Can Food Really Be Like Medicine?

“Let food be thy medicine.” This cogent declaration first uttered by Hippocrates, the Greek “father of medicine,” remains not only true but crucial to use as a motto for your diet and lifestyle as we enter 2021.

While the word “medicine” today is understood to be allopathic (conventional physician diagnosis and treatment such as with prescriptions), food does not fall into the category, nor is it allowed by the FDA to be. However, foods we enjoy eating that are rich in myriad compounds have been researched to provide specific benefits for health and reduced risk of illnesses.

There’s a huge and simple difference between dietary supplements that are food-based and dietary supplements from other natural, earthy sources. Think of it this way:  you would certainly enjoy the researched health benefits of peppers, garlic, oregano, berries, grapes, curry sauce, mushrooms and more -- but would you enjoy eating a ginkgo leaf, red  clover or ginseng root?

Nutrition (food) science is a growing area. According to one educational source, “Nutrition science focuses largely on dietary concerns and health issues surrounding food, eating, and medicine. It’s a multi-faceted field that is rooted in chemistry, biology, and the social sciences, with many areas of specialization.”

It is common knowledge that the “perfect” diet is one that provides only the beneficial macronutrients and micronutrients in optimal levels. But finding an individual who eats that perfect diet is like finding the needle in not just one but 1,000 haystacks.  According to a Harvard Health post, “The typical American diet is heavy in nutrient-poor processed foods, refined grains, and added sugars—all linked to inflammation and chronic disease. Yet even if you eat a healthy, well-balanced diet, you may still fall short of needed nutrients.”

The great news is, you can enjoy solid health and well-being from a tasty diet, augmented by multivitamins, probiotics and other specific-for-you supplements. Many foods used to flavor your meals provide desirable protective effects. 

In this series, we explore some of the non-obvious food “medicines.” Excitingly, there are many! Here, we discuss three, plus combination studies showing a variety of natural foods’ impact on the microbiome. 

Oregano: This pungent spice is common to Italian foods, rounding out the flavor profile of dishes; it can be slightly bitter with an earthy base. Oregano is rich in antioxidants carvacrol and thymol. One review described the multiple abilities of carvacrol, including anti-inflammatory, anti-spasmodic, analgesic, antiparasitic, and hepatoprotective (liver support).

In one study, both carvacrol and thymol both reduced the adhesion ability (called hemagglutination) of uropathogenic Escherichia coli (UPEC) – the microscopic cause of urinary tract infections. Another study showed that carvacrol and thymol inhibited biofilm formation of Staphylococcus aureus and Staphylococcus epidermidis.

Chili peppers: Whether they are red hot or just hot, chili peppers abound in flavor. One new meta-analysis showed that consumption of chili pepper may reduce the relative risk of cardiovascular disease mortality by 26%, according to an analysis of diet and mortality data from four large, international studies including a total of 570,000 individuals. Chili pepper consumption was associated with a 25% reduction in death from any cause and 23% fewer cancer deaths, compared to people who never or only rarely consumed chili pepper.

This research echoes an earlier large prospective study concluding that regular consumption of hot red chili peppers is linked with a 13% reduction in total mortality from heart disease or stroke. This study used data from the massive National Health and Nutritional Examination Survey (NHANES) III study of more than 16,000 Americans who were followed for up to 23 years. The authors theorized that the mechanism of action of this finding may be the capsaicin found in the pepper which has antimicrobial properties that "may indirectly affect the host by altering the gut microbiota."

Ginger:  A staple part of a sushi meal, and a delicious soda, ginger is mostly linked to calming the stomach. Ginger has also become a recipe staple for Asian and Indian foods that are more widely consumed. And ginger has been found to work harmoniously with chili peppers in one study to reduce risk of tumor growth. In another study, ginger supplementation for 28 days resulted in statistically significant reductions in markers of colon inflammation, which the authors said lowers risk of colon cancer.

Ginger’s constituents may also significantly ease muscle discomfort by 25%, according to researchers.  In this study, participants who ingested both raw and heat-treated ginger were found to experience pain reductions compared to placebo.

In a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, a total of 41 type 2 diabetic patients randomly were assigned to consume 2 grams per day of ginger as a powder supplement or placebo for 12 weeks. Ginger supplementation significantly reduced the levels of fasting blood sugar, as well as A1c, apolipoprotein B, apolipoprotein B/apolipoprotein A-I and malondialdehyde compared to baseline, as well as control group.

“Medicinal” Foods and the Microbiome

Food researchers are also looking at combinations of commonly used spices and foods impact the microbiome. 

One study investigated prebiotic potential of compounds found in seven culinary spice extracts including black pepper, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, ginger, oregano, rosemary, and turmeric.  According to the authors, all spice extracts, except turmeric, enhanced the growth of Bifidobacteria and Lactobacillus species. All spices were shown to have inhibitory activity against several Ruminococcus species. Cinnamon, oregano, and rosemary were active against several Fusobacterium strains while cinnamon, rosemary, and turmeric were active against several Clostridium species.

Further, in this study, some spices exhibited prebiotic activity. They were shown to promote the growth of good bacteria and suppress the growth of pathogenic bacteria, which, wrote the authors, suggested “their potential role in the regulation of intestinal microbiota and the enhancement of gastrointestinal health. The identification and quantification of spice-specific phytochemicals provided insight into the potential influence of these chemicals on the gut microbial communities and activities.”

In another study, researchers investigated foods such as honey, licorice, oregano, and hot sauce for their activity in controlling the microbial balance in the gut. The team, according to an announcement of the study, “found a new way to harness food as medicine, which has far reaching implications to control harmful microbes in our gut while balancing microbial diversity by fostering the growth of beneficial bacteria.”

This study shows that this is accomplished by stimulating the production of bacteriophage – “good” viruses that infect and replicate inside harmful bacteria, destroying them. When bacteriophages are activated, then pathogenic bacterial growth ceases and their numbers drop dramatically until they're depleted. According to the authors, this study “shows we could sculpt the human gut microbiome with common dietary compounds. The ability to kill specific bacteria, without affecting others, makes these compounds very interesting."

Conclusion

As part of a mindfully healthy lifestyle, eating foods that are often used as herbs or condiments not only provide the bliss of flavor, but also the indulgence of good health and wellbeing. Oregano, chili pepper, ginger, among others have a wide range of biological benefits as well as helping to balance and reinforce the microbiome.

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