Enter the food pharmacy: while major competing pharmaceutical firms scour their laboratories for a wonder drug to outsmart the newest disease on the block, a new breed of nutritionists and naturopaths have announced their arrival in medicine's big league.
For food pharmacists, treatment goes beyond the "You are what you eat" maxim. The "right" kind of food can even cure diseases. While this is no news to traditional naturopath practitioners, more doctors and researchers are now scientifically proving the umbilical cord linking food and medicine.
To a large extent, this new exploration has been fueled by the need to combat new diseases. Studies on garlic are being carried out in the United States where, in the past 5 years, there has been a steady increase in the number of AIDS-related cases of tuberculosis and M avium, a fungal infection hitherto detected only in birds.
Garlic was introduced on 13 different types of fungal bacteria, including TB and M avium by Dr Vincent F Garagusi of Georgetown University Hospital, US. The garlic reacted, causing considerable damage to the bacterium, more effectively on some, a bit less on others. Research is now galloping to find out whether garlic could be a prospective AIDS fighter.
Currently, scientists and researchers are conducting a series of what are known as "intervention studies". They put a sample number of people with an identical ailment on very specific but different diets. For the next 2 years, their health is monitored in detail. The food is thus tested much in the way a drug is, to judge the potency of the therapy. Though still rare, these studies show very revealing results.
Research institutions like Johns Hopkins and Harvard have confirmed that broccoli contains anti-cancer agents and that carrots can prevent strokes and heart disease. At least 25 per cent of prescription drugs -- including Taxol, a new anticancer medicine -- are derived from plants.
According to Jean Carper, the author of the much-celebrated book Food Pharmacy, "By making small changes in your diet, by deliberately eating more of foods known to have positive health effects instead of always worrying about what is bad for you, you may prevent and alleviate both acute and chronic maladies such as infections, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, constipation, and other gastrointestinal diseases, ulcers, arthritis, skin disorders, headaches, low energy and insomnia. Research comes in from all corners of the world. We are talking of food pharmacy of amazing versatility. It is natural and can be used as a laxative, beta blockers, pain killers, cholesterol reducers, antidepressants, expectorants, anticavity agents, insulin regulators..."
Certain foods can rejuvenate and activate the body, inducing even stable mental health. Unfortunately, an equal number of eatables can cause serious anatomical mayhem. Fortunately, the "good" foods can even put into reverse gear the damage started by the "bad" 'uns.
There are essentially 3 advisory positions about the remarkable healing powers of food:
To recognise, isolate and increase the intake of foods that that have large amounts of disease-fighting antioxidants
To identify the 2 kinds of fat: the beneficial Omega-3 and the Omega-6, in which foods are commonly cooked
To alienate allergies caused by foods that work against the human metabolism.
Even oxygen, that lifegiver, has certain toxic forms, called oxides, which spark off lethal reactions that have been linked to 60-odd chronic diseases -- one of which is ageing. Antioxidants minimise the effects of the oxidants.
The body has a large number of oxidants, one of which is the "oxygen free radical", a chemically unstable composition, a lethal loose cannon constantly in search of its lost electron. The oxidant claws at every healthy cell crossing its path; it can also attack the DNA, causing them to mutate. This is the first step on the nightmarish road to cancer.
If there are not enough antioxides around, the free radicals can strike the fatty parts of cell membranes, peroxidising them and torching any new fat molecule that is unfortunate enough to loiter across its path.
Plant foods, thankfully, are packed with antioxidant agents. Scientists are now researching into an antioxidant "status report" based on individual blood tests: if the antioxidants are running low, specific foods could be prescribed to boost the levels.
Fat comes in 2 types: Omega-3 which is found in marine life and in certain plants, and Omega-6 which is concentrated in vegetable oils. The first is good, the other is plain rotten. A number of body functions like blood clotting and inflammation are controlled by hormone-like substances --prostaglandins, thromboxanes and leukotrienes -- collectively called eicosanoids, which are largely made from fats.
Unfortunately, the minute Omega-6 fatty acids are consumed, they are metamorphosed into a substance called arachidonic acid which, among other evils, causes blood vessel constriction. Omega-3 fatty acids, on the other hand, can produce substances within the body that reduce inflammation and cell damage and dilate blood vessels. One study says that the improvement noticed when an individual switches from an Omega-6 fatty acids concentrated diet to an Omega-3 fatty diet is so dramatic that within 72 hours of eating 3.5 ounces of fish every day, the impact on tissue is remarkably positive.
The best source of Omega-3 is fatty fish, preferably seafish. But frying it in Omega-6 rich vegetable oil demolishes all its goodness.
The 3rd imperative in codifying food health is through identifying irritants. While some foods cause obvious and easily identified allergies like rashes, others cause either delayed reactions or minor irritants which could, nonetheless, be a serious deterrent to general wellbeing. Obstinate amoebiosis, nagging depression, persistent headaches are the most obvious symptoms.
According to British physician John O Hunter, a gastroenterologist at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge, allergic reactions could also be in the gizzards instead of in the immune system. Milk, for instance, has histamines that can cause allergic reactions. It is also a major cause for a delayed food allergy that can result in depression and anxiety. Chronic fatigue in a large percentage of cases can be linked to delayed food allergy, says Dr Talal Nsouli, an allergist at Georgetown University Medical School.
Food for thought
Food plays a dramatic role in the alerting and finetuning of brain cells to give them sharper concentration. An innocuous combination of red wine and cheese can trigger off a migraine. According to a study by neuroendocrinologist Richard Wurtman and his colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, the cells that transmit messages to the brain are manufactured by nerve cells that use certain types of food as raw materials. Scientists generally agree that a high carbohydrate diet causes sluggishness and drowsyness, while a protein enriched diet is a red alert banshee.
Coffee and tea are proven stimulants. Caffeine resembles a chemical called adenosine which nerve cells secrete to slow down brain activity. Caffeine positions itself in adenosine's location in the brain and blocks its action. However, a 10-year follow-up study of more than 100,000 people by Arthur Klatsky of the Oakland-based Kaiser Permanente Medical Centre, suggested that 4 or more cups of coffee a day increase the chances of heart disease by 30 per cent in men and by 60 per cent in women.
Fruits and nuts are the next best thing in food for the brain. James Penland of the US Department of Agriculture's Grand Forks Human Nutrition Research Center says that fruits and nuts are chock full of boron, a trace mineral that appears to affect the brain's electrical activity. Skimping on boron can render the brain slothful. The brain is also negatively affected by excess alcohol and fat.
Ageing brains have low levels of thiamin, which is concentrated in wheat germ and bran, nuts, meat and cereals. More good brainfood comes from liver, milk and almonds, which are rich in riboflavin and extremely good for memory. Carotene, available in deep green leafy vegetables and fruits, is also good for geriatric brains. So is a high iron diet: it can make old brains gallop hyperactively like young ones. Iron comes from greens, liver, shellfish, red meat and soybeans. Seafood, very high in zinc, is an excellent diet supplement and memory-enhancer (about 30 gm of raw oysters can provide 20 milligrams of zinc).
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), which sets in at the first hint of winter, often intensifying as the days move deeper into the cold wave, is a depressive disorder that effects a large percentage of Americans. In such cases, foods that are otherwise sootheners act in a dramatically quarrelsome manner. Carbohydrates like sugar are antidepressants and can act as mood uppers.
Evidence confirming the medical qualities of food is pouring in from all corners of the world as scientists begin to take ancient remedies seriously. Although chemical fertilisers and environmental pollution are taking their toll of these natural cures, disease antidotes through specific diets is gradually becoming the new medical mantra.
Garlic: magic behind the stink
Garlic has near magical powers: it can decrease blood cholesterol levels, unclog closed arteries, lower blood pressure and kill pain very effectively. According to M W McDuffie of the Metropolitan Hospital, New York, garlic contains a volatile oil called allyl sulphate which is a strong antiseptic with the ability to inhibit the growth of Koch's bacillus. F G Piotrowski of the University of Geneva tested garlic on 100 patients with high blood pressure. Within a week, 40 per cent showed a remarkable reduction in blood pressure. Piotrowski claimed that garlic dilated the blood vessels.
A diehard garlic researcher, Benjamin H S Lau of the Loma Linda University School of Medicine, claims that garlic fits the description of a "biological response modifier", an instrument to boost immunity functions. This in turn is used in mainstream medicine as interleukin, a cancer "cure". In a study conducted by doctors at a German medical school, garlic compounds were found 3 times more toxic to malignant cells as to normal cells.
Fish: scale of health
Marine food lessens the chances of getting heart disease, cancer, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, psoriasis, allergies, immune inflammatory disorders, headaches, high blood pressure, and multiple sclerosis. All these are disorders related to the over-production of prostaglandins, which fish, particularly fatty fish, help arrest.
The ocean plants that fish feed on are different in their chemical makeup from land-based plants. The chemical reactions caused when these oils react with human enzymes are beneficial to the immune system, the cell repair system and the blood flow. The pharmaceutical process is similar to that of drugs like aspirin, painkillers, antihypertensives, even steroids.
The New England Journal Of Medicine reported in its May 1985 issue that 30 grams of fish a day could result in a dramatic drop in the chances of acquiring a cardiovascular disease. Seafish, particularly shellfish, crabs, mackerel and sardines, are more effective than riverine fish because the latter is more vulnerable to chemical effluents.
Cabbage: leaves from a traditional cookbook
A study done in Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, where stomach cancer is the most predominant, showed that those who had a cabbage-heavy diet showed a lower incidence of cancer. The Chinese cabbage has superior qualities to others in the family.
Eating cabbage more than once a week cuts cancer odds in men by 66 per cent. Raw cabbage juice has great anti-ulcer properties, as was scientifically proved by Garnet Cheney of the Stanford University School of Medicine about 30 years ago. Research has also shown that cabbage has a component called tartronic acid which restricts the conversion of sugar to fat -- good news for dieters.
Onion: the layers of the heart
The onion is listed by the Food and Drug Administration and the American Medical Association as a cardiovascular drug. Doctors advise an intake of at least half an onion a day to ward off heart diseases.
Onions both cooked and raw have chemicals that promote thinning of blood. In 1975, a British team of heart specialists and biochemists at the University of Newcastle isolated several onion chemicals that promoted clot dissolution. Raw onion is most effective and can lower dangerous LDL cholesterol levels most dramatically.
Yoghurt: homespun power
The homely yoghurt has bacteria killing powers that are more effective than terramycin. Yoghurt bacteria in the stomach can knock out other bacteria which cause stomach upsets and infections. A cup of yoghurt a day spruces up the immune system.
Yoghurt has also been associated with longevity. Elic Metchnikoff, a Nobel Prize winning Russian bacteriologist at the Pasteur Institute, believed that premature ageing and decay could be prevented by taking yoghurt daily.
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