Sunday, April 3, 2011

Eating for healing: the restorative power of food

It's been a year since a doctor gave me the life altering news that I had a disease. If, at this point you're thinking well I'm not sick, so this post doesn't pertain to me.  Please, consider reading on. Eating for healing isn't just for those dealing with illness. This lifestyle is for everyone who wants to support their body as it copes with disease, or attempts to deal with the daily assaults of living.  This may sound a bit dramatic, but our bodies really are in a state of constant warfare against environmental toxins, aging and disease. Doesn't it seem prudent to give the body a hand with some nutritional weaponry?

Eating for healing may not be a magic bullet, but research is showing that food and medicine are not distinctly separate domains (1).  This wisdom has been known by some cultures for centuries. In Western society, the trend away from botanical medicines began when two chemists took an herbal analgesic called salicylic acid and synthesized the synthetic drug Aspirin from it (2).  The pharmaceutical industry was born from this progress and has resulted in the ability to entirely or partly replicate many medicinal botanicals.

What are medicinal botanicals?
The University of Minnesota Life Science Foundation defines them as "plants (or substances that come from plants) that are used to treat or prevent disease" (3). To underscore the importance of botanicals in the treatment of disease,  the Biotechnology Center for Agriculture and Environment at Rutgers University states that "natural products continue to make the most dramatic impact in the area of cancer" (2).  This is because "a primary advantage of botanicals is their complex composition consisting of collections of related compounds having multiple activities that interact for a greater total activity" (2). In other words, synthetic compounds just aren't able to replicate what nature provides.

Plant foods as medicine
The European Botanical Forum has a compiled a very comprehensive and informative Compendium of Botanicals that have been reported to contain substances that may be of health concern when used in food or food supplements found here. Also of note, is their discussion of the role of plant food nutrients, as well as the plants' secondary metabolites and their effects on our health.  The following is a quote from their discussion of understanding the benefits to our health of botanicals:
"In seeking to achieve optimum nutrition, for many years attention has been focused on nutrients because their lack in the diet leads to deficiencies with characteristic clinical symptoms. However, the role of other food components in achieving optimal health is now better understood. Most of these food components are from plants which are rich in bioactive secondary metabolites. These are substances produced by the plant in adaptation to local environmental conditions, which, for example in the Mediterranean area, are often pro-oxidative. This requires an adaptive response from the botanical, producing protective bioactive compounds such as polyphenolic molecules. This is particularly relevant for human health because the intake of these plants results in the transfer of those protective compounds to the human organism."
Simply put, research is now beginning to understand that the interactions that occur between plants and their environment result in substances that can have a profound impact on the health of those of us who eat these plants. The researchers from Rutgers articulate this concept in another way:  "Plants must maintain and protect themselves through diverse arrays of complex natural products that they make from the inorganic components of air, soil and water because they lack the flight response. ...Plants can live hundreds of years without succumbing to diseases or predation.  It should come to no surprise that some of the compounds that have enabled plants to survive may also be used to maintain the health and well-being of humans" (2). Wow! This could give an additional meaning to Kermit the Frog's lament of "It's not that easy being green."

Seriously though, my purpose in sharing the above was to underscore the dire importance of including plant foods in your diet.  Having said that, eating for healing is not just about consuming a few more servings of fruits and vegetables a day, although this is definitely a good thing to do for your health. Let's take a closer look at a few of the nutritional strategies that were recommended to me. 

Options for nutritional paths to healing -
First, I'd like to share that when I began considering disease treatment plans, I sought the expertise of many qualified resources. What I'm sharing is the advice of these experts, and it has proven invaluable to me in determining the best course of action for me. Having a team of physicians that will consider and support your desire to choose the best treatment for you is priceless.  If you are dealing with an illness and struggling to navigate through the standard practice of care maze, I encourage you to pursue finding these experts.  They do exist!

My journey led me to an outstanding oncologist and functional medicine doctor who recommended the Comprehensive Elimination Diet, which is discussed in more detail here. In addition, this physician felt it was important to incorporate detoxification measures into my lifestyle (more about this in the post here). Another physician suggested I try the Anti-Inflammatory Diet.  Dr. Andrew Weil also has some excellent info on this program here. I have discovered that many components of these diet strategies overlap and compliment each other. Ultimately, what I found most productive for me was to pick certain components of these diets and combine them into an amalgamation that has become my lifestyle.

I'm ecstatic to say that the results speak for themselves. My annual follow up with the radiologist was so positive it prompted him to ask me about my treatment plan! I've also shared in previous posts that since my husband joined me on my eating for healing journey he has lost over 40 pounds, is healthier and feels better than he has in years. Clearly for us, making the decision to eat for healing has been positively life transforming! So, on to the bottom line. 

Key components of eating for healing
Here are the strategies that I feel are critical, along with their supporting elements. It's important to note that the components share many common elements. 
  1. Eliminate or limit foods that can cause chronic inflammation
  2. Aid the body in detoxification and support liver function
  3. Increase foods that have healing properties
    • Eat a colorful variety of plant foods - Serving recommendations can be found at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) Fruits and Veggies Matter website here and you can also read more in my blog post about this found here and here.  
    • When possible eat organic foods because pesticides and herbicides actually thwart the production of phenolics. As mentioned above, phenolics are chemicals that act as a plant's natural defense and they also happen to be good for our health. Read more here.
    • Limit or avoid foods made with refined grains, like white bread and pasta and eat more whole grains. For now, I have made the choice to restrict wheat because I wanted to make more room in my diet for the nutritional benefits of other grains that I wasn't eating because of my love of wheat.  Ancient grains like farro, quinoa and amaranth, for example, are a few that I'm eating now. The important take away here, is that you want to avoid refined white flour and foods containing this flour because the refining removes much of the grains nutritional benefits, as well as negatively effecting insulin.  More about whole grains here and on insulin below.
    • Avoid prepackaged, processed and refined foods. Always choose whole foods.
    • Eat low glycemic index foods. This prevents a rapid rise in insulin which can contribute to infllammation in the body.  Check out this website for more info on the glycemic index (GI) of foods. A good rule of thumb: Foods with more fiber usually have a lower GI.
    • Liberally use spices that have anti-inflammatory properties. Examples: ginger, turmeric and curry.
    • I avoid dairy to reduce risk of inflammation, especially from non-organic sources (lactose intolerance runs in my family), but I do eat some organically produced goat dairy products. 
    • Drink plenty of filtered water. 
    • Get more Omega 3 in your diet. Western diets are much higher in Omega 6 fats. Research suggests that a 1:1 ratio of Omega 3 to Omega 6 is healthier (5).  Supplement with a quality fish oil and eat more food sources of Omega 3 fats. For example walnuts, ground flax seeds or flax seed oil. Read more about fats here and here.  
    • Eliminate partially hydrogenated oils. Check food labels for trans fats and avoid fried foods.
    • Reduce saturated fats by cutting back on red meat and full-fat dairy foods.
The University of Michigan's Healing Foods Pyramid is a great visual representation of many of the elements just discussed. You can view the full sized, printable version here.
University of Michigan's Healing Foods Pyramid

The journey back to health and a "new normal" has been a long, winding and rather bumpy road, but as it is with many of life's passages, it has led to greater wisdom and strength. It's important to stress that what I discerned to be the best course of treatment for me does not suggest it is the only path to take. My choice is not better or more correct than any other treatment options.  Only you, along with the assistance of your health care provider, can decide what is best for you. Healthy or otherwise, our bodies can always use the nutritional support that eating for healing provides.

The next post will outline a weekly menu with meal suggestions to get you started.  In the meantime, I encourage you to begin by implementing one of the dietary strategies mentioned above each week, or perhaps you're ready to dive right in and try the Elimination Diet, the Anti-Inflammatory Diet, or the Healing Foods Plan. Go for it! You have nothing to lose, except maybe a few unwanted pounds, and you might even find you have gained renewed health. 

(1) Pieroni, A., Price, L., Eating and Healing: Traditional Food as Medicine, Haworth Press, 2006.
(2) Barbara Schmidt, David M. Ribnicky, Alexander Poulev, Sithes Logendra, William T. Cefalu, Ilya Raskin, A natural history of botanical therapeutics. Science Direct. - 
(3) University of Minnesota Center of Spirituality and Healing -
(4) European Botanical Forum - Benefits of Botanical Foods - 
Wikipedia - secondary metabolites -
Wikipedia - bioactive-
Wikipedia - polyphenol antioxidant -
Functional Medicine -
Dr. Weil -

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