The research is compelling – from the common cold and depression to life-threatening diseases such as cancer and heart disease, what we eat can help us heal. Writer and nutritionist Danielle Fox talks to the experts about what food we should all keep in our 21st-century medicine cabinets
One lemon, a sprinkle of cinnamon, a slice of ginger, a spoonful of honey… and some raw garlic! When Dr Axe, a New York functional medicine doctor and clinical nutritionist comes down with a cold, his go-to medicine isn’t two paracetamols; like more and more of us, he reaches instead for the food in his kitchen.
For those common ailments it seems swapping pills for produce is the answer. Feeling a cold coming on? Broth (bone or miso) is many a nutritionist’s prescription. “Soups and broths are inherently soothing when you are feeling poorly and they are full of repairing amino acids,” says nutritionist Eve Kalinik author of Be Good To Your Gut, who, when she feels under the weather, always makes a shiitake, leek and seaweed broth which is full of immune-boosting and naturally anti-inflammatory ingredients. “Shiitake mushroom is the star turn in this broth as not only is it a fantastic prebiotic but it manages cortisol levels, the stress hormone, too.” And as we head into flu season, what does a functional doctor take? “I love elderberry syrup,” says Dr Axe. “It’s believed that this herb can deactivate the flu virus and naturally boost immunity,” he explains. In fact, one study found that when taken four times a day for five days, it relieved symptoms of flu four days earlier than taking a placebo. Migraine getting you down? Try foods high in magnesium like a cup of spinach, a medium avocado and even a square of dark chocolate (hurrah), all of which will help ease the pain and intensity says Dr Axe.
But when it comes to more serious, diet-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes, which according to the World Health Organization (WHO) cause more deaths than tobacco worldwide, can we still apply the ‘food as medicine’ maxim? For GP Dr Rangan Chatterjee, author of The 4 Pillar Plan, the answer is yes. "We need to treat the root cause of our disease with better food. We now know that food can impact the expression of our genes, the levels of inflammation in our body and how our immune system functions. I am not anti-medication, but most doctors recognise we are giving out way too many drugs for things that are lifestyle problems,” explains Dr Chatterjee who regularly prescribes food and lifestyle prescriptions to his patients with great success.
Dr Axe even goes so far as to say that certain foods can have a profound effect on diseases such as cancer, using his mother as a case study. After her second diagnosis of breast cancer, Dr Axe started her on an all-natural plan that included probiotic rich foods (raw milk, cheese, kefir and yogurt), juicing, immune-boosting supplements and stress-reducing techniques. After only four months the tumours shrank and one year later, she was classed as being ‘cancer-free’. Ten years on and she is in her best health. While Dr Axe is careful to state that what they did wasn’t a cancer cure, he believes these natural therapies, either used by themselves or in conjunction with conventional medical treatments, may support the body in the healing process.
For other debilitating diseases Dr Axe has foods he turns to time and again when prescribing. Suffering from arthritis? Foods high in sulphur have been shown to reduce joint pain and act as an analgesic agent (a painkiller) by decreasing nervous impulses that transmit pain. Bolster your diet with onions, garlic, asparagus and cabbage. Treating diabetes? Eat more high-fibre foods such avocados, peas, chia seeds and flaxseeds all which regulate your blood sugar level and slow down glucose absorption. Worried about your heart health? Most cardiovascular disorders are related to high inflammation levels so by reducing inflammation, the root cause of so many diseases, you can start to heal. Try making a daily celery juice which is both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory, as well as an excellent source of potassium (which is also great for rheumatoid arthritis). Just toss celery stalks in the blender and pulse with water – you can add green apple or pineapple, another anti-inflammatory, for taste if needed.
And when it comes to mental health disorders – which affect one in four people globally according to WHO – a study by The University of Queensland found links between poor diet and depression and anxiety. “We now accept that a lack of nutrients can lead to lower production of certain neurotransmitters linked to specific mental health conditions,” says Kalinik. “There is also the link between the gut and the brain that we are only beginning to understand, and if the health of the gut is compromised this can lead to more systemic inflammation and can manifest itself in more neurological symptoms,” she explains.
In a recent trial at University College London results showed that a Mediterranean diet significantly improved remission rates in patients with depression. “The research showed that this diet plays a key role in how our brain functions, whether that be cognition, thoughts or even emotions,” says Dr Chatterjee. “For improving depression and mood, I start by recommending my patients up their intake of fatty fish such as wild salmon, anchovies, sardines and mackerel which are brilliant sources of omega-3 fats and can be helpful for your brain function. You can also get omega-3 from grass-fed beef and lamb. I do find that animal sources of omega-3 tend to be better for my patients’ moods, but vegetarians and vegans can also increase their intake by eating more leafy green vegetables (e.g., kale), chia seeds, flaxseeds and nuts. And one of the best non-animal sources of omega-3 fats is seaweed.”
The provenance and quality of food is extremely important, too. Go organic where possible and buy seasonally, which is often cheaper, says Jane Scotter of the biodynamic farm Fern Verrow in Herefordshire, which has a farm-to-table collaboration with chef Skye Gyngell at Spring London and Heckfield Place in Hampshire. “Often with commercial farms they use an abundance of chemicals and plastic, which we absorb far too readily into the body. As a biodynamic farm, Fern Verrow prioritises the health and vitality of soils, plants, animals and people through longer field fallows, and without the use of pesticides,” explains Scotter. “We’ve found that vegetables and fruit grown in good soil at the right time of year and open to the elements have higher amounts of nutrients and more flavour, often because of minimal harvest time and minimal food miles. You want your food to be more vital – not only does it taste better but it’s better for you too.” Scotter recommends eating cavolo nero in January, as well as citrus fruits like Sanguinello and Tarocco blood oranges, which are also at their best at this time of year. And in an age of scepticism about supermarkets, buying direct from a grower or at a farmers’ market comes with psychological benefits too, as knowing where your food is from connects you to the people who raise and grow it making you feel better.
While we’re still just scratching the surface of the complex ways in which food interacts with the body, the consensus seems to be that medicine is missing the big picture. “We have got to stop applying 20th-century thinking to 21st-century problems. We need to take back control, and empower and re-educate ourselves away from our fear of disease and right back down the curve to optimal health,” says Dr Chatterjee who is trying to change the paradigm for how we choose to treat certain illnesses with food. “I genuinely believe that we can change not only our health, not only the health of our communities but maybe, just maybe, we could start to change the health of the entire world.”