My parents used to say “listen to your elders”as if they had some kind of knowledge only their generation understood. But maybe there’s something to that wisdom, especially when it comes to healing the body. After all, Hippocrates, the Greek physician and “father of Western medicine,” said, “Let medicine be thy food and let food be thy medicine.” Science has proven what our elders have known for thousands of years: that certain foods can naturally help prevent and treat disease. Here are six healing foods with medicinal superpowers.
Mushrooms have been recognized as medicinally powerful for five millennia: the ancient Egyptians regarded them as plants of immortality. But it wasn’t until the last third of the past century that technology allowed us to study their most active anticancer components.
There are over 100 species of mushrooms worldwide, and all are packed with antioxidants, fiber, protein, selenium, vitamins B and D, copper and potassium. Mushrooms contain beta-glucans, shown to reduce inflammation and aid immune function. Possibly the most notable finding is how they apparently fight hormonerelated cancer. Mushrooms contain a class of proteins called lectins that bind cancer cells and flag the immune system to destroy them.
UC Berkeley’s Parris Kidd wrote in a 2018 publication that “in Japanese trials since 1970, polysaccharide-K [a component of the mushroom Trametes versicolor] significantly extended survival at five years or beyond in cancers of the stomach, colon-rectum, esophagus, nasopharynx, and lung (non-small cell types) and in an HLA B40-positive breast cancer subset” and that “more than 50 mushroom species have yielded potential immunoceuticals that exhibit anticancer activity in vitro or in animal models and of these, six have been investigated in human cancers.”
Ginger root, “the universal medicine,” has played a significant role in the ancient practices of Ayurveda and Chinese medicine. Gingerol, the primary bioactive compound found in ginger, is responsible for most of its medicinal properties, not to mention its unique fragrance and flavor.
Ginger is a potent anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anticarcinogen. It also supports the circulatory, digestive and respiratory systems. According to the National Institutes of Health, ginger may lessen heart disease risk factors by lowering blood sugar levels. It’s a common remedy for all forms of nausea, it may relieve vomiting after surgery or chemotherapy, and it’s extremely effective in minimizing morning sickness and indigestion. Also, a clinical study found that one gram of ginger powder per day was as effective as ibuprofen in combating menstrual pain without any adverse effects.
Joint and muscle pain and swelling may also be alleviated by ginger, and it has been used to treat arthritis and to fight the flu and the common cold. Also, it significantly reduced LDL lipoprotein (“bad” cholesterol) and triglycerides and increased HDL (“good” cholesterol) in a 45-day, double-blind clinical trial in which 85 individuals with high cholesterol were given just three grams of ginger powder versus placebo, according to the NIH.
Turmeric, a plant common in South Asia and India, might be the most potent of all the healing foods: it has been a staple of Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. Its key component, curcumin, has significant antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties. It also detoxifies the liver, is a natural painkiller, promotes fat loss, reduces oxidative stress and is an excellent wound antiseptic.
Clinical studies have shown that turmeric may be an effective neuroprotectant against several neurodegenerative diseases. In a recent clinical trial at UCLA’s Longevity Center, patients with mild cognitive impairment (a possible precursor to or risk indicator for Alzheimer’s) who were treated with curcumin had significant improvements in memory and attention and better mood, and their brain PET scans showed appreciably less amyloid/tau plaque than those who took placebos.
Turmeric’s most impressive health benefit might be its cancer-fighting potential. Multiple studies suggest it’s effective in decreasing brain tumor size in animals. Researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center have shown it acts via multiple mechanisms to kill cancer cells. And its excellent safety profile along with its remarkable antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties make it a unique candidate for use in cancer prevention.
Throughout ancient and modern history, garlic has long been prescribed for a wide range of conditions and illnesses. Egyptian records attest to its consumption more than 5,000 years ago. It can be eaten either raw or cooked and may have significant antibiotic properties.
In a recent study, the essential compound in garlic was found to be 100 times more effective than two popular antibiotics in fighting the Campylobacter bacterium, one of the most common causes of intestinal infections. It has been linked to low risks of gastrointestinal cancers, owing to its ability to modulate numerous biological mechanisms. A study published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention concluded, “Allium vegetables, especially garlic, are related to a decreased risk of prostate cancer.” Garlic is valued for prevention of breast and lung cancer as well.
Further, it has been shown to reduce high cholesterol levels and blood pressure in patients with hypertension and is widely considered effective in combating several conditions linked to the diseases of the blood system and the heart, including atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), high cholesterol, heart attack, coronary heart disease and hypertension. Garlic even has the potential to fight infections like herpes, MRSA, streptococcus and influenza.
5. Sea Vegetables
Sea vegetables, better known as seaweeds, are potent health boosters. While seaweed has attracted much renewed interest in the West, its consumption dates back to 300 B.C. in both China and Japan.
Seaweed provides substantial healing benefits to the endocrine system and especially the thyroid. It contains tyrosine and is an excellent source of iodine, both of which are essential for production of crucial hormones to maintain healthy thyroid function; the iodine also helps protect against radiation (which can cause disruption of the hypothalamus, pituitary and pineal glands) and potent viruses such as Epstein-Barr.
Moreover, seaweed contains a wide range of antioxidants, such as vitamins A, C and E, carotenoids and flavonoids, that protect against cell damage. It’s an excellent source of fiber and polysaccharides that promote digestive health, enhance the growth of “good” bacteria and enrich the gut’s epithelial cell lining. And in Alzheimer’s studies using animal models, seaweeds were found to inhibit the aggregation of beta-amyloid and the formation of amyloid plaques in the cerebral cortex of the brain, suggesting the potential to improve cognitive function.
Early Mayans viewed cacao as “food of the gods”; it was such a hot commodity that the Aztecs traded it for currency and the Spanish reserved it for serving hot chocolate in the royal courts.
Cacao contains phytochemicals, such as procyanidins, flavanols and flavonoids, which may have cardioprotective effects. According to the NIH, cacao’s antioxidants protect neurons, enhance cognition and lift mood. It can help prevent and treat allergies, anxiety, cancers, hyperglycemia inflammatory conditions and oxidative injuries and can combat insulin resistance. Raw cacao may even help slow premature aging, via the same beneficial antioxidants found in green tea and red wine, and it protects cells from untimely death.
A Harvard University study showed women who consumed more than nine grams of chocolate daily had cut their risk of hemorrhagic stroke by half, compared to women who ate minimal or no chocolate. And researchers at Brigham Young University discovered that a substance in cacao known as epicatechin may prevent and treat type 2 diabetes by helping the body release more insulin and respond more efficiently to increased blood glucose. Several studies have associated high levels of cacao consumption with a lower risk of developing heart irregularity and atrial fibrillation.
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Plant Good Vibes”.