild salmon, along with a number of potentially hazardous contaminants. The two designations you want to look for are “Alaskan salmon,” and “sockeye salmon,” as Alaskan sockeye is not allowed to be farmed. Shiitake mushrooms for improved immune function Shiitake mushrooms10 contain a number of health-stimulating agents, including lentinan, which has antitumor properties.11 It also has antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, and immune-boosting effects.
In one recent study, shiitake mushrooms were found to significantly improve participants’ immunity parameters, including a 60 percent increase in γδ-T cells; 100 percent increase in natural-killer T-cells; increased IgA levels (corresponding to increased immunity); reduced C-reactive protein levels (corresponding to reduced levels of inflammation); and increased levels of anti-inflammatory cytokines (interleukin (IL)-10, IL-1alpha, IL-4, and tumor necrosis factor [TNF]-alpha).
It’s important to eat ONLY organically grown mushrooms, as they absorb and concentrate whatever they grow in — good or bad. Mushrooms are known to concentrate heavy metals, and air and water pollutants, which would defeat their medicinal value.
Foods That Support a Healthy Pregnancy
When you’re pregnant you’re eating for two, making your food choices all the more important. As noted by the Epoch Times,12 which recently addressed this issue:
“A poor diet during pregnancy can lead to fatal issues such as abnormal brain development, increased risk for obesity, heart diseases, and diabetes, among many other health problems in your baby.”
Clearly, a wide variety of foods are needed to optimize your baby’s development, but some stand out above others. Also keep in mind that eating REAL FOOD is key here. If ever there was a time to ditch processed foods and cook from scratch using whole organic ingredients, this would be it. That said, the following six foods have been shown to be particularly important during pregnancy.
While not a food, vitamin D is likely more important than any food you can eat during your pregnancy. Ideally you obtain it from sensible sun exposure. But it is highly likely that is not possible for most so taking enough oral vitamin D and K2 to get your blood level over 50 ng/ml is one of the most important steps you can take for your pregnancy. Typical doses are 8,000 units of D and 150 mcg of K2.
Broccoli and/or broccoli sprouts Broccoli has twice the vitamin C of an orange, and almost as much calcium as whole milk (with a better rate of absorption). It also contains folic acid and iron, and all of these nutrients are important for a healthy pregnancy. Keep in mind that broccoli is best when eaten raw, because cooking and processing destroys some of its antioxidants. Fresh broccoli sprouts are even more potent, nutritionally speaking, than mature broccoli, allowing you to eat far less in terms of quantity. Avocado Avocados also contain a number of nutrients your baby needs for healthy development, including omega-3 fats for brain development, fiber, folic acid, potassium, and vitamins B6, C, and K. As noted in the featured article:13
“During pregnancy… you face an increased risk of developing indigestion and hemorrhoids.
Fiber helps prevent these problems. Vitamin K helps in healthy blood clotting and your baby’s bone development. Vitamin B6 provides relief from the symptoms of pregnancy nausea and vomiting.”
In addition, avocados enable your body to more efficiently absorb fat-soluble nutrients, such as alpha- and beta-carotene and lutein, in other foods eaten in conjunction.
Wild-caught Alaskan salmon As noted earlier, salmon contains important omega-3 fats, of which EPA and DHA are particularly important for baby’s brain development and visual acuity. Berries Berries are rich in antioxidants and potassium, the latter of which may lower your risk of pre-eclampsia. Berries are also a good source of vitamin C, folate, and fiber. Chia seeds In addition to being a source of healthy fiber and anti-inflammatory phytochemicals, chia seeds contain plant-based omega-3 fats, which are just as important as animal-based omega-3s. Ideally you want both in your diet. Besides being important for your growing baby, omega-3s can also help you avoid depression (“baby blues” and/or post-partum depression), which is thought to be triggered by inflammation. Organic pastured eggs Eggs are an excellent source of high-quality protein, which are the building blocks for cells. They also contain choline, which is important for your baby’s brain development and cognition, and vitamin D3, which can help protect your child against a number of future health conditions, including both type 1 and 2 diabetes. Vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy also raises your risk of complications and premature birth.
Food Is Powerful Preventive Medicine
If optimal health is your goal, there’s no getting around your diet. Your physical health is a direct reflection of what you put into your body, and how you live your life in general. Pre-packaged processed foods may be convenient, but cooking from scratch using fresh unprocessed ingredients is an absolute must if you want to improve your health.
Fermented foods also play a very important role in your overall health, as they are a primary source of beneficial bacteria. High quality fiber is also important for this reason. As a general guideline, eating more fresh vegetables is one of the simplest steps you can take to improve your overall health. A vegetable-rich diet can help protect you from arthritis, heart disease, stroke, dementia, cancer, and even slow down your body’s aging process.
And, while I’ve singled out a number of vegetables above, please do remember that consuming a wide variety of different fruits and vegetables is one of the best ways to maximize your nutritional benefits. Also consider your nutritional ratios. Most Americans need a lot more healthy fats in their diet, and less carbohydrates and protein. For guidance on more ideal nutritional ratios, check out my Food Pyramid for Optimal Health.
Basics aside, many foods have potent medicinal qualities, allowing you to customize your diet to help you address or prevent any number of health conditions, from diabetes to heart disease and cancer. Remember, pregnancy is a particularly delicate time during which nutrition becomes really crucial. In addition to the foods suggested above, also remember to optimize your vitamin D levels, either through appropriate sun exposure, or an oral supplement along with vitamin K2. To learn more about the implications of vitamin D deficiency during pregnancy, please see my previous article, “The Who, Why, and When of Vitamin D Screening.”