Alessandra Felice prescribes the foods that are medicines available without prescription.
Recent years have seen an increased interest in superfoods, adaptogens and medicinal foods as we are more and more aware of how what we eat and assimilate affects every aspect of our physical and psychological health.
There is actually an expanding scientific field called nutrigenomics, which studies how food influences gene expressions and contributes to either health or to disease and how a healthy, but also personalised, diet can be used to prevent and mitigate chronic diseases. It should consequently not come as a surprise how many foods and ingredients, which you may already use everyday, contain specific compounds that give them medicinal properties that can protect against diseases and help to slow the effects of ageing. Here’s a list of some of our favourite sources of plant medicine…
Turmeric has been used in India and South East Asia for thousands of years as a spice and medicinal herb. There are bio-active compounds in turmeric, known as curcuminoids, and the one most studied for its medicinal properties and benefits, is called curcumin.
The most powerful aspect of curcumin is that it possesses anti-inflammatory and anti-arthritic properties. One highly bio-available form of curcumin was found to be more effective in alleviating rheumatoid arthritis symptoms than common non steroid anti-inflammatory drugs.
One of the more widely accepted properties of curcumin in scientific communities is in fact its ability to manage pain by blocking inflammatory pathways messengers, and so it can be useful for a variety of conditions. For example, people with chronic digestive conditions, such as IBS, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, can dramatically improve symptoms and reduce the use of prescribed corticosteroids that may reduce pain, but damage the intestinal lining over time, actually making the condition worse.
As turmeric benefits include anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, it can be effective in treating skin conditions too. It could help speed up wound healing, calming the pores to decrease acne and scarring, and soothing psoriasis flares.
Of course, most of the studies on this herb were made using turmeric extracts that contain mostly curcumin itself, with dosages usually exceeding 1 gram per day. It’s difficult to reach these levels from the turmeric spice in your foods, but that doesn’t mean using it in your favourite veggie curry or enjoying a warming golden milk won’t have daily health benefits. Just remember to always consume black pepper with it, which contains piperine, as curcumin is poorly absorbed into the bloodstream.
When using supplements in high dosage, consult a doctor or qualified nutritionist. People taking certain medications should be careful as turmeric may interfere with anti-coagulants, non-steroidal and anti-inflammatory drugs.
Ginger is another plant that has a very long history of being used as traditional and alternative medicine to help digestion, reduce nausea or help fight colds and influenza. You can find it in numerous forms like fresh, dried, pickled, preserved and powdered.
The main bio-active compound responsible for its medicinal properties is gingerol, one of the natural oils contained in this root.
The most common and well-known use of ginger is its ability to alleviate symptoms of nausea and vomiting thanks to its carminative (it can break up and expel intestinal gas) and anti-spasmodic properties. Ginger is commonly recommended for preventing seasickness, morning sickness during pregnancy and may also relieve nausea and vomiting after undergoing surgery or chemotherapy.
But the main property of gingerol is anti-inflammatory, which, just as with turmeric, can be effective in managing and lessening arthritic pain and reducing pain medication usage.
Gingerol extracts were reported to exhibit analgesic and potent anti-inflammatory effects and ginger oil administered orally can cause a significant reduction of joint swelling. A combination of ginger, mastic, cinnamon and sesame oil, can reduce pain and stiffness in osteoarthritis patients when applied topically.
Several mushroom species have long been used throughout Asia for medicinal purposes, as they are known to have various therapeutic properties. Many scientific studies confirmed the traditional uses and demonstrated their health benefits that include antioxidant and anti-hypertensive properties, liver protection, anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-microbial properties.
Medicinal mushrooms such as reishi, chaga, maitake and lion’s mane stimulate macrophages and increase levels of tumor-necrosis factor and interleukins (both anti-inflammatory compounds) as well as T and B lymphocytes. For example, shiitake mushrooms are known to increase T cells, natural-killer T-cells, and anti-inflammatory cytokines levels. Plus, they seem to improve athletic performance and enhance oxygenation of the blood, so a nice mushroom coffee could be an ideal drink before or after your workout.
It’s important to choose organically grown mushrooms, as they absorb and concentrate everything from the soil they are grown in, such as heavy metals, air and water pollutants.
This plant doesn’t just add the most delicious flavour to your meals, but also has great medical properties, well known since ancient times.
Most of the positive health effects are caused by one of the sulfur compounds formed when a garlic clove is chopped, crushed or chewed. This compound is known as allicin, the same one responsible for the pungent smell.
Even though we usually just eat garlic, allicin can travel from the digestive tract and exert its strong biological effects around the whole body.
Garlic supplementation is known to boost the immune system’s function and daily garlic extract supplementation can reduce the number and length of colds and the re-occurrence of flu.
Some studies have also found garlic supplementation to have a positive impact on reducing blood pressure in people with hypertension. Of course, this effect would be hard to reach with fresh garlic consumption, so it needs to be prescribed in an extract form. For this reason, people currently taking other high blood pressure and anti-coagulant medications should be very careful with garlic supplementation.
Also, because of its anti-viral and anti-fungal qualities, garlic can be used to improve candida infections and garlic oil can be applied to the skin or nails to treat fungal infections. Why not have your apple-a-day and add a clove-a-day to keep the doctor away? Have it fresh in salad dressing or sauces and add it to soups and roasted veggies.
This deliciously sweet spice is not only the best tasting and smelling ingredient to add to hot chocolate, cookies, desserts and teas, but it’s also packed with a variety of protective antioxidant compounds that have potent anti-inflammatory activity.
The reduction of inflammation means that cinnamon oil and extract can be beneficial in the case of chronic pains such as migraines and arthritis, as cinnamon can promote blood circulation, which helps stimulate and push circulation to the nerves and joints.
Whether it’s used as a tea, oil or extract, cinnamon contains high amounts of the active compound called cinnamaldehyde, the one that possesses medicinal properties. In fact, this spice in a concentrated supplement form is well-known to help manage blood sugar levels by improving insulin resistance.
Cinnamon works directly on muscle cells, forcing them to remove sugar from the bloodstream, where it is converted to energy by interfering with numerous digestive enzymes that slow down the breakdown of carbohydrates in the digestive tract. Plus, cinnamon has been proven to fight fungal, bacterial and viral elements in foods, and in ayurvedic medicine it’s used to improve lung congestion issues, since it helps to clear up mucus and encourages circulation.
Again, the medicinal effects can be seen with a dose that’s probably higher than your daily consumption, but making this spice part of meals, adding it to both sweet and savoury dishes, will please both palate and health.
Clove is another aromatic spice that can be used to add flavour to stews and roasts, but also to bring a seasonal spiciness to cookies and cakes. It’s a cooking staple in India, where traditional ayurvedic medicine uses it for its potent medicinal qualities, such as anti-fungal, antibacterial, antiseptic and analgesic. Clove essential oil has been shown to have antimicrobial properties, stopping the growth of and killing common types of bacteria, as well as promoting oral health.
It’s especially good to alleviate toothache pain, just by dabbing a little clove oil on a cotton ball and placing it on the aching tooth.
Clove tea is prepared as an ayurvedic remedy to prevent colds and flu and improve sore throat symptoms, along with alleviating vomiting, stomach issues, gas and diarrhoea by relaxing the gut lining and muscles. Plus, as a topical treatment, clove oil can be added to massage balms to ease sore muscles and lessen arthritic and rheumatic pain.
Ginseng has been used for centuries in Chinese medicine as it’s thought to be a general tonic for the promotion of vitality, health and longevity. There are two main types of ginseng: Asian or Korean ginseng (panax ginseng) and American ginseng, which have different benefits, but in traditional Chinese medicine American ginseng is considered less valuable and potent.
The main active ingredients responsible for its medicinal actions are called ginsenosides, which seem to have anti-inflammatory effects by targeting pathways in the immune system that could reduce inflammation.
Ginseng is commonly known to be stimulating for the nervous system and improve focus and concentration, but the high antioxidant compounds content may also reduce accumulation of plaque and free radicals in the brain, which could lower the risk of developing cognitive disorders.
A few studies suggest that ginseng has also been useful to manage diabetic conditions, because ginsenosides may stabilise blood glucose levels by affecting insulin production in the pancreas and improving insulin resistance.
As always, it’s very important to exert caution with supplementing high doses of ginseng root extract as it can alter the effects of blood pressure, diabetes and heart medications, as well as increasing the risk of bleeding when taking blood thinners, so always consult a doctor or nutritional professional beforehand.
Resveratrol is a plant compound found in foods such as grapes, red wine and various berries, which is concentrated mostly in the skins and seeds of these fruits.
It has been widely studied because of its concentrated amount of antioxidant compounds and found beneficial in protecting brain function and lowering blood pressure, having pharmacological properties such as cardio-protection, reduction of free radicals, and inhibition of COX and hydroperoxidase (enzymes involved in inflammatory pathways).
The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity of resveratrol may help slow down age-related cognitive decline by interfering with protein particles called beta-amyloids, which are used for the formation of plaques and help prevent damage to the brain cells.
But these antioxidant qualities also make resveratrol a great aid in the management of hypertension, as it seems to be able to increase the production of nitric oxide, a compound that causes blood vessels to relax. Systolic blood pressure typically goes up with age as arteries stiffen.
Enjoying red wine in moderation with a meal, as Mediterraneans do, may not be such a bad idea after all.
Tea tree oil
Even though this oil can’t be used as a food ingredient, being highly toxic when ingested, it can be widely used as a topical treatment. Tea tree oil contains a number of compounds called terpinens that have been shown to kill certain bacteria, viruses and fungi.
It’s a perfect remedy for fungal nail infections by using a few drops of tea tree oil alone or mixed with an equal amount of coconut oil.
The same properties make it great for treating bacterial and fungal skin conditions, preventing infection and stimulating skin structure and scar healing. Several studies have shown that it helps reduce the amount and overall severity of acne and also may help relieve inflamed skin caused by contact dermatitis, alleviating pain symptoms.
Plus, if you like to use natural cleaning methods, thanks to its antimicrobial abilities, it can be also used to create your own homemade cleaning products.
Probiotics have seen a huge rise in popularity in recent years, and with good reason. Foods like fermented veggies, water kefir, kombucha and pickles are known to be beneficial for optimal digestion, but probiotics medicinal properties go beyond that.
In fact, a huge amount of conditions have their root causes in poor gut health, including thyroid imbalances, chronic fatigue, joint pain, skin issues, anxiety, depression or food allergies, because gut microbes are also involved in immune system and inflammatory processes, cognitive function and neurotransmitter production as well.
An alteration in the balance between intestinal immunity and microbiome may change the equilibrium of pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokines, promoting an increase in systemic inflammation and consequently an impaired immune function.
Probiotics have also been proven to have benefits for skin health, improving atopic eczema, wound and scar healing, and skin structure, by taking them orally or applying them topically.
Most recently the greatest attention has been put on the connection between gut and brain through the vagus nerve. There has been increasing evidence showing that alterations in the gut microbiome can affect brain function because of this gut-brain axis connection, which means that its modulation could be a potential therapeutic solution to help disorders like anxiety and depression.
Alessandra Felice (ND Dip CNM)
Alessandra is a nutritional therapist and medicinal chef, who trained with the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts in New York and the College of Naturopathic Medicine in London.