Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, declared “let food be thy medicine, and medicine be they food.” The concept of food as medicine is ancient. For good reason. What we put into our bodies is the first and most significant part of our overall health and well-being. The relationship between food and health was an essential – and easily observable, part of every healing tradition.
Food as medicine is also the foundation of Hildegard of Bingen medicine. But it is not unique to Hildegard. Her notion that a kitchen is also a pharmacy reflects a common theme among ancient traditions of healing: food is the first medicine. Medicines at the time were all plant based or specific combinations of foods prescribed according to their unique healing qualities.
Similarly, Ayurveda, traditional Chinese medicine, and traditional German Medicine all treat food as medicine as a means to prevent and treat illness. These ancient practices continue to this day, in no small part due to the fact that food as medicine works!
At the very least, food as medicine is a valuable way to look at what and how we eat. Since we have to eat and most of us eat every day, we have an incredible opportunity to make food choices that will help us grow, heal, and thrive. Though the relationship between food and health is ancient, modern times have seemingly parted ways with the important perspective of food as medicine.
In this post we will explore how we got to this point and how you can re-connect with this simple but powerful idea that your food can be the key to lasting holistic health and wellness.
For some specific ways to use food as medicine, see our post on Hildegard of Bingen’s 11 best natural remedies.
The American Diet and Chronic Disease
We have moved further away from our roots in holistic wellness in favor of convenience and speed. We now choose processed foods instead of whole fruits and vegetables. The industrialization of food has made this choice even easier. The American diet has disposed of the idea of food as medicine.
Processed food is designed to appeal to your senses in every possible way. These foods have been designed, tested, and re-designed to trigger your various receptors of smell, taste, and feel. Even the packaging is in on the trick to visually stimulate.
When it comes to nutrition, we are designed to seek out scarce and valuable things in nature. Foods that are valuable include: calorie dense (so we crave fat), contain essential minerals (so we crave salt), and quick and efficient source of energy (so we crave sugar.)
Our bodies have natural “wiring” that encourage the hunt for these valuable sources of food. In simple terms, this means we are rewarded with pleasure when we eat foods with these qualities. Processed foods are carefully designed down to the smallest detail in order to make them as pleasurable as possible. Note, we didn’t say nutritious, but pleasurable.
When Food Becomes a Product
Processed and fast foods are designed to include the things that should be scarce like sugar, fat, and salt. The problem is that in the modern environment these things are not scarce. In fact they are abundant. But the problem isn’t just a matter of too much (though that is a problem too.) When these foods are processed, most of the other beneficial parts of the whole food going into the process is cut out.
The whole fruits and vegetables and the wild or grass-fed pasture meats have been turned into something else: a product. A product to deliver the highest pleasure at the lowest cost. When this happens, any potential for food as medicine is lost.
The Lifestyle Diseases
Demands on our time, a common part of the modern lifestyle, makes those processed foods all the more appealing. Unfortunately, advances in modern living and food production have led to a huge increase in chronic illnesses over the past several decades. It seems that our never-ending goal of progress has made us much less healthy as a population.
While plagues and pox have thankfully been cured along the way, we have managed to create a whole new epidemic in their wake. Somewhere along the way, food as medicine has been turned upside down. Now, many things we call food are actually closer to poison than medicine.
If you are like most and have followed the modern trends in diet, you are missing out on the potential of food as medicine. This fact has been made clear by the sharp increase in the number of people suffering with what is now categorized as “lifestyle diseases.”
Chronic diseases and other medical conditions such as diabetes and other blood sugar disorders, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity (officially deemed a disease by the American Medical Association in 2013), are largely a result of the increasing preference for packaged, processed, prepared foods over whole foods. Simply going along with modern convenience is turning out to be deadly.
We recognize part of the problem. The fact that the many chronic illnesses on the rise are referred to as “lifestyle diseases” shows that we know that choices in diet, activity, and other lifestyle preferences are directly related to poor health. But we face another problem: the quick fix.
Modern medicine has brought with it a tendency toward addressing the symptoms and not the underlying causes of the disease or illness. The drugs often work in a way that allows for the underlying causes to go unchanged. If you have a diet heavy in sugar and processed foods, chances are you will eventually get one or more of those lifestyle diseases. But drug companies can offer a variety of medicines to control or slow the damage.
Normally this would be great. But the problem is that the appeal of the quick fix of drugs is just like the appeal of fast and processed food for nutrition. They both miss the importance of food as medicine in terms of prevention and treatment.
So what can you do? Let’s go back to the roots.
Food as Medicine: The Healing Power of Food
Today, we’re seeing ancient dietary traditions, such as the slow food movement gain in popularity. Like many healers of her time, our namesake Hildegard was keenly aware of how nutritional treatment and lifestyle impacted health. Though much of the inner workings of the human body remained a mystery, the simple notion that what people ate directly affected the quality of their health was observable fact. So it was central to Hildegard’s practice.
Accordingly, here at Healthy Hildegard we dedicate a lot of time to further exploring the role food plays in preserving and restoring our health. In this effort, a basic knowledge of food as medicine can give you a solid foundation for a healthy life full of vitality.
How Food as Medicine Works
At the core of Hildegard’s health regime is a balanced diet of spelt, fruit, and vegetables. Her emphasis on moderation was also an important part of her approach to food as medicine. Modern science agrees. Medical and nutrition studies continue to support the health benefits of a whole, mostly plant-based diet.
See our post on 7 of Hildegard’s healing plants for an introduction to healing plants and some specific examples you can use right away.
For optimal health and disease prevention, eat plenty of whole fruits and vegetables. You should also use moderation when eating meats and restrict your consumption of sugar and processed foods. Following these basic dietary recommendations is associated with many health benefits including the prevention of Type 2 Diabetes as well as obesity, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
For some specific natural remedies for high blood pressure, see our post: 8 high blood pressure home remedies.
Adopting a diet rich in these whole foods can also prevent the majority of lifestyle diseases and can reduce the risk of most types of cancer.
Food as Medicine as a Lifestyle
Take some time to learn about what foods work best for you. If you are ambitious, you may start with a cleanse or a fast. Small changes in over time are a great way to make choosing whole foods a healthy habit. Learning how to set and manage your goals is also a worthwhile practice to help you with your food choices.
In the meantime, let’s look at some of the many ways that foods can act like medicine by preventing disease and even possibly slowing the effects of aging.
Inflammation is getting a lot of attention from researchers and nutrition experts lately. For good reason. It is likely a part of how most diseases start. Inflammation is also a major part of what causes us to age.
Inflammation is an important part of our immune system. Our bodies use inflammation to protect sensitive tissues. Inflammation is also part of the healing process. Inflammation is not a bad thing on its own, but it can be a problem over time.
Some foods and chemicals contained in processed foods can cause inflammation. Inflammation from foods like sugar and alcohol can happen in almost every part of our body. Researchers also believe that chronic inflammation is one of the causes of obesity. One of the common qualities of foods within the Hildegard diet and healing foods in general is that they contain anti-inflammatory nutrients.
Vitamins and Minerals
The highly processed foods that are common in the modern diet contain a much lower level of vitamins and minerals, often called micronutrients. A reduced intake of micronutrients over time can lead to a number of problems including a weaker immune system, poor circulation, and problems with skin, bones, and teeth.
The processing of foods often results in much lower nutritional content in the foods we consume. As a result, even simple things like flour are fortified with nutrients to make up for what was lost.
Unfortunately, many processed food items are not fortified. And those that are, still do not provide the nutrients in their natural forms. The best way to consume vitamins and minerals in in whole fruits and vegetables. When we eat the foods with all the nutrients together with the fiber, proteins, carbohydrates, and fatty acids, we absorb the nutrients better. We also get a much greater benefit overall.
Eating a diet high in whole and raw plants provides the enzymes, fats, trace elements, and vitamins that you need to be healthy. Most processed foods do not provide enough nutrients.
Too Much Acid
The pH level is what we use to determine if something is alkaline or acidic. Our body requires a certain pH level in order to be healthy. Your body is constantly working to maintain a pH of 7.4 (a slightly alkaline range of 7.35 to 7.45.) Studies show that the modern human diet has a much higher acidic pH load than that of our ancestors. This means our bodies must work harder to maintain the balance it needs to be healthy.
Highly processed foods loaded with simple sugars increase the acidity within the body. When the acidity is high, the body is under stress to seek balance. More time in the acidic state means more time exposed to potential disease. An alkaline diet can support many benefits including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke, high blood pressure, and improved cognition and bone health.
Food Can Affect Hormones
When making dietary choices, most people overlook the effect of food on hormones. Hormones can vary widely from individual to individual. But in general, the levels in your body will go up and down depending on many different things. Sleep, stress, injury and illness, mood, activity levels, sun exposure, and diet can all influence hormone levels.
Hormones have many important functions that can affect every part of your body. Hormones can be the cause of – or a symptom of many different health problems, including: diabetes, obesity, fatigue, depression, autoimmune disorders, and accelerated aging. For this reason, they can often be a challenging thing manage and treat.
This makes it even more important to help maintain a healthy balance of hormones. You can do this by simply choosing certain foods that do not disrupt our natural hormone balance. You can also choose foods that can help restore a healthy balance.
Consuming too much sugar, un-sprouted grains, alcohol, or soy can disrupt hormone balance. Instead, choose vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, healthy fats (coconut oil, avocado, wild fish), leafy greens, and mushrooms to help maintain your hormone balance.
Food and Blood Sugar
Blood sugar – or glucose, levels have also been subject to a great deal of stress due to the modern diet (a lot of sugar). Increased sugar consumption means the body must work harder to manage blood sugar levels.
When stressed by too much sugar for too many years, the body’s insulin response can no longer keep up. Eventually diabetes takes hold. Too much stress on the body’s insulin response can lead to weight gain and hormonal changes.
In addition to diabetes, poorly managed diets high in sugar and processed carbohydrates can lead to mood disorders, sleep problems, fatigue, and neurological damage. Low glycemic foods can help maintain a balanced blood glucose level. Balanced blood sugar means a much lower chance of getting diabetes or other serious illnesses.
Detoxification is a popular phrase in modern health and wellness circles. But the truth behind “detox” is that your body is fully capable of this task under normal conditions. In fact, it is doing it right now.
Eliminating waste and other harmful substances is a natural process that requires very little from us. But this doesn’t mean your diet does not have any role to play. Your foods can do a great deal to help (or harm) your natural process of eliminating waste and toxins. As can your lack of food, or a properly administered healing fast.
Poor waste elimination is normally a result of poor dietary habits. Digestive health is also closely related to hormonal health and healthy liver functioning. Our modern diet and lifestyles introduce a number of unhealthy chemicals from our diet and environment that can disrupt our digestive health.
We hope you have learned how you can use your food as medicine. Now you can start living a more healthy and happy life. For more about Hildegard and her work, start here with our Hildegard Biography.