In contrast to the pharmaceutically driven healthcare system we know in America today, there exists a long-lived traditional medicine system that abides by this philosophical advice: “All that a man needs for health and healing has been provided by God in nature.” Since the dawn of time, many cultures spanning the globe have harvested and utilized plants as a primary approach to health care. As time progressed, so did knowledge regarding what plants would medicate the common cold, a headache or sore joints and also what plants were important to include as part of a healthy and balanced diet. Herbs and spices were trusted for disease resolve, and “eat your fruits and vegetables” became a common-sense phrase. While many still depend on a clean diet and natural remedies to cure ailments, the pressure to take a pill instead has never been greater.
In recent years, America has come to face a disease epidemic like never before. Obesity, diabetes, cancer and heart disease rates have skyrocketed, along with costs of medicating these diseases. Research shows that common contributors to these infirmities are inflammation and harmful molecules called free radicals, which arise out of many cellular processes as we age.1 These conditions are each influenced by diet, and doctors are coming to realize that our ancestral physicians possessed a vital yet simple principle of health: If we get back to our roots, the fruits of the earth may provide protection from disease.
The question becomes, why is our nation suddenly so burdened by disease if our grandparents and their parents tended to gardens that supplied produce and grains each week? It seems that fresh plant foods were pushed to the side of the dinner plate during the industrial revolution, when the goal was to put more food on the shelves in the fastest and cheapest way possible. The quantity of spinach, broccoli, apples, oranges and potatoes – one ingredient “whole” foods – we were consuming became minute in proportion to other foods we were eating, many of which we couldn’t name the ingredients in if we tried. Fatty meats, refined grains and added sugars invaded breakfast, lunch and dinner, and many of those meals are now prepared for us long before they reach market shelves. Concealed from the consumer, chemicals are added to prepackaged items to alter flavor and color and to preserve the ingredients for a long shelf life. Unfortunately, many of these additives have been proved to cause cancer and reproductive issues.2 Nonetheless, fast food and frozen meals are convenient, which is a shame, considering the plethora of cancer-fighting, antibacterial and antioxidant properties found in the fresh plant foods that come straight from the earth.
As citizens have gained awareness of the dangerous substances hidden in our food, a demand for transparency has inspired research on the disease-fighting agents found naturally in plants. Science shows that the most acclaimed super-molecules that protect and nourish us, called phytonutrients, are found in all fruits, vegetables, legumes, herbs, and roots.3 Some phytonutrients act in our cells to destroy the free radicals that damage our DNA, leading to many health benefits. Cancer cells are discouraged from forming, and the negative effects of aging, including vision and hearing problems, joint deterioration, energy loss and brain fog, are prevented.4 Other phytonutrients specifically combat inflammation, helping to heal aches and pains. They also soothe fatigue and provide a boost of immunity against invading bacteria and viruses.
The benefits of these natural healing compounds seem endless, and trendy diet corporations are quick to exploit them. It’s not uncommon to see ads for all-inclusive, disease-fighting, super-food smoothies or supplement blends at a lofty price. Fortunately for our wallets, all that we need may lie in the produce aisle. Research indicates that in order to reap the benefits of phytonutrients, consumers ought to eat five to 10 servings of various fruits and vegetables daily to reduce the risk of chronic diseases and to promote good health.5 By making an effort to adopt a clean diet, rich in colorful plants, it’s possible that many people could eventually abandon their pill bottles and the side effects that tag along.
It can be overwhelming, and frightening, for someone to contemplate lifestyle changes that involve altering their diet. However, it doesn’t have to be complicated; many of the health benefits from phytonutrients can be accessed more easily than expected. For millennia, culinary artists have used spices to diversify the flavor and zest of their dishes. Now, science is finding that many spices offer more than a savory treat for the palate. Each of the following are commonly grown throughout Georgia’s variable climates and may be found in root or powder form at the grocery store.
In both its raw and cooked forms, the sulfurous compounds that give garlic its pungent taste have been found to kill cancerous cells, act more effectively than mainstream antibiotics, protect the heart from diabetes-induced dysfunction, lower cholesterol and blood pressure and stimulate the immune system.6
This spice has been shown to alleviate the nausea and vomiting of those with a stomach bug, who are pregnant, or who are undergoing chemotherapy. Ginger is also used as a natural alternative to Dramamine for those prone to motion sickness. Other studies support ginger’s ability to prevent colon cancer and to decrease high cholesterol.7
Curcumin, the compound that gives this spice its bold color, is known to decrease the inflammation that causes pain and to destroy free radicals. Turmeric may be able to prevent the onset of flu, alleviate allergy symptoms, prevent dementia and has been deemed more effective than ibuprofen in treating acute pains.8
In addition to these common spices, there are a number of herbs that confer health benefits and that may prove to be more efficient in remedying illness than over-the-counter drugs. Whether you decide to steep them in boiling water or bake them into fresh bread, the following herbs are worth searching for at your local nursery or grocery store.
Aside from its calming scent, chamomile has been used for centuries to combat fever, muscle spasms, upset stomach, joint pain and insomnia. A cup of chamomile tea before bed will promote restful and sound sleep, which we all could use more of.9
This herb is trendy during cold and flu season because it stimulates the immune system to produce infection-fighting white blood cells. Echinacea may treat a cold, the flu, urinary tract infections, strep throat and other infections. Because of its effects on the immune system, Echinacea should be taken with caution by those with autoimmune disorders.10
The bright color and fruity taste make hibiscus a good summer tea choice, but its tumor-fighting and antibacterial properties may be derived year-round. Hibiscus has also has been shown to act as a safe laxative at higher doses.11