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Food contains nutrients, which are the essence of life. Nutrients nourish our cells, optimise our health, prevent diseases and sustain life. Indeed food is our "medicine" for life.
Food for healing
Food is the primary "medicine" used in traditional healing arts, including traditional Chinese medicine, Ayurveda (Indian traditional medicine). Jamu (Indonesias traditional medicine), European herbalism and other healing systems across the world. These healing systems harness mainly the power of herbs - the roots, stems, bark leaves, flowers, fruit and seeds of plants.
Some herbs are eaten as part of a regular diet while others are used mainly for treating the sick. A Chinese herbal prescription, for example, may consist of common foods like ginger, barley or almonds, together with herbs not normally used in cooking. At the same time, many Chinese tonic soups are brewed with medicinal herbs and the Chinese even have herbal restaurants.
Other foods like chicken soup, or the water from cooking rice porridge, are also used for medicinal purposes. The Japanese value umeboshi, a pickled sour apricot, that they believe can help with over a hundred ailments. They even have a saying: "An umeboshi a day keeps the doctor away."
The Greek philosopher Hippocrates, who lived from 460 BC to 370 BC, is widely regarded as "the father of modern medicine". He is famous for having advised: "Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food."
Link between modern medicine and food
Modern medicine is the only healing system that relies on synthetic pharmaceutical drugs rather than on natural foods. Yet it is not all that different from traditional medicine, because the vast majority of pharmaceutical drugs were developed from herbs. For example:
- Aspirin was developed from plant extracts that are known to relieve symptoms of pain, headache and fever. Hippocrates left records describing how a powder made from the bark and leaves of the willow tree could relieve these symptoms.
- Penicillin, the first antibiotic, was harvested from the mould Penicillium notatum. This discovery by Alexander Fleming in 1928 heralded the era of antibiotics and has been recognised as one of the greatest advances in therapeutic medicine.
- Statins, the class of cholesterol-lowering drugs, were developed from substances found in red yeast rice, a fermented rice product traditionally used as a food colouring by the Chinese (for Chinese sausages), Indians (for tandoori chicken) and Italians (for salami).
- Tamiflu, the anti-influenza drug, was originally made from star anise, a spice widely used in both Chinese and Indian cuisine. After a shortage of star anise affected Tamiflu production, an artificially synthesized version of the active ingredient was developed.
The vast majority of pharmaceutical drugs molecules originated from foods. However natural molecules cannot be patented. So, scientists modified these molecules to enhance their potency and, in the process, created compounds that can be patented.
These are called drugs. Since the original molecules are still intact, the body's cell receptors are able to recognise and respond to these chemicals, even though they are "alien".
This content is adapted, with permission, from Book 1 of 2 : The Wonders of Nutrition by Dr Ang Poon Liat. MBBS, M.MED (PAED), MRCP (UK PAED), FAMS, MD.