“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.
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.
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.
I’ve gushed over high-cacao dark chocolatemanytimesbefore, 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:
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.
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.
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?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.