Food as Medicine: Perspectives of Alternative Medicine

Good food is vital to good health in many medical approaches

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Grandmother’s chicken soup. The house was filled with a rich aroma, the bowls were warm, and she always said it could cure you of your cold. It turns out there may be some truth to this.[1]

Food remedies are part of traditional medicine. Traditional medicine from around the world has long viewed food not only as central to feeling good, preventing disease, and looking your best, but also to helping heal the body.

This is natural in many herbal medicine traditions because cooking herbs are also used as medicinal herbs. One example is turmeric. It is widely used for flavor in Indian, Asian, and Middle Eastern cuisine and also used for medicinal properties in the Ayurvedic, Naturopathic, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) traditions. This herb has been shown to have anti-inflammatory effects[2,3] and is used to treat arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and a wide range of skin conditions including acne, psoriasis, vitiligo, and others.[2-4]

Similarly, common ingredients such as ginger, mint, yams, and hot pepper are all used in TCM. TCM considers foods and herbs along a continuum; both are classified by their characteristic taste, temperature, and function which guide the healing process.  

A common practice throughout Asia after giving birth is to drink black chicken soup cooked with the herbs dang shen (conodopsis), dang gui (angelica), long yan rou (longan fruit), and gou qi zi (wolfberries). As we all know, having a baby is hard work and is very draining for the mother. In Chinese medicine, we understand this as taxing to the body’s energy (Qi) as well as a significant loss of blood. The soup helps to rejuvenate the mother by strengthening the body’s blood and Qi. Dang shen tonifies the body’s Qi while dang gui, long yan rou, and gou qi zi all tonify blood.[5]

In Ayurvedic medicine, food is known as ahara and is vital to maintain optimal health. Food is a central component in correcting imbalances in the doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha). Each food has specific characteristics such as the taste (rasa), potency (virya), and post-digestive effect (vipaka).[6] These effects contribute to how foods are selected for each person’s imbalance and used to carefully craft diets. One example is spicy peppers that have a pungent rasa and a pungent vipaka. Spicy peppers can push pitta out of balance and can flare pitta related conditions such as rosacea.[7] Therefore, a person with rosacea would be asked to minimize the intake of spicy peppers. In Ayurveda, foods can contribute to mood as well.[6] Heavy foods induce an imbalance in kapha, typically seen as sleepiness, while stimulating foods can increase pitta, leading to heightened concentration (such as caffeine in coffee) or anger when out of balance (such as spicy foods). 

Naturopathic medicine has, for generations, considered food as medicine. Nutrition is a large part of the naturopathic education and is paramount to any treatment plan provided by a naturopathic practitioner. The food is the first thing that our body uses for daily energy and metabolism. A common phrase in the naturopathic community is, “heal the gut.” If our digestion is off, we are not adequately absorbing the nutrients that our bodies require for optimal function. The foods we eat can contribute to inflammation in our gastrointestinal tracts, which can ultimately lead to damage and reduced function. If we choose the highest-quality foods to consume, we are deciding that our bodies deserve the best. If we feed ourselves with unhealthy, convenient foods, we are leaving health to chance.

The wisdom contained in the traditional medicines has been handed down through the generations to encourage optimal health as well as to promote healing. There are many similarities between Ayurvedic and TCM traditions since both consider the characteristics of taste and temperature. In both the traditions, spicy foods may aggravate heat-related conditions. Cold foods and drinks, such as ice water, will damage the production of the body’s vital energy, known as Qi in TCM and Ojas in Ayurveda. Some foods are encouraged to be eaten daily while others at specific moments in the life cycle. All three traditions share a perspective that food and diet is central to health, wellness, and healing. 

 

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References

​1.    Hopkins AB. Chicken soup cure may not be a myth. Nurse Pract.2003;28(6):16; PMID: 12796619.

2.    Sreedhar R, Arumugam S, Thandavarayan RA, et al. Curcumin as a therapeutic agent in the chemoprevention of inflammatory bowel disease. Drug Discov Today.2016;21(5):843-849; PMID: 26995272.

3.    Ghasemian M, Owlia S, Owlia MB. Review of Anti-Inflammatory Herbal Medicines. Adv Pharmacol Sci.2016;2016:9130979; PMID: 27247570.

4.    Vaughn AR, Branum A, Sivamani RK. Effects of Turmeric (Curcuma longa) on Skin Health: A Systematic Review of the Clinical Evidence. Phytother Res.2016;30(8):1243-1264; PMID: 27213821.