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4 Foods That Have Surprising Medicinal Benefits

“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 [7]. 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 [8] 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 [12] and deglazed with white wine. Dried Lion’s Mane – which you can find in most Asian markets in the jawdroppingly expansive dried mushroom [13] 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 [14] 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 [15] 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.

Bitter melon is extremely promising. If you don’t have diabetes, you can still benefit from the improved insulin [19] 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 [20] many [21] times [22] before [23], 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 [24]. In fact, dark chocolate actually acts as an ACE-inhibitor [25] in its own right, similarly to pharmaceutical ACE inhibitors but more modestly (a 2-3 point reduction [26], 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 [27].

Dark chocolate improves blood flow (reduced arterial stiffness, increased vasodilation, that sort of thing) in many different populations: diabetics [28], smokers [29], the healthy young [30], the healthy old [31], overweight people [32], postmenopausal women [33], and people with elevated risk factors for heart disease [34]. 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 [35] 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 [36], blood pressure, and insulin sensitivity. A similar group using lower doses saw no benefits to cognitive function [37], although they did get improvements in overall mood. Cocoa is most effective in people who need it [38] – 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 [39]. Rats on a cocoa-butter diet [40] could consume 27.5% of calories as alcohol without incurring liver damage. The cocoa phenols are also protective against alcohol-induced liver injury [41], 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 [42] 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 [43], or cow brain? Just plain old red meat [44]?

Those are all great, powerful foods, but standard red meat (of any ruminant [45]) is quite medicinal and, more importantly, highly available and widely palatable. There’s just something invigorating about eating red meat, especially after a workout [46] 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 [47], reduces glycation [48], protects against cataracts [49], and scavenges reactive oxygen species and mitigates the toxicity of malondialdehyde, methylglyoxal, hydroxynonenal, and acetaldehyde [50]. Vegetarians have the least amount of carnosine [51] 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 [52].

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 [53], and vegetarians – but not omnivores – who supplemented with creatine improved their scores of brain function [54].

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 [55]? You can get by okay eating spinach [56], chard, and broccoli [57]. 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.