Your Food Pharmacy
Before chronic health issues like inflammation and fatigue take hold, look for a cure in your kitchen.
When you get a cold, relief may be as close as your pantry. Daphne Miller, a family physician and the author of The Jungle Effect, a nutritional cookbook that chronicles her travels seeking healthful diets around the world, suggests unlocking the healing properties in food. “Pretty much every chronic health problem I see is at least partially linked to diet,” she says.
So give these food cures a shot for healing what ails you.
High in omega-3s and low in saturated fats, a Mediterranean diet that includes salmon, almonds, and olive oil has long been recommended for treating inflammation. Miller researched other plant-based diets that assuage everything from acne to irritable bowels. “Traditional Asian and Southeast Asian diets have been connected with lower levels of inflammation,” says Miller. She recommends incorporating turmeric, ginger, cumin, and other antioxidant-rich spices from that region and sticking to whole grains and nonprocessed oils.
For external inflammation or itchy skin, Murraya koenigii, commonly known as curry leaf or “cure leaf,” can have an analgesic effect, according to the Journal of Medical Nutrition and Nutraceuticals.
If you find yourself crashing by midafternoon, it might not be what you eat but how you’re eating. “People don’t fuel their body throughout the day, and then when they get tired, they tend to overeat. It starts this vicious cycle,” says Joan Salge Blake, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a clinical associate professor at Boston University. Blake recommends combining protein and carbs in the morning to activate a “slow drip” of fuel (glucose) into the bloodstream throughout the day. Oatmeal offers a higher protein count than refined grains and contains beta-glucans, sugars found in yeast, barley, and algae. These have been shown to increase endurance and speed recovery after fatigue.
Prefer to go green? The Chronicles of Young Scientists names wheatgrass juice an energy all-star. Because of its resemblance to hemoglobin, the juice is immediately absorbed into the bloodstream and provides a burst of energy. A concentrated shot also contains potassium to help combat lethargy.
It may come as no surprise, but grandmother’s chicken soup and other bone broths fortify the immune system, Miller says. Marrow extracted from the bone during cooking contains lymphoid stem cells, the precursor to white blood cells, which are essential for proper immune system functioning. Miller suggests adding mushrooms because they boost illness-fighting white blood cells.
Foods with bright, bold colors also enhance the immune system. Blake recommends combining vitamin C–rich foods like broccoli, red peppers, and citrus fruits with foods abundant in vitamin A such as carrots, cantaloupe, and sweet potatoes.
While there isn’t a simple fix for modulating estrogen and progesterone levels, Miller notes that maintaining a healthful diet can help. “Obesity is a risk factor for hormone imbalance, and any diet that keeps you lean is also going to help manage hormonal issues,” she says.
To address the fatigue and hunger associated with the hormonal fluctuations in a woman’s monthly cycle, getting enough iron is crucial, Blake says. But not all iron is created equal. Iron from meat, fish, and poultry (heme iron) is easily absorbed into the blood on its own, but iron from grains like enriched pastas and rice (nonheme iron) isn’t thoroughly absorbed unless consumed with vitamin C–rich food, she explains.
“A diet rich in omega-3 fats and antioxidants has been proven to preserve brain health,” Miller says. Berries, oily fish, and leafy greens are all excellent sources to sustain intellectual acumen. Whole grains increase mental endurance because their glucose is released into the body throughout the day, Blake explains, and with the wide variety of whole grain cereals, breads, and even fortified couscous and pastas, it has never been easier to incorporate mental-sharpening foods at every meal.
Daphne Miller’s Mushroom Soup with Ginger
1¼ cups shiitake, white button, maitake, cremini, or oyster mushrooms cut in ¼-inch slices
½-inch cube peeled fresh ginger (more if desired)
2 cups cold water
1 tablespoon white or red
1 teaspoon mirin, sake,
or rice vinegar
1 tablespoon finely chopped scallion
1. Put mushrooms, ginger, and water in a pot with a lid and bring to a boil. Immediately turn down heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from heat and take out ginger.
2. Put ¼ cup of broth in a bowl and stir in miso paste and mirin. Stir this mixture into the pot. Serve topped with scallions.