Studies are increasingly showing that the foods we eat can help prevent, treat, and even reverse illness. Add to this research a pandemic, a lingering new virus, and the high costs of healthcare, and it is little wonder that many of our kitchens have recently become amateur apothecaries. 😉
The history of food as medicine is long and rich. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like Hippocrates, Theophrastus, and Pliny the Elder compiled pharmacopoeias comprised of thousands of plants and herbs and their medicinal value. Native Americans and indigenous populations further contributed to this repository with plant-based medicines that served as the precursors for many drugs used today. And ancient medicinal systems, like Ayurveda and Chinese Traditional Medicine, continue to regard diet as central to their healing practices.
A handful of foods known for their medicinal value include honey, garlic, mushrooms, and turmeric—all of which have demonstrated wide-ranging health benefits.
Honey: Powerful antibacterial and antioxidant properties and can help treat wounds and runny noses.
Garlic: Called Mother Nature’s insecticide, it has been shown to strengthen the immune system, reduce the risk of heart disease, and fight cancer.
Mushrooms: Linked to a long history of wellness, fungi can provide antioxidant benefits, immune support, and reduce the risk of cancer. Indeed, one study suggested eating roughly two medium-sized mushrooms a day could reduce your risk of cancer by nearly 50%! A research revival into the effects of psilocybin suggests mushrooms could further offer a host of mental health benefits. Fun fact: the largest known organism in the world is a mushroom that is nearly 2000 years old!
Turmeric: Specifically its active ingredient curcumin has been shown to reduce inflammation and prevent and slow the spread of some cancers. Interestingly, when turmeric is combined with black pepper, it increases its bioavailability—your body’s ability to absorb it—by 2,000%!
So, when did we begin swapping out plants for pills?
In the 19th century, advancements in biotechnology enabled the isolation and extraction of active compounds in natural substances, which led to what we today consider modern medicine. The active ingredient in willow bark, for example, was commonly chewed by Native Americans to alleviate pain and formed the basis for aspirin. A compound in the bark of the Pacific Yew tree, effective at killing tumor cells, would lead to paclitaxel, a drug for treating cancer. And the active ingredient in foxglove, digoxin, would become a drug used for treating heart conditions. Roughly half of all drugs today are derived from natural substances—either directly from nature or in a lab using synthesis.
Despite the effectiveness of many traditional medicines, contemporary drug discovery remains heavily focused on synthetic drug development. This is partly because you can’t patent nature. Selling foxglove or willow bark at the local farmer’s market doesn’t generate quite the same return or as much intellectual property protection as extracting its active ingredient, calculating doses, layering in additives, and repackaging it as a proprietary pill. Pharmaceuticals are also generally more targeted and can offer greater potency. Some also contend new natural product exploration is slow, expensive, and that most of the beneficial active biological compounds have already been discovered.
That’s not to say there isn’t a role for pharmaceuticals or synthetics, but leveraging the thousands of years of plant-based medicine to support current drug R&D efforts seems like a no-brainer. Considering only 10% to 17% of the world’s biodiversity has been screened for potential medicinal use, with climate change poised to inflict massive losses in biodiversity in the coming years, the financial returns of investing more money into researching and preserving our natural world could pay off in spades.
Food for thought. 🙃
— Abi and the Amulet Team
Here’s a medically-reviewed list of ten plants and their known medicinal properties. And here’s a longer list with more history if you really want to nerd out!