Health & nutrition Herbs In print

The Kitchen Pharmacy

In Asia, food is more than sustenance. It’s medicine. It’s the key to long life. The world’s oldest healing sciences, such as Ayurveda, rely on diet as a means to healthy body, mind and spirit. “Without a proper diet, medicines are of no use; with a proper diet, medicines are unnecessary,” notes the Charaka Samhita, the oldest authoritative text on Ayurveda, dating perhaps as far back as 400 BCE.

I love that quote. Somehow, somewhere along the line, we seem to have morphed into a pill society. Most everyone seems to pop one or two or three a day. Don’t get me wrong—I know and love many people who would not be here were it not for modern medicine to cure and control the diseases they have acquired along life’s way. But I also think there’s something to the ancient idea of eating for health—eating for prevention. And I can’t help but wonder: would we have so many “Western diseases” if we continued to eat the way our ancestors did?

Modern science is just beginning to prove, on its own terms, what many age-old cultures have told us for centuries. Asians have long consumed turmeric to fight inflammation (among numerous other conditions); today, curcumin, a key component in turmeric, is sold in pill form as a leading arthritis fighter. That’s just one example.

I’m so curious about these issues, I wrote an article about the healing properties of food, published today in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Recipes included.) Asian cuisines are full of disease-fighting ingredients—the list goes on and on. Did you know basil has antibacterial properties and is recommended as a natural produce wash? And the Polynesians view coconut as a cure-all? It turns out, even the fat in coconut might protect against heart disease—contrary to the long-held belief that it’s a “bad fat.”

Those lovely little green pea eggplants pictured above? One of my Thai cooking instructors told me they help lower cholesterol.

That noodle soup pictured below?

The herbs and spices contain elements capable of fighting everything from salmonella to cancer.

No wonder Asian meals are packed with vegetables and herbs. And most every trip to the market yields large bundles of greens….

14 replies on “The Kitchen Pharmacy”

A new favorite at our house is Oregano Oil(in capsule form) at the start of a cold it shortens the life significantly. I did a little reading about it after it was recommended to me and found that it is a natural antibiotic. John brought home a cold from work- most of his co-workers had it for at minimum 2 weeks he had it for 4days- thanks to the Oregano Oil!

The more I travel, the more I believe in the healing power of food. Locals always seemed to have a natural remedy for whatever was ailing. When we returned to Prague after Asia, we sought out the Vietnamese market for a bowl of pho. The soup was theraputic – light, fresh herbs, lime, chilies – and it just felt like it was doing something right for the body. It’s something I’d like to learn more about.

You just know that soup is going to be good for you. I remember when my brother was seriously ill he had a faith healer visit him and the other cancer patients on his ward to offer her help. My brother is the world’s biggest sceptic but because of the pain he was in and the fact the drugs kept wearing off he spoke with her. He then told me how she ran her hands over but didn’t touch the area where his tumour had been removed and how he felt this deep, almost burning sensation followed by the best night’s sleep he had enjoyed in months. For all the pain killers it was an Indian woman who had the most effect. There’s more to all of this than ‘old wives tales’, I’m sure of it.

Nice post!

Did you know that turmeric (curcumin) has fabulous anti-radiation qualities as well? It is being actively examined to help gastrointestinal and skin symptoms associated with radiation exposure (chemo etc).

Although I agree with the funadamental tenets of food as preventive medicine, and sometimes as a curative as well, I just have to point out that most of the “western diseases” we and many of the recently wealthy others are getting isn’t from diet – its from the marked increase in longevity that accompanies general good nourishment and quality medical care. The body of a 65 year old simply breaks down and doesn’t repair itself as well as when it was 45. The differences is even more profound between a healthy 85 year old and a healthy 45 year old.

The rates of heart disease are high on the subcontinent – this is more a result of the terrible “eating down” that women do during 3rd-Trimester pregnancy that results in low birth weight babies than any recent change to western dietary habits. Diabetes rates are also high – this is less to do with dietary changes (though often blamed) than with a move to a sedentary lifestyle. When the sequelae of low birth weight and a sedentary lifestyle are coupled with decades more of life – the results are higher rates of disease.

All over the world life span is increasing either in leaps or in baby steps (except in areas that have a high burden of infectious disease). Since 1969 the life expectancy at bith of Indian women has increased from around 46 years of age to 72. Modern India has afforded women almost 3 decades more life (on population average) – but has also allowed her to live long enough for her body to age and become diseased.

There is also sampling error to consider. 4 decades ago, most women died at home, quietly, with out a diagnosis of CVD and a cardiologist to treat her for years before she died. Some rates of disease are skyrocketing simply becasue we test for them now and didn’t in years past.

I think the modern rediscovery of medicinal foods is nothing short of wonderful, becasue the compounds in these foods often provide broader-based benefits than drug screening by molecular library can – when a single mutation or two can destroy the usefulness of a medicine that cost billions of dollars to discover and produce. Also there are synergistic effects of phytochemicals in the body that we are only beginning to comprehend at the laboratory bench. So don’t get me wrong – I think there is a lot that the west can learn from the east. I only question that if food alone were the answer to health problems – why were so many people on traditional diets dying in their mid-40s a handful of decades ago?

Good health is more than simply adding “x” to your diet – that’s why. Westerners are always looking for magic bullets and simple solutions and unfortunately the questions and answers to health are more complex than all that.

I’m sorry if this has turned into something of a rant – I’ll stop here. I do so love the site and the topic and am grateful for your kindness – my world is just full of greys and shades of color and I feel compelled to point out the complexities of situations from time to time.


SOoooooUP, that’s a wise philosophy.

Happy, I’m intrigued. I have a bunch of oregano still going strong in the garden. Maybe I’ll try to make my own oregano oil when we return next year!

Audrey, I know what you mean. Certain foods make the whole body feel right.

Norris, thanks for the link!

Miles, what an interesting story. I hope your brother recovered from his ordeal. Does he still believe in the power of a faith healer?

Laura, you are absolutely right. And I never meant to imply that food is the answer to everything. We need lots of exercise, clean water and air, good sleep and peace of mind—among numerous other factors contributing to health. But I do think the combination of a switch to stressful, sedentary lifestyles along with changes in diet, can lead to diseases that didn’t surface so readily in years past. True, people are living longer and therefore disease rates naturally increase as the population ages. But cancers, diabetes and heart disease in Southeast Asia go hand in hand with farmers moving to the city, taking on desk jobs AND eating far more fast, fatty foods than ever before. Deep-fried double-cheese-crust pizza? It wasn’t always found on Bangkok street corners.

On the other hand, of course, urban Asians no longer face some of the dangers that used to shorten the lifespan (snake bites aren’t a big concern in the city, but they still are in rural areas).

I’m a huge believer in gray areas, too!

Hi Karen, it’s nice to hear you and more and more people believe the Asian ways of how we try to keep our health. One very simple a lot of chinese do is to try to have hot or warm drinks as much as possible, it’s hard to follow in modern days but I still try, and now even my Dutch husband follow me drinking hot water which really amazed me. He said he feels better in his body although he could not explain what effect the water has done to him. Most Westerners would give me strange looks when they see me drinking hot water.

Recently when I was in UK, I found Goji berries in a health shop, it’s nice to see increasing people appreciate these things. As you say, the list will go on and on……

Hi Janet,
I find similar comfort in hot drinks, sometimes just hot water, although tea is what really makes me feel more sharp and alive. I drink it almost every afternoon, and my brain starts to crave it when I miss a day.

Delurking to say this: Whenever I get off an airplane after I’ve been away, I go directly to the nearest Pho joint, do not pass Go, do not collect 200 dollars. I swear there is nothing better for the dehydration and angst of flying that a big bowl of Pho. With a little extra lime, if they’ll spare it. Yum.

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