“Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food”
Hippocrates, Greek physician (c. 460 – c. 370 B.C.)
Some of the best health-promoting foods that we as humans can eat from Mother Earth are…herbs.
In addition to greatly enhancing the flavors of foods, herbs pack an astonishing assortment of nutrients, and natural disease-fighting substances that can help keep us healthy, and help us regain our health, should we become ill.
Herbs have been used in cooking, as well as to cure many types of diseases, for thousands of years. They add wonderful, exotic flavors to our foods. But the fact that they’re so rich in nutritional and medicinal compounds — it was this what got the attention of physicians early on.
The first written record of herbs used as remedies was authored by a Sumerian physician around 2200 B.C. Then, Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician from the fifth century B.C., recorded some 400 herbs and their medicinal qualities.
Hippocrates was a strong believer that a healthy diet was central to keeping a person healthy. And when someone did get sick, he believed that plants, many of them herbs, could be used to restore the body’s inner, innate self-healing mechanisms.
But the doctor who really popularized the use of herbs as medicine was English physician Nicholas Culpeper, who was also a committed botanist and herbalist from the 17th century.
During his life, Culpeper strongly advocated the use of natural herbal remedies to cure illness, and he considered such natural methods superior to much pricier, prohibitive, and even harmful methods used by other physicians of the time (methods such as bloodletting, to cure infections).
Modern science has painstakingly uncovered the intricate details about the disease-fighting ingredients in herbs: for starters, they’re full of antioxidants. These are vitamins, minerals and other compounds that protect the body against many harmful agents, including free radicals. Free radicals are unstable atoms or molecules that are highly reactive and are believed to be behind the oxidation, or degradation, of cells. Antioxidants bind to free radicals and neutralize them, thus protecting us against aging, wear and tear, and diseases like cancer and atherosclerosis.
Herbs are also rich in phytonutrients. Phytonutrients or phytochemicals are powerful antioxidants, unique to non-animal foods, and abundant in herbs and vegetables. Plants have been found to have tens of thousands of different phytonutrients, which protect them from bacteria, fungi, insects, etc. In the human body, these chemicals are believed to help prevent disease and stimulate proper body function. They’re credited with having antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, as well as boosting the immune system with their antiviral and antibacterial properties.
Even now, with the broad spectrum of laboratory-made, synthetic medicines that are more widely available to people, 80 percent of the world’s population still relies on herbal remedies as their number one method of curing disease.
Five billion people can’t be wrong! Even here in the United States, more and more, consumers are seeing the true wisdom of turning to nature, to fight illness. Americans are spending more money than ever on herbal supplements and homeopathic herbal remedies, knowing that these come without the dangerous side effects of many synthetic drugs, and are non-habit-forming.
Incorporating Some of the Most Powerful Medicinal Herbs into Your Diet
The following are among the most healthful — and flavorful — natural herbs you can use regularly in your cooking…when letting your food be your medicine, as the wise Hippocrates admonished people to do.
Called a “cure-all” by some herbologists, sage is helpful with an assortment of ailments, from sore throat and tonsil inflammation, to digestive problems, diarrhea, and nausea. Sage is also believed to help with memory problems and boost proper brain function.
In the kitchen, sage’s distinctive taste goes well with beef, poultry, soups, and stews.
Known for its antimicrobial and antifungal properties, oregano has been used to treat infections and candida yeast overgrowth. It is also used to treat digestive and respiratory problems. Oregano is high in antioxidant function, making it a natural for boosting immune response.
Oregano’s rich flavor goes well with tomatoes and tomato-based sauces. It’s also a nice addition to beef and chicken dishes.
An excellent source of vitamins C and A, both of which are antioxidants. Parsley is good for detoxifying the blood and strengthening its immune properties; it slows oxidation of cells and guards against tumor formation. It’s also been found helpful with bladder infections and flatulence.
Parsley’s mild taste makes it very versatile in the kitchen; it goes with just about anything. Chopped parsley is great with all meats, soups, stews, and salads. When used in cooking, it is best to add it at the end, so that it will maintain most of its crispiness and flavor.
Rosemary is used to treat stomach upset, digestive disorders, flatulence, and headaches. It is also said to help with memory problems and other brain functions.
Fresh chopped rosemary goes well with meats, in soups, and in sauces.
This herb comes in different varieties, and all of them contain antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. Basil is good for the immune system, it helps ward off infections and the flu, it promotes good indigestion, and it helps with headaches.
Basil’s delicate, unique taste is great in Italian foods and tomato-based sauces, and with all meats.
This herb has strong antibacterial and antifungal properties; it helps with an assortment of ailments, including bronchitis, laryngitis, colic, digestive disorders, and headaches.
Thyme goes well with poultry, vegetables, and soups.
Cilantro, or coriander, has high antioxidant and antibacterial activity; it helps with digestion; it stimulates insulin secretion, thus helping people with type 2 diabetes; it is also believed to help lower bad cholesterol and triglycerides.
The taste of cilantro is stronger than that of most herbs; most people love the taste of fresh chopped cilantro in salads, red or green tomato salsas, and other foods.
As we’re always told, there is no such thing as eating too many vegetables. And knowing that they have so many, and often unique, health-boosting substances, our best line of defense is to work as many plant foods — including herbs — into our daily diets as we can. That way, we’ll maximize the number of phytonutrients we ingest, as these perform such a wide range of important, health-preserving roles in our bodies.
By Marc Courtiol