“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”
You have probably come across this famous quote written by Hippocrates (460 BC-377 BC), an ancient Greek doctor who is considered the father of Western medicine. Sounds nice, right? But how many of us really take this quote to heart? How many of us really believe that we can cure ourselves with food? Ancient Chinese doctors were strong believers in that food can be used as medicine. During their time, when patients got sick, the first thing that the doctor would do is to change their diet. Back then, these doctors didn’t have to deal with removing processed, denatured, chemically treated, high fructose corn syrup infused “food” that most of today’s population consumes. They were concerned with making sure that the food was perfectly balanced energetically. For example, if patient experienced symptoms of “dryness” e.g. dry skin, dry mouth, constipation with hard stools, doctor would prescribe foods that “moisten dryness” such as: pears, apples, soybean products, honey, eggs. clams etc. If food therapy was not sufficient to completely cure particular symptoms, herbal medicine was prescribed as well as certain physical exercises that patient can do at home. Each patient received different dietary recommendations because there is not such thing as one diet that fits all, a concept that we are struggling to prove wrong today.
Amazingly enough, ancient Chinese doctors were also aware that most of our immunity comes from our gut or Stomach and Spleen energies. What we eat, how we eat it and most importantly how we digest it will have a direct impact on our energy, emotional state and immune system functioning. After all, eating is something that we do multiple times every single day so it would be foolish to think that the quality of the food that we have consume will not have an impact on our health. In order to increase the functioning of our immune system, it is important to increase the functioning of our gut. How do you do that?
1. Regularly consume fermented foods rich in beneficial bacteria which help with digestive process. Examples of fermented foods include: sauerkraut, kimchi, plain yogurt, kefir, miso, tempeh. Small amount is all that you need but it has to be consumed regularly. If you truly can’t stand any of these foods then it would be important to supplement with beneficial bacteria supplements. I believe that no supplement can match the innate wisdom of food that nature has provided for us but something is better than nothing. Acidophilus capsules can be found in most health food stores. Feel free to contact me if you have questions about the brands that I recommend.
For more info on fermented food please visit: http://www.westonaprice.org/foodfeatures/lacto.html
2. Remove highly processed foods from your diet. Avoid products made with artificial ingredients, colors, preservatives, partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated trans fats (e.g. margarine and other fake butter spreads, non dairy creamers,), artificial sweeteners, highly processed and bleached wheat flour. Bottom line is: if a product that you are buying has a ton of ingredients that you can’t even pronounce, it is fair to say that it contains artificial ingredients that are bad for you. Ideally, you want to switch to real food that has no ingredients other than what it is e.g. apple, potato, celery, carrot, kale (you see where I am going with this one). Artificial ingredients and chemicals tax our immune system. Toxic chemicals are unfortunately a daily part of our lives so if we can give our body a little break by not consuming toxic foods, it will thank us by providing us with more energy, better digestion and a healthier immune system.
3. Drink only small amounts of room temperature or warm liquids during your meal. Large amounts of ice water can dilute digestive enzymes present in your saliva as well as slow down your digestive process. Certain amount of heat has to be present in order for stomach to function efficiently and digest food. It is better to take small sips of hot tea, clear soup or room temperature water during meals or drink liquids 15-30 minutes after a meal.
4. Eat at regular times. Eating at regular times and starting your day with nutritious breakfast which contains protein helps keep your blood sugar stable and makes your crave less unhealthy foods. Eating at regular times also helps with having regular bowel movements.
5. Don’t eat late at night. According to Chinese medicine, our digestive system receives the most energy between 7-9am. Make the most out of your breakfast and lunch time and try to eat less in the evening. Digestive system should be resting at night while you sleep as opposed to working hard to digest the food that was eaten shortly before bed time. Laying down right after a meal can cause heart burn and can interfere with your sleep.
5. Don’t eat while emotionally stressed. When we are under stress, our sympathetic nervous system diverts blood flow from out gut to other places e.g. muscles (in order to prepare us for the “fight or flight” response). Stress is also known to alter our appetite and while some people have no appetite at all while stressed, others tend to overeat. It is also important not to eat in places that you associated with stress (e.g. place where you pay your monthly bills) but to reserve a calm, comfortable area where you can relax and enjoy your food.
6. Take your time, chew properly and enjoy every bite. Eating while driving, working on computer, talking on a phone or doing crossword puzzles interferes with proper digestive process. It is not incidental that in most cultures people used to (or still do) say a short prayer right before they start their meal. Having a small ritual, saying a prayer, or simply being grateful for the food that you have can trigger the release of digestive enzymes and prepare your body to accept the nourishment.
SPECIFIC FOODS THAT INCREASE IMMUNITY
Foods which increase energy of the Stomach and Spleen have traditionally been used in Chinese dietary therapy to improve energy and immunity. The dietary treatment for Spleen qi deficiency involves foods that are either warming or at least neutral in their thermal nature. Foods with cooling properties weaken digestion as well as “digestive fire” necessary for healthy extraction and absorption of nutrients. In order to strengthen your immune system you should eat:
Vegetables. Mushrooms are especially helpful for immunity so are: onions and garlic, carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, yams, peas, pumpkin, cabbage, kale, leeks, chives, parsnips, green leafy vegetables as well as sea vegetables like kelp and other seaweeds. Avoid eating raw, uncooked vegetables since they take more energy to digest and can cause loose stools. Small amounts of salad in addition to your meal is fine especially in the summer time when vegetables are fresh and abundant.
Whole grains. Rice, barley, oats and quinoa are recommended. If you experience excessive mucous and chronic nasal congestion you might want to experiment with completely avoiding wheat and wheat products for two weeks. If you notice that your condition is getting better it means that you could have an intolerance to gluten. Gluten intolerance is also known to cause infertility and recurrent miscarriage.
Fruits. In Chinese medicine, most fruit has cooling energetic nature. That is why fruit is abundant during summer time or tropical climates. It is used to refresh us and cool us down. Fruits that has neutral temperature includes: cherries, apricots , peaches, berries and are more appropriate for people who tend to run cold. Fruits should be eaten in larger amounts during summer time. In winter time, cooking or baking fruit is more advisable.
Beans and legumes. Garbanzo beans are especially good for tonifying the Spleen energy. Other beans like black bans, kidney beans and all forms of lentils are also helpful. You can start your day by eating rice and beans for breakfast. Beans digest slowly and keep your blood sugar levels even so you will feel full of energy and satisfied until lunch time. You will also be less likely to reach out for sugary treats during the day.
Meats and fish. Small amounts of of chicken, beef and lamb are used to tonify the energy. It is important that meat is of highest quality and organically raised. Smaller fish like sardines, trout, mackerel should be eaten in larger quantity as opposed to large fish like tuna and salmon because larger fish contains higher mercury content.
Warming spices like onions, garlic, ginger, cayenne pepper, black pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, fennel, basil, dill, cumin and rosemary should be added to food.
Milk and dairy products. Milk has a cooling energy and tends to exacerbate mucous conditions. Small amounts of high quality raw milk can be consumed if you don’t suffer from too much mucous (or asthma). Yogurt is best when consumed plain and it is easier to digest than plain milk. For more information on milk and dairy please refer to my article “Got Real Milk?”.