If Hippocrates, the man who said “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food,” was around today he’d be dancing a jig for joy. There is change afoot. So many more people today are interested in eating fresh, good produce; millions of dollars are being invested into research on the health benefits of food and plants; and, most interestingly, more people are becoming disenchanted with popping pills for a quick fix and believe that what we eat can influence our wellbeing. Good health should be our natural condition. Illness is a sign of imbalance. If a good diet, exercise and emotional wellbeing are not enough to redress this imbalance, only then medicine may be required. Plant medicine and the food we eat are humankind’s oldest forms of healing.
Unlike today’s mainstream medicine, which is often concerned with treating one symptom in isolation, plant medicine is focused on harnessing the body’s innate urge towards wellness, also known as life force. For instance, for a chest cold, rather than treating it with antibiotics, plants such as garlic may not only act as an antibiotic (ie kill the germs), but also increase the activity of the body’s immune system, helping to beat the infection and ward off future ones. This is not to say that antibiotics are not indicated in many conditions, but it’s rather nice to have options. Natural medicine, in general, aims at treating the cause of illness, as well as the symptoms.
The power of plants
A number of pharmaceutical drugs used today started life inside a plant, including aspirin (from meadowsweet and willow bark). The original plant material has been transformed into very small compounds that can often be created synthetically in a laboratory. The resulting pharmacological preparation, which may cause side effects, bears no resemblance to the original plant.
Naturopaths believe the healing power of plants and natural foods is down to more than just one chemical, no matter how marvellous that chemical can seem in experiments. They believe there is a greater power in using the synergy of the whole flower, fruit, root, leaves or indeed the whole plant. In other words, the total beneficial effect of the plant is often greater than the sum of the individual chemical parts. So under that school of thought, the solution is simple: eat vegetables, fruit, herbs and spices; consume them as they grow from the soil; and use them as your medicine.
One such vegetable that fits the bill is broccoli. Broccoli mania swept the world in the early 1990s after a study published by Paul Talalay from the Johns Hopkins Hospital showed that people who regularly eat broccoli may significantly reduce their risk of developing cancer, particularly breast and prostate cancer. The sharp, almost mustardy, taste and sulphurous smell of broccoli is due to a group of naturally occurring compounds called glucosinolates, specifically isothiocyanates and indoles.
These smelly compounds work in various ways in the body. One is by helping the liver to detoxify and eliminate cancer- forming substances (carcinogens), another is to protect DNA and cell walls from carcinogenic damage. Glucosinolates are common throughout the brassica group, which also includes cabbage, cauliflower, turnip, brussels sprouts and gai lan.
Sulforaphane, also a cancer-inhibiting substance found in broccoli, has been found to suppress the growth of the bacteria Helicobacter pylori, responsible for gastritis and stomach ulcers. Broccoli has a very low GI, making it an excellent vegetable for controlling or helping to prevent diabetes.
Apart from being an indispensable ingredient in any tasty meal, garlic is one of the most therapeutic foods you can eat.
Garlic has several roles in healing, the main being as a broad- spectrum antimicrobial. Effective against bacteria, fungi, intestinal parasites, worms and viruses, it can also boost the immune system. Garlic is brilliant in treating and helping to prevent coughs and colds, as well as other infections, including thrush. Allied to this antibiotic role is its action as a “mucolytic” herb, meaning it reduces mucous viscosity (thickness), allowing mucus to be easily coughed up or blown out. A second major role is as an agent against heart disease. Garlic helps reduce cholesterol, especially the “bad” LDL variety, as well as lowering other risk factors including high blood pressure and blood fats (triglycerides).
Garlic reveals its unmistakable fragrance when crushed or cut. This is due to the release of an enzyme (alliinase) which converts one non-smelly substance (alliin) to a smelly one (allicin). Allicin is behind most of garlic’s therapeutic power.
Another role garlic plays is helping detoxify the body against heavy metal toxicity, including lead, mercury and cadmium. It also has a role in reducing the harmful effects of radiation, including radiotherapy for cancer. Garlic will not reduce the effectiveness of the treatment, but may help to reduce any collateral harm to healthy tissue. Garlic is also a powerful antioxidant, which could be behind why it may help prevent certain cancers. Garlic is also a rich source of nutrients, including calcium, phosphorus, iron and vitamins B1 and C.
Chillies are another ingredient with health benefits. The red-hot sensation you feel when biting into a chilli releases endorphins, the brain’s happy hormones. Capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the heat of chillies, and for many of their medicinal actions, is without odour and flavour; nevertheless, you certainly know it’s there.
Chillies are excellent for restoring poor circulation, warming cold hands and feet, and improving the flow of blood around the body. Studies have shown that eating chillies aids in weight loss. They do this in two ways: firstly by increasing the body’s metabolic rate, which governs how quickly we burn kilojoules, and secondly, eating a meal with chilli has a satiating effect — one feels fuller quicker. Chillies are also good for clearing congestion of the lungs, nose and sinuses. When nerves in the stomach sense the presence of capsaicin, they communicate this information to the respiratory system via the brain, culminating in a hot flash which helps clear stuffed sinuses and congested lungs.
Gingerly does it
In China, ginger is known as “king of the stomach”. It is indeed a digestive tonic par excellence, known to reduce nausea and bloating and aid digestion. Perhaps best known for its role in treating nausea and vomiting, ginger is recommended for morning sickness, motion sickness – in fact, any time anyone feels queasy. Sipping a hot ginger and honey drink can bring great comfort when you are nauseous.
Ginger regulates peristalsis, the rhythmic downward movement of the muscular wall that lines the entire digestive system. This regulation and relaxation of the muscle wall, as well as the fact that ginger is extremely anti-inflammatory and antispasmodic, enables it to help calm all sorts of cramping conditions of the bowel, including irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhoea. The other muscle ginger helps soothe is the uterus, making it an excellent medicine for period cramps.
In addition to its impressive digestive powers, ginger helps to lower cortisol levels in the body. Cortisol is the “other” stress hormone — adrenaline’s less well-known cousin. Cortisol is released from the adrenal glands in response to chronic stress, whether from lack of sleep, illness or emotional distress.
Anything that reduces cortisol (like meditation) is to be encouraged, as long-term stress – and high cortisol levels – is behind many illnesses.
Ginger is also an excellent tonic for the circulation, assisting the flow of blood. Regular ingestion of ginger will help those who can’t abide the cold and is a wonderful medicine, alongside chilli, for those who suffer from chilblains. Ginger has been shown to reduce blood stickiness and cholesterol, both heart disease risk factors.
Ginger is anti-inflammatory, good for back pain, period pain, in fact any joint or muscle pain. Compresses (hot packs) have been used for centuries for immediate and effective first aid relief.
To create your own compress, follow these simple instructions: Grate half a cup of ginger into a kitchen wipe. Fold to make a parcel. Place in a shallow bowl and pour over enough boiling water to submerge. Wait until bearably hot then gingerly pick up the compress and place wherever the pain is. Cover with a tea towel, then wrap with plastic wrap. Keep warm and rest for 20 minutes. By the time you have unpeeled the compress, your pain may well have completely reduced.
Bees collect nectar from various flowering plants, and fly it back to the hive where the nectar evaporates, leaving honey. The properties of the plants give honey its distinctive smell (eg lavender), taste (eg leatherwood) and medicinal powers (eg tea tree or manuka).
Honey works differently to antibiotics, which directly attack the bacteria and their metabolic pathways. Rather, honey is hygroscopic, meaning that due to its high sugar content it draws moisture out of the environment (the wound), dehydrating the bacteria when applied topically. In addition, honey has small amounts of hydrogen peroxide, which works like a traditional antibiotic. And, if the honey is gathered from a plant with antibiotic properties, such as tea tree or manuka, the honey may contain those antibiotic properties. Studies done at the University of Bonn, which have proven the effectiveness of honey for wound healing, used a standardised product created from honey made from such plants.
Honey also contains fructooligosaccharides (FOS), a type of sugar that is not absorbed across the digestive tract. Although not used for energy, this is a happy circumstance as FOS is a prebiotic (food for good bugs in the intestine), particularly for our good friends bifidus and acidophilus.
Another sweet solution comes in the form of berries. The story goes that the RAF fighter pilots who preferred bilberry jam on their scones during World War II were blessed with improved vision on their night-time forays. Tall tale or not, bilberries are indeed good for eyesight. Although the main studies into vision have been focused on bilberries, their close relatives, blueberries, contain similar antioxidants which have the same medicinal effect.
The almost blue-black colour of bilberries and blueberries, and indeed the hues of all berries, is due to a range of anthocyanins, powerful antioxidants with a particular influence on arteries, veins and especially the small blood vessels called capillaries.
By strengthening and repairing capillaries, anthocyanins are helpful in a variety of conditions, including helping to prevent and treat the side effects of diabetes such as retinopathy and male impotence. Additionally, they may help to prevent strokes and atherosclerosis.