Food as Medicine

Hippocrates said “Let food be they medicine, and medicine be thy food.”  At the doctor’s office for my annual checkup I was asked to list any herbs I take and I thought “this should be interesting.”  Sure, I take herbal supplements but what about all the fresh or dried herbs I cook with or drink as tea?  What about Mediterranean herbs in spaghetti, garlic in hummus, basil in pesto, chamomile or mint tea?  What about carrots, sweet potatoes and squash in navy bean soup to boost our immune system and fight off colds?  I asked the doctor if I should list basil in pesto and was told “No, that’s food!” (along with a look that said I must be an idiot).  Well isn’t that the point, that our food is our medicine!

I was watching T.V. and listening to the warnings of side effects from the medicine being advertised, and wondered why people consider the risk worth taking the medicine!  Many food and drugs sold seem to cause health problems.  There’s a phenomenon called ‘prescription cascade’ where one prescription causes side effects that require another prescription, which causes side effects that require another prescription, which causes side effects…. and well, you get the idea.  Nice profit for drug companies and doctors who control the prescriptions.

Our industrial agriculture and food manufacturing practices are making food  with lower nutritional value.  Fresh minimally processed ‘whole’ food contains nutrients important for our health such as calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, beta-carotene, vitamin B-complex, vitamin-C, vitamin-A, and vitamin K, antioxidants, soluble and insoluble fiber.  Processed food has nutritional supplements added back in along with preservatives and artificial color and flavors, and many other food additives.   We no longer think of food as medicine, or expect it to be medicine.  We are more often concerned about the negative aspects, avoiding the unhealthy foods we shouldn’t eat.  Plants have provided our medicine for most of human history.

Humans at some point in our evolution became aware of ‘health’, probably about the same time we began burying our dead and wondered how to avoid this happening to us.  Through trial and error we learned to use plants as medicine along with rituals to heal illness (we also developed a fondness for fermented beverages and other mind altering substances that come from plants, but that’s a different story).   Our ancestors learned the difference between edible and poisonous through trial and error.  Tribal healers, the shaman and wise woman, passed on their knowledge word of mouth.

The formulations for medicines were first recorded on Sumerian cuneiform tablets possibly dating as far back as 6,000 B.C.  A “Historical Overview of Natural Products in Drug Discovery” points out that the Ebers Papyrus (2900 B.C.) was an Egyptian pharmaceutical record documenting over 700 plant-based drugs. The Chinese Materia Medica (1100 B.C.) documents the wide spread use of natural products. The Greek physician, Dioscorides, (100 A.D.), recorded the collection, storage and the uses of medicinal herbs, whilst the Greek philosopher and natural scientist, Theophrastus (~300 B.C.) dealt with medicinal herbs.  “During the Dark and Middle Ages the monasteries in England, Ireland, France and Germany preserved this Western knowledge whilst the Arabs preserved the Greco-Roman knowledge and expanded the uses of their own resources, together with Chinese and Indian herbs unfamiliar to the Greco-Roman world.  It was the Arabs who were the first to privately own pharmacies (8th century) with Avicenna, a Persian pharmacist, physician, philosopher and poet, contributing much to the sciences of pharmacy and medicine through works such as the Canon Medicinae .”

Western pharmacies well into the  20th c. stocked natural plant-based ingredients and the pharmacist knew how to formulate medicines prescribed by physicians.   The modern pharmaceutical industry probably arose from the idea that quality control would make safer medicines.  First they developed manufacturing processes that concentrated and purified active ingredients found in plants; then drugs were synthesized and patented using combinatorial chemistry.  With all the potential side effects of the potent drugs now sold for chronic diseases I wonder if the impetus of profit hasn’t eclipsed the idea of safety in medicine.

There is no doubt that high-quality purified active pharmaceutical agents found in plants, such as salicylic acid in willow bark manufactured into aspirin tablets, were an economical and convenient relief for headaches.  The life-saving nature of penicillin is not in doubt, but feeding sub-therapeutic doses of antibiotics to confined animals is not an appropriate use of these lifesaving drugs.  The practice is leading to antibiotic resistant bacteria that are again threatening health.  Think of hospitals becoming a widespread source of life threatening infections and ask yourself what will happen to common practices such as joint replacement.

The creation of industrial agriculture and food processing has resulted in significant negative impacts on health and food security.  We see greater levels of food insecurity even in the U.S., higher rates of chronic disease, more environmental degradation, and diminished economic opportunities.  We see the erosion of culture in developing countries pressured to become part of the global industrial agriculture system.  A report published by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems found “The health impacts of food systems disproportionately affect the most vulnerable in our communities, and are compounded by climate change, poverty, inequality, poor sanitation, and the prevalent disconnect between food production and consumption.  The true costs of these impacts are staggering.”

According the Centers for Disease Control “Heart Disease and Stroke Cost America Nearly $1 Billion a Day in Medical Costs, Lost Productivity” .  This is about the same amount of money Americans spend on food each day.  Heart disease is doubling the cost of our food.  If we add the cost of treating other chronic diseases, the cost of transportation to distribute and warehouse the food, the electricity to refrigerate it, and the 30% of food that is wasted in our system, we begin to appreciate just how high is the cost of our current food system.

How can we change this system?  We first need to change our point of view.  It’s clear that modern industrial agriculture is unsustainable without the inputs of machines, oil and agrochemicals.  It’s clear industrial agriculture is damaging the environment.  It’s clear that climate change and regional population instability  are endangering food supply and distribution. We need to move away from the industrial food processing system.  The American healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, more than double that of other developed countries.  And our health care system isn’t making us healthy; in fact, our lifespan is going down.  Americans are becoming increasingly less and less healthy.  Chronic diseases are affecting a larger percentage of our population at a lower age.  Medical treatments that worked for older aged people with Type II diabetes are not working for adolescents with the disease.  We need to see food as medicine and demand better quality food.

Whole foods may take a bit longer to prepare into a meal but that improves with practice.  It takes less than an hour to make a pot of homemade soup in a pressure cooker, the ingredients are less expensive, and I use less energy too.  Cooking requires the investment of kitchen tools, but one can start small and add more later.  None of these changes are difficult.  The attraction to cooking shows is growing.  YouTube, T.V., and farmers market cooking demonstrations are widely popular.

Cooking with whole food is healthier and less expensive. Bulk dried beans and grains are much less expensive than canned or prepared products that contain them.   It’s easy to grow a few herbs and greens in a small garden even in pots on a patio.  Fresh, high quality produce from the grocery store doesn’t have to be expensive.  Seasonal sources of regional food are often carried as ‘lost leaders’ in grocery stores.  In September, Fall apples from Michigan become plentiful and inexpensive in Indiana.

If we factor in the savings in health care bills we really see an improvement in our economics.  The biggest change may be adjusting to the taste of fresh food.  Processed food contains high levels of salt, sugar, and fat.  The addictive nature of these food additives is part of their design, keeping us coming back for more.  Reducing salt, sugar, and fat in our diet will improve our health and reduce chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease.  With time we find that salt and sugar only mask the wonderful flavor of fresh food.   Eating whole foods prepared by hand tastes better and makes us feel better.

Learning to use plants (herbs) for cooking was surprisingly easy.  The first herbs I grew were for the kitchen; cilantro for salsa, dill for pickles, chives for salad dressing, basil for pesto, and oregano, savory, and marjoram for Italian dishes.  Eventually I became interested in herbs for tea; chamomile, sage, hyssop, and lemon balm.  This led me to medicinal herbs and ‘alternative medicine’.  Then I became interested edible wild food, the unintentional plants or ‘weeds’ that grew around my yard and garden; dandelion, plantain, stinging nettle, burdock, chickweed, purslane, lamb’s quarter, and mullein.  I began learning about their nutritional and medicinal value, for example calcium in lamb’s quarter, antioxidants and protein in stinging nettle.

A spring dish made from young lamb’s quarter fried with garlic in olive oil or butter is as tasty as asparagus or spinach.  I love handing friends visiting my garden a handful of young lambs’ quarter and suggesting they take it home and fry it with garlic.  They are always surprised asking “Isn’t that a weed?” but later tell me how good it tasted.  Yes, it’s a weed, which makes it an ideal source of wild food because it grows freely and is tolerant of drought.  As the plant ages its leaves concentrate minerals making it an excellent source of calcium.  Fed to chickens it makes their shells stronger.  Fresh or dried added to soups it makes our bones stronger.  And it is much easier for our body to utilize the calcium from our food than from a tablet made from oyster shells or limestone (calcium carbonate).  Lastly, it makes wonderful compost when you throw it on a pile at the edge of the garden.  And all these benefits are free!

Understanding the medicinal value of wild plants comes in handy.  Imagine you’re outside and someone gets stung by a bee.  You pick a few plantain leaves from ground you know hasn’t been sprayed, chew them and apply the green mush to the sting, relieving the pain almost instantly.  The first time I did this to my son he was skeptical but the relief of his pain overcame his disgust.  A year or so later when it happened again he yelled “Mom, get some of that green stuff!”  I’m sure the idea of chewing up a weed and mashing it on your skin may seem unappealing to most people, unless you are an avid hiker.  Most people have never been made aware of what plants can do, instead we’ve been conditioned to fear plants as toxic, to think every weed has to be sprayed or eliminated.  If our food doesn’t come packaged from the store how do we know it is safe to eat?  Learning to grow plants, to identify and forage for wild plants, to understand food as medicine is a valuable skill that will become increasingly important as our industrial agriculture, food and healthcare systems fail.

Cooking and eating whole, nutritious food along with the use of plants as medicine, flavorings, fibers, filters, dyes, etc…is the story of human evolution.  Humans bonded over the sharing of food and medicine (and fermented brews).  I think it may have been one of the more important advances (right after learning to use fire or rocks as tools) that helped us move from being socially bonded ‘primates’ foraging for food into something humans call community; the sharing of food cooked over a ‘hearth’.  Food is medicine and essential for life.  It is essential for good health.  Growing food, cooking and sharing it makes healthy people, homes and communities.  Thinking this way will be the path to our future civilization beyond industrial agriculture.

4 Replies to “Food as Medicine”

  1. I had heard that about plantain but haven’t had the situation to actually put it into practice yet. I suppose I should just do a practice run so I have muscle memory to remind me what to do.

    I’ll never forget the day I was sitting in a philosophy seminar and one of my fellow students said that his natural environment was the Safeway store. On the one hand he was self-aware about it, but on the other it was just too sad.

  2. Michelle,
    I’m sure your landscape has many different types of plants than I see in my landscape. I’d be curious if there are any records of herbalists that would know about your native plants.

    It is rather sad to think someone may have never experienced contact with a natural environment. Sometimes I take it for granted that everyone has had the good fortune of growing up exploring woods, pastures, lakes, and creeks.


  3. I enjoyed reading this post, it captured, expressed and put into words in a well thought out manner so many of my own jumbled thoughts on these issues of how we humans have drifted away from Nature. Thank you for sharing! Very stimulating.

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