Healing Foods in Traditional Cultures
By Susheela Uhl
Advice given 2,500 years ago by Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine
— “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
— is being followed today with renewed vigor as consumers are thinking
more holistically about their health. Today’s consumers want to
control and improve their health and reduce disease risk using natural
methods. With this in mind, researchers are investigating many foods
valued in traditional medicine for medicinal value, either to complement
existing ways of healing or as alternatives to drugs. The popularity
of functional foods is on the rise.
With the growing interest in do-it-yourself therapies, people are turning
to traditional healing rooted in religious and philosophical beliefs.
Many foods and spices have been used historically as remedies: ginger,
to aid digestion and treat nausea; cassia in 4th century B.C. China
to treat depression and aid in blood circulation; and honey by Egyptians
to dress wounds. Greeks ate onions for their curative qualities, Romans
used garlic for strength, and Mesoamerican civilizations valued chile
peppers for treating headaches and pain.
Foods are not used haphazardly in traditional healing, but are frequently
part of a “holistic health system.” Whether ayurveda, Chinese
traditional medicine, folk medicine, Mayan healing or Unani tib —
traditional healing emphasizes disease prevention through one’s
pursuit of mental, physical and emotional harmony with the environment,
including foods and dietary practices. Also, traditional dietary healing
takes into account the individual’s personality, age and metabolism,
along with seasonal issues, to achieve optimum health. Ingredients,
cooking techniques and meal presentation are significant tools in traditional
Native American medicine
Native Americans traditionally used sarsaparilla to provide energy and
relieve coughs, sassafras root to lower fevers and chamomile flowers
to treat gingivitis. Mayans and Aztecs connected health with nature,
spirits and lifestyle. Strong life energy, or ch’ulel, governs
health, strength and emotions. Medical diagnostics and therapy were
based on the concept of hot (open and flowing) and cold (closed and
Mayan medicine is a medical/religious system to heal both physical and
emotional ailments. Under Mayan theory, diseases occur when there is
an imbalance of the hot and cold brought about by the physiological
state of body, the environment or the plants eaten. Mayans believe hot
remedies counteract symptoms of diseases caused by cold conditions,
and cold remedies treat the symptoms of illness caused by heat. Mangoes,
nopal, roses, avocados and limes are remedies for hot conditions, such
as swelling, fever, diarrhea, vomiting or anxiety. Oranges, rosemary,
chocolate, chilies, ginger, garlic, coffee and yams are used to treat
cold conditions, such as cramping, mucus discharge, constipation, infertility
and menstrual problems.
Therapeutic practices based on medicinal plants (called sheev in Mayan)
still are popular as traditional healing tools in Central and South
America: chayote to lower blood pressure, amaranth leaf to treat anemia,
oregano tea for bronchitis, epazote for intestinal parasites, red hibiscus
flower to remedy diarrhea, chile peppers to treat severe headaches and
relieve cold and flu symptoms.
Today, plants such as guarana, maca and echinacea are growing in popularity
as functional foods. South American Guarani Indians dry roast the seeds
of guarana, a red berry grown in Venezuela and northern Brazil, and
make it into a thick beverage with water and flavorings. They drink
it to cure digestive problems, promote mental alertness and regain strength.
Orinoco Indians make this drink with water and cassava and allow it
to ferment. Unlike coffee, which gives stimulation in a sudden rush,
guarana beverages give a slow and prolonged energy release. Guarana
contains up to 5% guaranine (caffeine-like), tannin, saponins, theobromine
and theophylline, which provide a stimulating effect.
Maca, a root vegetable related to the potato, originates in the Andes
Mountains. Peruvians have used it not only as food, but to increase
libido, fertility, energy and stamina. Maca is dried, ground and made
into soups and beverages. The plant’s leaves are brewed for tea.
Today, athletes use maca to increase energy and stamina.
Native Americans used echinacea, purple coneflower, for snakebites and
skin wounds, and to cure toothaches and sore throats. Besides its stimulating
effect on the immune system, echinacea also may prevent tumor growth
in rats, prevent fungal infections and lessen the severity of colds.
European traditional remedies
Ancient Greeks and Romans acquired therapeutic herbal knowledge from
the Egyptians and the ancient Ayurvedics. Greeks drank marjoram in teas
to clear headaches. In 77 A.D., a Roman herbalist, Pliny the Elder,
compiled more than 1,000 plants in Historia Naturalis, including anise
to aid digestion, juniper for bladder infections and parsley to cleanse
The Renaissance period was the golden age for herbal medicines and therapeutic
use of spices in wealthy households. Angelica was used to reduce muscular
spasms, raspberry was used as a diuretic and cabbage was used for treating
cathartic problems. In 18th and 19th century Europe, foods used as remedies
were found in kitchens and apothecaries.
Many popular healing plants in use today are native to Europe. According
to folk medicine, chicory root increases bile flow, decreases inflammation,
and serves as a diuretic and tonic for the liver. When roasted, it has
a coffee-like aroma and is used as a coffee additive or substitute.
Its main constituents are inulin, fructose, tannin, lactucin and lactucopicrin.
The latter two bitter principles have a sedative effect on the central
nervous system. Thus, chicory counteracts coffee’s “nervous”
St. John’s wort, a golden-yellow flower native to Europe, was used
as a nerve tonic during the late 1900s. St. John’s wort has been
well-researched for the treatment of mild to moderate depression, insomnia,
anxiety and emotional disorders. Its antidepressant effect is attributed
to its xanthones and flavonoids. In Germany, its therapeutic use is
approved for depressive mood disorders, anxiety and nervous unrest.
It is also a popular remedy for gastrointestinal disorders in Europe.
Recently, its main ingredients, hypericin and psuedohypericin, have
been found to help the body fight viruses.
Healing in Africa, the Middle East
In Egypt, Ethiopia and Morocco, garlic, fenugreek, cumin and fennel
have been used traditionally as remedies. Dill is an ancient Assyrian
and Egyptian remedy for soothing the stomach and relieving indigestion.
Caraway was used to help digestion and prevent nausea, sumac treated
an upset stomach, poppy seed acted as a painkiller, tarragon cured insomnia,
and cumin lowered blood pressure and relieved stress.
Egyptians and Ethiopians used fenugreek — cultivated in Egypt as
early as 1000 B.C. — to reduce fevers, aid digestion, promote lactation
and treat diabetes. Today, its trigonelline component is found to prevent
a hypoglycemic effect.
In 3700 B.C., Egyptians worshipped garlic and fed it to slaves to keep
them disease-free. Egyptian writings list 22 remedies containing garlic,
including those for heart disease, ear infections, tumors and insect
bites. Garlic’s chemical, allicin, may lower cholesterol, increase
HDL blood levels, break down clots, improve blood circulation and enhance
the immune system.
Indian art of healing
Indian cooking is based on the therapeutic principles of ayurvedic medicine
— ayu meaning life and veda meaning knowledge. In a standard ayurvedic
meal, ingredients are chosen not only for taste but also to assure physical
and emotional harmony. Food preparation and presentation creates desired
Ayurveda categorizes foods into six tastes, or rasas: sweet, salty,
sour, pungent, bitter and astringent. Many foods and spices contain
more than one taste. These are balanced so as not to adversely affect
the functioning of the organs. For example, fennel contributes a sweet
rasa; tamarind, sour; fenugreek, bitter; tomatoes, sweet and sour; chickpeas,
sweet and astringent; and mango, sour and sweet.
To maintain perfect balance and nourishment, all six rasas should be
incorporated into every meal. This explains the complex spice combinations
and flavor depth experienced with Indian foods. To harmonize the body,
these tastes must be balanced in the meal according to each person’s
constitution, or dosha, frame of mind, time of day and season. Illnesses
and diseases occur when food and a person’s constitution are imbalanced.
Foods are also classified as hot, cold, moist, dry, heavy or light.
Hot foods speed digestion. Cold foods slow it. Every meal is well-balanced
between hot and cold foods, with different tastes and textures to promote
digestion and avoid illnesses. Potatoes, for example, are eaten to decrease
blood pressure, cauliflower to reduce stomach and colon cancers, tomato
to improve blood circulation and pickled mangoes for colds.
Spices stimulate the secretions of digestive enzymes, which help digestion
and provide hot or cold properties. Fennel, a sweet spice, is also considered
a cooling spice that brings down fevers and treats nausea; black pepper,
a pungent and hot spice, is thought to cure colds and flu. Similarly,
mace is used to treat stomach pains, mustard oil to increase blood flow,
and asafetida to relieve gas.
Turmeric, called haldi or manjal in India, is a popular spice that provides
color and flavor to curries and other foods. Indians also use it to
treat stomach disorders, obesity and menstrual problems, and to heal
the uterus after childbirth. In recent years, evidence has been found
that turmeric’s components, curcumin and curcumene, increase bile
flow, break down dietary fats, prevent blood clots, treat gallbladder
disease and inhibit tumor initiation and promotion.
Ginger, from the Sanskrit word shringavera, is called “medicine
for the stomach.” It has been used to soothe digestion, treat nausea
and improve blood circulation. Ginger ale generally is consumed as a
home remedy for an upset stomach. Its component gingerol also may have
some benefit in the cardiovascular system, lowering cholesterol. Its
shogoal and gingeberane content is effective against motion sickness
and vomiting. Grated ginger with honey is added to soups or teas to
relieve coughs and cold symptoms.
Traditional Chinese medicine
Historically, there has been an integration of nutrition, medicine and
foods in China, Korea and Japan. Similar to ayurveda, Chinese traditional
medicine has five different tastes: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and spicy
hot. Each taste affects the qi or chi that circulates throughout the
body along prescribed pathways. The proper balance of these five tastes
is essential to creating harmony or good health. If qi does not flow
smoothly or gets stuck, illness occurs. Qi can be unstuck by stimulants
such as food, acupuncture or acupressure. Herbal tonics (called tong
shui), soups and tonics made from vegetables, spices, grains, nuts and
fruits, generally are consumed as snacks to cleanse and detoxify the
body and to restore its balance.
The different tastes, as well as the movement of qi, are described by
yin and yang. They describe qi’s location, movement and functioning.
Yang represents an action or activity that expends energy. Yin represents
a restful phase in which energy is replenished. A proper balance of
yin and yang in a meal is essential in maintaining good health. Yin-producing
foods (cold) are cooling, soothing, milder and moistening, such as leafy
vegetables, seaweed, fruits and mild spices. Yang-producing foods (hot)
are warming, invigorating, high in fat, spicier and drier, such as pork,
mutton, peanuts, chiles and ginger. Yin spices are sedative and slow
metabolism. Yang spices are active and increase metabolism.
As a neutral food, rice is a meal’s centerpiece. Vegetables and
fruits are eaten with rice as healing tools, such as shiitake mushroom
to fight against cancer, red beans to invigorate the kidneys, bamboo
shoots to clear phlegm and jujube for anemia. Contrasting spices and
ingredients manipulate a meal’s hotness or coldness. For example,
chile peppers are added to seaweed and sugar is added to spicy pork
to balance their effects.
Cooking techniques also are classified under hot or cold. Stir-frying,
roasting or deep-frying add heat to foods while steaming, boiling or
slow simmering cools foods down. So a mix of stir-fried and steamed
dishes are served in a single meal to create balance. This balancing
is the basis of authentic Chinese cooking styles that give contrasting
flavors and textures.
Similar to ayurveda, the state of the person’s health and seasons
also become important factors in balancing ingredients for health. A
feverish person is given cooling ingredients for balance. During the
cold season, yang spices are more desirable for the flow of qi.
Since 2800 B.C., ginkgo biloba leaves have been an ancient remedy for
coughs, asthma and inflammation, and are now widely used in East Asia
and Europe for beneficial effects on the circulatory system. Its flavonoids
and diterpenes are believed to improve blood flow, and acts as a free-radical
scavenger. Researchers are examining whether this herb can increase
blood flow to improve memory and prevent blood clots. It may also help
people with tinnitus and vertigo.
Panax ginseng, with its yang property, contains triterpenoid saponins
which may give the body increased resistance to stress, increase stamina
and stimulate the immune system.
A picture of health
Around the globe, there is a growing body of research into traditional
foods for dietetic and pharmacological qualities. In Japan, foods that
have proven medical and nutritional benefits are licensed as FOSHU (Foods
for Specified Health Use). In Germany, the safety and efficacy of herbs
are published in Commission E Monographs. In the United States, although
functional foods are a growing market, they are still ill-defined, not
legally recognized or sometimes poorly regulated as to health claims.
Moreover, with Western medicine, scientists generally seek to isolate
the specific chemical or chemicals in foods that provide the nutrition
or physiological healing effect. We take capsules, tablets, extracts
or food products containing the bioactive ingredient, assuming they
will give the same effect.
In traditional cultures, whole foods were eaten to give the desired
healing effects. They were not consumed in isolation, but with meals,
added to beverages or made into tonics. Are bioactive ingredients by
themselves the effective agents? Or is the totality of the food consumed
and the way a meal is taken traditionally the effective way? The historical
use and applications of healing foods in traditional societies need
to be understood in order to help us with functional food formulation,
marketing, or even to use them as a basis for further scientific studies.
Susheela Uhl is president of Horizons Consulting
Inc., a Mamaroneck, NY-based food-consulting firm. She creates culinary
concepts and develops ethnic, fusion or “new” American products
for U.S.-regional, national and global markets. She provides culinary demonstrations,
workshops and presentations on ethnic foods, spices, spice blends and other
flavorings, as well as on cultural factors related to trends, product development,
menus and nutritional enhancement. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org
or by visiting www.SusheelaConsulting.com.
3400 Dundee Rd. Suite #100
Northbrook, IL 60062