Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
16 Apr

4 Foods That Have Surprising Medicinal Benefits

Bitter Melon“Let food be thy medicine,” said some old Roman guy, I think. Whoever he was, he was right. Food is the foundation for preventive medicine. It’s the first thing we examine when figuring out a health issue, and successful changes to what we eat usually have the most profound effect on our health. If we don’t eat well, we won’t be healthy – simple as that.

But what if food literally was medicine? What if certain foods had specific, established pharmacological effects that rivaled certain pharmaceuticals?

Some foods do all that, and I’m going to talk about a few of them today. This isn’t an exhaustive list, of course. That would require an entire book. Nor is this medical advice. Rather, it’s me relaying interesting information about some foods with novel properties and benefits. If you have a serious medical condition, don’t drop your medicine in favor of pharmacological foods. Just be aware of these next time you hit the market.

Lion’s Mane Mushroom

In Asian cuisine, the dense meaty flesh and subtle lobster-esque taste of the Lion’s Mane makes it a popular replacement for animal protein. That’s well and good, but what about those of us for whom the best animal protein substitute is more animal protein? Any reason to seek the Lion’s Mane?

Yes. This insane-looking fungus contains unique compounds that stimulate the biosynthesis of nerve growth factors (NGFs), whose degeneration during the aging process is thought to contribute toward neurodegeneration and cognitive impairment. According to several studies, these NGFs and other compounds in the mushroom may be able to promote neurogenesis (growth of neurons), hasten recovery from nerve damage, and improve cognition in people suffering from cognitive decline (and maybe even in healthy people):

Lion’s Mane is also a popular nootropic – a supplement designed to improve brain health and function – among people apparently free of cognitive decline. There’s no published research in support of this function, but it’s plausible.

Lion’s Mane supplements exist, but they’re best absorbed with food. Probably because they are food. Fresh Lion’s Mane is apparently delicious sautéed in butter and deglazed with white wine. Dried Lion’s Mane – which you can find in most Asian markets in the jawdroppingly expansive dried mushroom section – can be soaked in water until saturated or tossed dry into soups and stews. You could even treat the dried mushrooms like a supplement and mix them into smoothies.

Bitter Melon

If you ever go to a legit Asian supermarket, you’re bound to see a bin full of long, green, ribbed cylindrical vegetables that look like rejected cucumbers. Old ladies will pore over the pile for the best specimens and every spry looking senior in the joint will have one or two in their cart. What are these mysterious objects? These are the bitter melons, a staple anti-diabetic food in traditional Chinese and Ayurvedic medicine. Even African hunter-gatherers frequently use wild bitter melon (not that they have a diabetes issue, but perhaps their bitter melon habits help explain it).

Does it actually work as an anti-diabetic agent? Yes, according to several lines of evidence.

  • Four compounds with AMPK-stimulating activity have been isolated from bitter melon. AMPK regulates fuel metabolism, and diabetics need ample AMPK activity because it helps move glucose from the bloodstream to the muscles. Exercise is another potent stimulator of AMPK (and effective counter to diabetes).
  • A recent study compared bitter melon to metformin, the popular and effective diabetes drug. While it wasn’t as effective at reducing fructosamine and blood glucose as metformin, its effects were significant in type 2 diabetics.
  • Diabetic rodents saw the stirrings of beta-cell regeneration following long-term consumption of bitter melon powder. Liver function was also improved.

Bitter melon is extremely promising. If you don’t have diabetes, you can still benefit from the improved insulin sensitivity and AMPK release. Plus, bitter melon is excellent in a stir-fry. It’s a vegetable, not a drug.

Dark Chocolate

I’ve gushed over high-cacao dark chocolate many times before, but I’m going to do it some more. Why? You already love it. Heck, you’ve probably got cocoa flavanols in the crannies of your fingerprints and a cocoa butter sheen on your lips as we speak. Don’t lie. Don’t be ashamed. I have the same problem.

So, why more chocolate talk? It’s a substance with effective medicinal qualities that also happens to be a tasty form of candy:

Dark chocolate improves blood pressure. In fact, dark chocolate actually acts as an ACE-inhibitor in its own right, similarly to pharmaceutical ACE inhibitors but more modestly (a 2-3 point reduction, both systolic and diastolic) and without side effects. Unlike other ACE inhibitors, cocoa also improves vascular function via another mechanism: increased nitric oxide availability. Targeting nitric oxide, which dark chocolate does, may be effective against drug-resistant hypertension.

Dark chocolate improves blood flow (reduced arterial stiffness, increased vasodilation, that sort of thing) in many different populations: diabetics, smokers, the healthy young, the healthy old, overweight people, postmenopausal women, and people with elevated risk factors for heart disease. The increase in nitric oxide availability likely mediates much of this effect.

The improved vascular function may have effects on the brain, too. Cocoa flavanols increase blood flow to the brains of healthy young people during a cognitive task, without improving performance. In elderly patients with mild cognitive decline, high doses of cocoa flavanols improved brain function, blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. A similar group using lower doses saw no benefits to cognitive function, although they did get improvements in overall mood. Cocoa is most effective in people who need it – people with cognitive decline – and higher dosages are more effective than lower dosages.

Furthermore, the cocoa butter part of dark chocolate is an extremely stable fat with hepatoprotective effects, particularly when alcohol is consumed. Rats on a cocoa-butter diet could consume 27.5% of calories as alcohol without incurring liver damage. The cocoa phenols are also protective against alcohol-induced liver injury, so it’s (as always) the total package that works best.

Better blood flow equals better arterial function equals less hypertension equals better thinking and fewer senior moments. Red wine goes well with dark chocolate which protects the liver against the alcohol in the wine. It’s all quite elegant. And delicious.

Red Meat

Really, red meat? Not Shetland sheep liver, moose thyroid, or cow brain? Just plain old red meat?

Those are all great, powerful foods, but standard red meat (of any ruminant) is quite medicinal and, more importantly, highly available and widely palatable. There’s just something invigorating about eating red meat, especially after a workout or a period of abstinence.

Beyond the protein, iron, zinc, B-vitamins, and other well-known nutrients, red meat is the best source of carnosine, a nutrient with a host of brain benefits. It improves cognition among schizophrenic patients, reduces glycation, protects against cataracts, and scavenges reactive oxygen species and mitigates the toxicity of malondialdehyde, methylglyoxal, hydroxynonenal, and acetaldehyde. Vegetarians have the least amount of carnosine in their muscles. Beta alanine supplements, which increase the amount of carnosine in the muscles, increase the total amount of work an athlete can do.

Or maybe it’s the creatine, which doesn’t only come in tubs of white powder. Red meat is perhaps the most potent natural source of the brain – and muscle-boosting nutrient.

This all adds up to red meat being an extremely important medicinal food, especially for the people at the greatest risk of cognitive and physical decline. Sure enough, elderly women who ate a diet high in red meat experienced the largest gains in cognitive functioning and muscle strength, and vegetarians – but not omnivores – who supplemented with creatine improved their scores of brain function.

Many other foods offer many other benefits that complement red meat, but I argue that red meat is almost irreplaceable. It’s hard to say that about any other single food. Hate kale? You can get by okay eating spinach, chard, and broccoli. Ruminants are special. We’ve enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship for hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of years. Even if you’re only eating it sparingly, we could all benefit from at least a modicum of ruminant flesh in our lives.

These are just four examples – two commonplace, two a bit more exotic – that showcase the power of food to heal as well as sustain us. As I said earlier, there are many more. There are likely many foods with as-yet undiscovered medicinal effects. You’ve probably eaten several today. The best part about this “food as medicine” thing? You don’t have to know the ins and outs of everything to get the benefits. You don’t have to read the studies or get a prescription or worry about drug interactions. You just have to eat it.

What about you guys? What are your favorite medicinal foods?

Thanks for reading, folks.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. More importantly, I asked this years late on another chocolate post with no response, so I’ll ask again:

    I wonder about the aflatoxins etc. supposedly found in chocolate…. and coffee. I don’t know if I buy this as a major issue, but I do wonder what Mark’s (and other’s) take on this is. Obviously the “bulletproof” guy is staking it out as a market niche, but might there be some foundation to it or can safely ignore that dimension ?

    Steve wrote on April 16th, 2014
  2. I’m sitting in bed reading this post and drinking my hot chocolate made from 100 per cent dark chocolate, coconut milk and a spot of honey. Delicious! It has stopped my insomnia after many years of sleepless nights.

    Annakay wrote on April 16th, 2014
  3. If I get chilled or feel like I’m coming down with a bug, I crave beef soup (preferably made with a nice fatty grass-fed beef bone). I grew up with the chicken soup cure-all, which I still love, but there’s something special about beef soup.

    I also learned to love oxtail soup when I lived in Hawaii, local cure for what ails you, and they serve it in so many places, from chain coffee shops to upscale hotels. My favorite version was at Kam Bowl. I found a local butcher for oxtails but have trouble finding the Chinese red dates that add just the right touch:

    gladdie wrote on April 16th, 2014
  4. I can testify that bitter melon lowers blood sugar. I am a type one diabetic and tried bitter melon supplements. It was a slippery slope to low blood sugar–very hard to control using bitter melon when on insulin. Yes it did the job TOO well in my case. But I would bet that if you having issues with high blood sugar (other than being a type 1 diabetic) your chances a good for lowering with bitter melon. Yucca supplements will also lower blood sugar.

    joy wrote on April 16th, 2014
  5. EESH! I still have nightmares about bitter melon!

    I grew up on the island of Okinawa, and locals would take great amusement at watching my face when I innocently tried some bitter melon. It IS bitter. My mouth still puckers thinking about it as I write this.

    I laugh when I read so-called experts claiming the long lives of Okinawans are because they are mostly vegetarian (they are NOT–they eat plenty of meat, mostly pork, seafood, and fish, and don’t skimp on fat, either!). My guess is that Okinawans’ intake of seafood, sea veggies, bitter melon and astringent green tea has more to do with health and longevity than the amount of starch or veggies they consume.

    I should try bitter melon again as an adult (they sell it at the local farmers market) but just can’t bring myself to do it. That’s a very strong negative memory!

    Janknitz wrote on April 16th, 2014
  6. Interesting article and thanks for sharing! Food is medicine!

    Erica Chavez wrote on April 16th, 2014
  7. Hi,
    the complete sentence is “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food” and is being credited to Hippocrates, referred as ” the father of western medicine” (funny enough).

    I personally have experienced an improvement in my health condition when I change my diet into a more aware way of eating. My health issues were not major problems however it was not nice to often cope with gastritis and another problem related with a very bothering pain when I had to sit down (I am sure you understood what I am talking about). After I changed my diet I realized that these issues were disappeared. It’s 5 years that I changed my diet and so far I haven’t got any more symptoms.

    What really surprised me was the fact that when I shared my experience with other people having similar issues, they were not thankful at all, instead they were trying to convince me that I was wrong, that there are so many other reasons that could affect their healing and that after all they were having a “balanced” diet.

    So I decided I wanted to share this experience on the web, were chances to help someone were higher.

    My idea of healthcare is not related to what governments can improve to make healthcare system work better and cost less, I am asking myself what each of us can do for improving it. I believe that by eating healthy foods can decrease in a substancial way percentages of new cases for a lot of diseases. For example, there are several studies, demonstrating the reduced risk of cancer by eating an apple a day but there are not many people doing it! Eating healthy is the most important factor that affects healthcare costs. It’s not the cost of medicines – these costs would not ffect so much if there are much less sick people. Service will improve because doctors will no longer have to visit an endless stream of patients.

    The second most important element of healthcare is the right for every citizen to know exactly how things are going healthcare-wise. If you live in a world where everyone is trying his/her best to live healthy, and you do have a problem, you want to know who is the best doctor in your area. This is an information in a community and people who are judging others without focusing on facts, but rather expressing their feelings, are not helping their community to grow. I am referring to the importance of having an efficient doctor ranking, where all reviews are examined before publishing them. They can affect future decision and they have to be consistent.

    Last but not least, every single person that is willing to work at every level in the healthcare business, should consider how to give back to healthcare apart for the service provided.
    There are new type of marketing strategies that can support the healthcare system instead of enriching publishers and advertisers online.

    We need to stop expecting someone else to help us if we are the first ones who are not helping ourselves. It’ll never happen.

    So… thanks for reading all of it ( I really hope I didn’t bore you) and have a look at the summary of my thoughts in this project:

    Claudio Teri wrote on April 16th, 2014
    • Isn’t it interesting how so many people consider grains and sweets to be part of a “balanced” diet. Many in the dietary/nutrition business still believe this and frown on eliminating these “food” groups, even though they clearly cause so many health issues.

      Shary wrote on April 16th, 2014
  8. As much as I love dark chocolate (I consume about 300cal worth of 85% daily), I wonder about the studies linking cacao to Parkinsons. Can anyone comment on that?

    Here’s a bit more to flesh out what I’m talking about:

    “A review published in the Neuroscience Bulletin by Borah et al. at the Assam University in India said that Beta-phenethylamine (Beta-PEA), a naturally occurring component found in cocoa beans and its by products, may be a cause of Parkinson’s Disease.

    Phenylethylamine is a natural alkaloid, a chemical related to amphetamines, which functions as a neuromodulator or neurotransmitter in the central nervous system. In addition to its presence in all mammals, phenethylamine is found in many other organisms and foods, such as chocolate, especially after microbial fermentation. It is also found in wine and cheese. But the highest trace amounts have been reported in chocolate. “

    Willie! wrote on April 16th, 2014
  9. homemade kefir , maybe not paleo but great stuff

    wolfgang wrote on April 16th, 2014
  10. i recently heard that phytate content of raw cacao is very high? any links to any research/literature?

    billy wrote on April 16th, 2014
  11. I sprinkle turmeric powder on a lot of stuff, especially my lunchtime salad with whatever kind of protein. I heard of a recipe (from Suzanne Somers I think) where you rub olive oil on chicken, season with salt, pepper, and turmeric, then cook. Simple and good.

    Ellen wrote on April 16th, 2014
  12. R cacao nibs a good source to get the same benefits u speak of with dark chocolate?

    Deni wrote on April 16th, 2014
  13. Good stuff from Mark as always. Speaking of a natural way to help with diabetes type II (Olive Leaf extract) that may actually OUTPERFORM metformin, I came across this small but interesting New Zealand study:

    George wrote on April 16th, 2014
  14. If I ever feel a cold coming on on, I drink apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, honey, and hot water.

    Emily wrote on April 16th, 2014
  15. I think we could learn a lot from our Asian friends. Their life spans are often longer than that of us Americas, and for good reasons. Get back to the basics of eating lots of vegetables and fruits and watch your ailments resolve themselves. Great post as always.

    Jules Ackerson wrote on April 16th, 2014
  16. Hippocrates also said “walking is man’s best medicine”

    Charlie wrote on April 17th, 2014
  17. We stumbled over here by a different web address and thought I may as well check things out.

    I like what I see so i am just following you.

    Look forward to looking into your web page repeatedly.

    เฟอร์นิเจอร์ wrote on April 17th, 2014
  18. I have hip dysplasia in both hips and I literally can’t stand and walk in the mornings. It takes at least half an or better to stretch and loosen my joints. I stumbled across reishi mushrooms when I was searching for natural ways to combat chronic bronchitis. I started reading the very long list of medicinal uses and decided to try it for my hips. After ordering them online and taking them daily, I can now jump right out of bed without an issue AND I haven’t had bronchitis since!! Truly a miracle mushroom got arthritis

    Tamme wrote on April 17th, 2014
  19. I’d heard that dark chocolate was very good for you in various ways, but always told by my fitness friends to stay away from red meat. This has given me something to talk with them about now, and make me slightly less guilty when I consume the stuff.

    Rob wrote on April 17th, 2014
  20. cucumber: Mark, I watched a video you did on making a big-ass salad, and you said something about adding cucumbers for “crunch” and I think you said cucumbers didn’t really add much nutritionally. However, I’ve been drinking cucumber with my lemon water because cucumber is supposed to be good for detoxing and anti-inflammation.

    Cucumber “helps the body flush out toxins because it contains the organic compound citrulline, which is an amino acid that has been shown to help the liver and kidneys filter and get rid of ammonia. Ammonia comes in external forms, but is also a by-product of the proteins our bodies are burning up constantly for energy, and it’s quite damaging to our cells.”

    Marlene wrote on April 17th, 2014
  21. Keep in mind Metformin, the drug he quotes is nothing more than an extract of the French Day Lily.

    culdeus wrote on April 17th, 2014
    • You know, honestly I’m not sure why metformin isn’t used more widely by crossfitters. It is truly the ideal drug for them. Just saying.

      culdeus wrote on April 17th, 2014
  22. I buy raw organic cacao nibs, toast them in the oven for 15 minutes at 350 degrees, then process in my Vitamix. For one blend, I stir in dates, coconut oil, macadamias, and raisins… makes an excellent “fudge” loaded with all those chocolate benefits, but with no refined sugar (just from the dried fruit). A great way to get my chocolate fix!
    For another blend, I just add coconut oil, vanilla, and a touch of palm sugar- to make a “chocolate smoothie” (by adding ice, whey protein, and maybe banana to). I love it!

    Jennifer Cote wrote on April 17th, 2014
  23. Mark, 1 ounce of dark Cocoa 90% Lindt brand has about 12 grams of carbs and also about 12 mgs of caffeine. Are you concerned about the caffeine? Also, isn’t chocolate inflammatory? Is this a daily or an every-once-in-a-while food? Thank you.


    Cameron wrote on April 17th, 2014
  24. So much good information in the article and comments below. I always like to tell patients that in the long run, your bets are generally safe with real food. Of course there can always be exceptions to this, but if I had to bet between a processed ingredient/drug or a whole food, whole foods always win out in the long run. While they may not have as much “clinical testing,” they have been out in the wild so to speak for thousands of years and have kept us going. When we introduce new foods, new ingredients, or new drugs into the system, it could take even 100s of years (like acetaminophen) to find out harm or unintended consequences they may cause. We are only now beginning to understand the importance of epigenetics and gut flora – how can we be sure we aren’t shooting ourselves in the foot with all that we are doing?

    Dr. Joseph DelGrosso wrote on April 18th, 2014
  25. I like peppermint. It’s soothing, calming, and it always helps when I am having digestive problems. Ginger is pretty awesome too.

    Benjamin wrote on April 19th, 2014
  26. I’ve been researching cacao and the world of fine chocolate for the past 4.5 years and am aware of the extensive health benefits of dark chocolate. But I’d never heard about the cocoa phenols actually having a protective effect on our liver when consumed with red wine! That’s great news to me,as I love to consume my daily square of pure dark chocolate with a fine glass of Malbec.

    Doreen Pendgracs wrote on April 22nd, 2014

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!