It is no secret that the food you eat influences your health. Scurvy provides an obvious example where the lack of vitamin C causes a breakdown in your body’s function, and eventually its tissues. More subtly high-fat and high sugar foods are linked to obesity and wide variety of knock-on impacts like inflammation, heart disease, and greater cardiovascular risk. There are also medicinal foods that have compounds that help counteract disease or prevent their development.

In the following excerpt from the book The Green Pharmacy by James A. Duke and Bill Gottlieb CHC the authors explain how foods can heal, and what makes a medicinal food.

How Foods Heal

If you’re familiar with my Green Pharmacy (or Farmacy, as I like to call it), you probably think that it’s all about herbal remedies. That’s partially true. Herbs have always been near and dear to my heart, and they still are. However, research over the past few decades has taken the Green Pharmacy in a new and interesting direction—away from the health food store and into the supermarket.

A growing body of literature indicates that a number of plant foods—fruits, vegetables, spices, and even beverages—offer many of the same healing powers that you’ll find in herbal remedies. Foods, however, have a distinct advantage over their herbal cousins: Instead of depending on capsules, tinctures, and teas, you can incorporate foods into delicious, flavorful meals that are as satisfying as they are healing!

Of course, we all know that fruits and vegetables are healthful. But only now are we learning just how healthful they really are. To begin with, they’re high in fiber, low in calories, and devoid of or low in harmful fats. But that’s not all. Most have hundreds, if not thousands, of medicinal compounds, each of which has a specific impact on your health and well-being. As a result, you can choose to add various plants to your diet to treat certain ailments. For example, I eat celery almost every day to prevent the pain associated with gout, and garlic is part of my diet because I know it can benefit my heart and possibly even help control my chronic Lyme disease.

Over the next few pages, I’ll give you some background on how plant foods heal, so you can gain a greater understanding of their role in your health. Then, in the chapters to come, I’ll help you plan your own regimen to treat specific conditions with specific foods.

Food as a Historical Healer

The idea of “food as medicine” is hardly a new one. In fact, when you consider that ancient man lacked the technological capability of today’s chemists, it only makes sense that their medicines came directly from nature.

In fact, evidence of using food to heal dates back thousands of years. Ayurveda, the traditional healing art of India, is a perfect example. It borrows many of its ideas from Hinduism, incorporating multiple therapies that include herbs, massage, and meditation. Ayurvedic practitioners may even go so far as to try a new diet to prevent or treat specific conditions. One medicinal food from Ayurveda may be familiar to you: turmeric, which often shows up as a spice in Asian cuisine. Aside from its unique flavor, turmeric may also prove a helpful treatment for people with arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, and some forms of cancer. Although the research evidence isn’t yet conclusive, it’s certainly highly suggestive, and my own experience using turmeric as an anti-inflammatory has been extraordinarily positive.

Ayurveda, also commonly referred to as Traditional Indian Medicine or Traditional Ayurvedic Medicine (TAM), shares this focus on food with another ancient form of medical practice, Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). TCM works from the concepts of “yin” and “yang,” which in ancient Chinese philosophy refer to the two fundamental forces in the universe—the aggressive, hot, go-get-’em force (yang); and the passive, lie back, and chill out force (yin). You get sick when these two forces fall out of balance in your body.

By now you’re probably wondering what all of this has to do with food. In TCM, the foods you eat are seen as having yin properties—cooling and moistening—or yang properties—warming and drying. Depending on the condition you have, your practitioner will help you make food choices to restore balance between the two forces. For example, if you have a mucus-producing cough from a cold, your balance is skewed toward the yin, so you’ll want to treat it with warming, drying foods like ginger tea and hot vegetable soups. As you can see, we borrow some of our ideas for treating illness from the Chinese, whether we’re aware of it or not!

Better Living through Chemistry?

TAM and TCM are a far cry from Western medicine, which views food as the source of nutrition but ignores its healing properties almost entirely. That’s not to say the Ameri can view of the diet—seeking a balance among protein, carbohydrates, and fat—doesn’t make sense. It does. But it’s limited—very limited.

The Chinese and Indian approaches basically say that the body will react in certain ways to certain foods. After all, we have co-evolved with and made use of the plants in our environment throughout the history of our species, so it only stands to reason that we would develop special relationships with some of them, as we have with members of the animal kingdom.

Now contrast that with our notion of modern medicine, which I like to call “better living through chemistry.” Most synthetic drugs have been in use for only a few decades rather than a few thousand years, so the body just isn’t used to handling them as it handles foods.

What’s more, most plant foods contain thousands of bioactive compounds, each of which plays a unique role in the body. By contrast, the viewpoint of modern medicine is that we’re looking for one “silver bullet,” the so-called active ingredient—and all the other helpful compounds in any specific plant are tossed out and forgotten.

I’m not saying that all drugs are bad. In fact, quite the opposite is true: Drugs have saved the lives of many people. But it’s tough to argue with the numbers: Every year, pharmaceuticals kill at least 128,000 people (that we know of) in the United States and cause nearly two million hospitalizations. The number may be even higher. As far back as 2002, the esteemed Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recognized this problem, calling adverse drug reactions “a leading cause of death in the United States.”

Now compare that with herbs and supplements. Altogether, they cause an estimated two to three deaths yearly. The numbers speak for themselves.

The purpose of this book is not to scare you away from taking your medicines. After all, I need to take pharmaceuticals myself every now and then. Rather, what I’m hoping you’ll do is “think outside the pillbox” and realize that by taking a different approach to what you eat, many conditions—and the medicines needed to treat them—can potentially be avoided completely.

The Supplement Scare

As you’ve already seen, supplements have proven safer than pharmaceuticals. However, this doesn’t necessarily place vitamin supplements beyond criticism. Their effectiveness, most notably that of the “big three” antioxidants—vitamins A, C, and E—has come into question in recent years.

In the HOPE (Heart Outcomes Prevention Evaluation) study, nearly 10,000 patients with heart disease or at high risk for heart disease received either 400 IU of vitamin E or a placebo every day for about five years. At the end of the trial, the researchers concluded that vitamin E really didn’t do much better than the placebo at preventing death or other adverse outcomes from heart disease.

Vitamin C is generally considered safe even at high doses (though more than 1,200 milligrams can cause diarrhea in some people). But the effectiveness of “megadosing” with vitamin C for illnesses like colds and flu has come under some fire. As the National Institutes of Health points out, more than 30 clinical trials with more than 10,000 participants have looked into the role of vitamin C in preventing colds, and no significant reduction has been noted. Vitamin C supplements may play a role in reducing the duration of colds, however.

Vitamin A (which exists in foods in the form of pre-vitamin A as well as carotenoids such as beta-carotene) has also been studied in supplement form, and it has shown some effectiveness for some conditions. The evidence indicates, however, that if you smoke or drink alcohol, you may want to steer clear of supplementing with pure beta-carotene, since it could actually increase your risk of lung damage, including even lung cancer.

Again, none of this is meant to scare you away from supplements. Quite the contrary; I take a number of them, and I think that multivitamins are a great means of getting a full complement of healthy nutrients in an economical way. I just find it interesting that when a single, specific bioactive compound is isolated, whether in a pharmaceutical or a supplement, the result is never as dramatic as people expect. That’s because in nature, the compound works in combination with many others to bring healthful benefits to the body. Those combinations exist in only one place—whole foods!

The Food Renaissance

In recent years, you’ve probably noticed that you’re hearing less in nutrition news about familiar nutrients, such as vitamins A, C, and E, and more about exotic-sounding ones, such as astaxanthin, beta-glucan, and lycopene, to name a few. The reason is simple: Researchers are beginning to look beyond the macronutrients in foods, and they’re dis covering micronutrients and phytochemicals.

Some of the benefits these compounds offer stem from their antioxidant potential. In the simplest terms, antioxidants help your body by neutralizing free radicals, unstable oxygen molecules that the body can overproduce after exposure to toxins such as cigarette smoke, pollution, and even unhealthful foods. Beyond their antioxidant potential, many compounds help specific parts of the body remain healthy as well. Beta-carotene, lutein, and zeaxanthin are good for your eyes. Phytoestrogens fight cancer. Capsaicin attacks arthritis pain. The list goes on and on.

The practical result of these new research discoveries is clear: Emphasis is shifting back to eating lots of healthful whole foods, particularly fruits and vegetables. And when the USDA plays along (which they’ve done in their most recent dietary and “MyPlate” guidelines, emphasizing the intake of vegetables and fruits as one of the key eating pat terns for health), you know we’re making progress.

As I said earlier, I believe you can specifically tailor your diet to prevent or even re duce the symptoms related to a number of specific medical conditions—conditions as benign as a flaky scalp or as serious as a heart attack.

Food vs. Pharma

If you think that pharmaceuticals are always more effective than food nutrients at treating medical conditions, you may be in for a surprise. For example, in some studies, ginger has beaten the drug Dramamine as a treatment for motion sickness. A pomegranate is so rich in phytoestrogens that a mere half a fruit can provide the equivalent of a daily dose of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for menopause symptoms (though I wouldn’t yet recommend it as a substitute for HRT). A flavonoid compound in blueberries, pterostil bene, lowered cholesterol as effectively as the commercial drug ciprofibrate (Lipanor) in clinical studies. And I know people who find turmeric, the root from which curry is derived, to be more effective than celecoxib (Celebrex) for treating arthritis pain because of its high levels of COX-2 inhibitors. Likewise, capsaicin, the hot ingredient in chili peppers, is much more potent as a COX-2 inhibitor than the now-banned drug Vioxx.

We’ll have plenty of time to go over all these foods and the conditions they treat in the chapters ahead. First, though, let’s look at an overview of some of the “heavy hitters” of the nutrition world as well as a rundown of some cutting-edge cures that we’ve only recently learned about.

What’s Hot in Foods Now

When it comes to nutritional stars, it’s funny how certain nutrients seem to go in and out of fashion. For a while, vitamins A, C, and E were hot. Now vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, and magnesium are getting all the attention. Next year, it may be something else.

However, just because a nutrient slips out of the limelight doesn’t mean that it’s no longer important to your health. Here’s a quick look at some of the most important ones, from the old standbys to the new stars.

The Old Standbys

Though their reputation has taken a bit of a hit, it’s still important to start any discussion of healing foods with the “big three” antioxidants—vitamins A, C, and E.

Arguably the most famous of the three is vitamin C, found in abundance in foods like bell peppers, papayas, strawberries, and oranges and other citrus fruits. Some exotic fruits, like acerola, camu camu, and emblic, rarely available in North American super markets, may be richer in C. In studies, vitamin C has been linked to the prevention of a number of diseases—most notably heart disease but also some cancers. As a matter of fact, this important nutrient has more than 100 biological activities, with research showing it may work more quickly than other antioxidants, blocking free radicals before others even arrive on the scene.

The Right Kinds of Fats

Aside from abundant amounts of antioxidant nutrients, the other thing that plant foods have going for them is that they’re relatively devoid of the type of fat found in red meat and dairy products, which can harm your heart, and some have fats that are actually good for you. Certain nuts, olive oil, and avocados, for example, have monounsaturated fats, which seem to raise levels of “good” HDL cholesterol and lower “bad” LDL and total cholesterol levels.

Another group of beneficial fats currently getting a lot of attention are the omega-3 fatty acids. Though fatty fish like salmon and tuna are usually cited as the best sources of omega-3’s, the fish actually acquire them by eating primitive plant forms such as algae, which manufacture these acids.

There is a handful of rich plant sources that provide an omega-3 called alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which can offer some but usually not all of the health benefits of the “fishy” omega-3’s. Flaxseed and hemp seed have omega-3’s, specifically ALA, in abundance, but a tastier plant source is walnuts.

Recently I learned that chia, of Chia Pet fame, is even richer in ALA. The Amazonian plant known as sacha inchi, also called Inca peanut (Plukenetia volubilis, not related to the real peanut, Arachis hypogaea), is also an excellent source of ALA. And in my Green Farmacy Garden, there’s a weed that many Asians consume with sushi. It’s called perilla, and it has more ALA than the better-known flaxseed.

The New Stars

For many of you, the information about vitamin C, vitamin E, and omega-3 fatty acids is old news. But how about lutein? Quercetin? Resveratrol? If they’re familiar to you, pat yourself on the back—you’re staying up to date with cutting-edge research on food. And they’re not the only new stars in the healthful nutrition firmament. Among those causing the most excitement are flavonoids.

Flavonoids are a group of bioactive compounds found in plant foods. To date, more than 6,000 different flavonoids have been identified, and that may be just the tip of the proverbial iceberg (and I don’t mean iceberg lettuce, which is much less likely to have them in abundance than more rustic leaf lettuces). Many of these compounds have been shown to have antioxidant as well as anti-inflammatory properties.

With so many potent flavonoids, it would be impossible to touch on all of them, but one you may have heard about are the anthocyanins, the dark pigments in blueberries, blackberries and black raspberries—foods that studies show can improve memory, low er blood pressure and the risk for heart attack, and fight just about every kind of cancer.

Another is quercetin, found in onions and green and black tea, which may play a significant role in cancer prevention.

Beta-carotene may be the star of the carotenoid family, but other carotenoids, such as lycopene, lutein, and zeaxanthin, are also gaining attention. Lycopene, found in tomato products (and interestingly, in higher concentrations in tomato sauces and juices than in whole tomatoes), has gotten the most attention for prostate cancer prevention, though research has called its protective effects into question. Lutein and zeaxanthin, found in leafy greens, seem to be superstars when it comes to protecting the eyes from macular degeneration, a disease that affects a huge number of older adults.

So now that you’ve had a little taste of all the great things hiding in the produce aisles of your supermarket, are you interested in learning more?

For additional advice on foods to eat to help with common health conditions, purchase The Green Pharmacy from

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