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The first cookbook I ever fell in love with was a birthday gift from my sister: Kimberly Snyder’s The Beauty Detox Foods. Kimberly’s recipes worked around most of our family food sensitivities, and we loved the way she used leafy greens as wraps, and lettuce as a plate. Most of all, her approach reminded us of the food-as-medicine principles our mother had raised us with. “Remember how Mum always gave us raw carrot, celery and apples before dinner?!” Smart move, getting raw food into us while we were hungry! Like Kimberly, she knew this would stop us from overeating less nutrient dense food, while also stimulating our digestive enzymes.
Since then I’ve had two other love affairs with cookbooks, and each time it’s as though the author is standing beside me in the kitchen, introducing me to new foods, flavours and cooking styles. Rawsome Vegan Baking, by Emily von Euw, is fully responsible for my raw desert obsession. After learning from Emily’s recipes, I began creating my own, using ingredients from my garden and my naturopathic clinic: chamomile and orange cake; slippery elm with rehmannia and blueberries; calendula and carrot. My husband remembers the Emily von Euw year with fondness and longing. “I’d go to the freezer and there would be not one, but six different flavours of raw cake to choose from!”
My current favourite is Vegan Risha’s Indian Kitchen. Gone are the days of curry powders and pre-blended pastes! One new spice and herb at a time, my pantry, palate and my cooking skills are expanding yet again. Every time Risha introduces me to a new ingredient, I find myself thinking about what I know about these foods from a herbal medicine perspective. A session in the kitchen starts with Risha’s cookbook, but it usually ends with my favourite phytochemistry book, Herbal Constituents: Foundations of Phytochemistry, written by Lisa Ganora, who teaches me amazing things about the meal I’ve just prepared. Tonight my husband and I learned that the reason why the pepper in our meal was making our mouth tingle is because it contains the same alkamides as echinacea. In herbal medicine, these tongue-tingling plant-foods are classed as “sialagogues”: a herb that stimulates saliva to improve digestion.
Kitchen herbs and spices are a highly valuable, underutilised health resource, and this isn’t just because they are full of clever ingredients like tongue-tingling alkamides! Westerners tend to overuse refined salt, sugar and oil because our cooking (and palette) is made so bland by the lack of vibrant herbs and spices. Add the right spices to a meal and you won’t be so tempted to reach for the salt shaker, while generous bunches of herbs added to your salads can bring them to life in a way that completely eliminates the need for salad-dressings. At the moment, I’m growing lemon thyme, mint, parsley, basil and rosemary in my garden. They don’t take up much room and they are incredibly nutrient-dense, filled with an impressive array of phytochemicals.
The word phyto means plant, so phytochemicals are, quite simply, plant chemicals! A single plant can have thousands of copies of up to 100, 000 different kinds of phytochemicals, and when we consume them, these chemicals work synergistically together as a team to facilitate powerful medicinal actions. Some phytochemicals are powerful antioxidants that protect our cells and DNA from damage and aging. Others balance our hormones, improve digestion or destroy bacteria. Then there are those that reduce inflammation, block tumour formation, and eradicate carcinogens. Plants produce these phytochemicals to create the different colours, fragrances, flavours, and textures which help them attract seed pollinators and dispersers, or protect them from pests, diseases and environmental stresses. Because of this, phytonutrient range and content is higher in foods that are organically grown, so I grow my own food and herbs where possible, and source my spices from organic wholefoods suppliers.
Garlic has potent antibacterial properties, and long before my husband discovered the immune-boosting wonders of echinacea, he would traumatise all of us by eating an entire raw garlic clove at the first sign of any infection. It worked, but no one wanted to stand too close! Little did he know, he was also protecting himself from the risk of an enlarged prostate, cholesterol problems, blood clots and high blood pressure in the process.
“Garlic purifies the bloodstream and enhances detoxification to help secure clear skin over the long haul,” writes Kimberly Snyder in The Beauty Detox Foods. Kimberly says garlic has a beneficial effect on the lymphatic system, and is one of her favourite remedies for chronic acne. Garlic, she says, “stimulates both secretion of digestive juices and peristalsis, the wavelike muscle contractions that move waste along through your digestive tract.” Part of the happy-skin-and-bowel magic comes from the way garlic, like onions and leeks, modifies bowel flora. While the sulphur compounds improve liver detoxification and inhibit the growth of unhelpful bacteria and fungi, the fibre in garlic functions as a prebiotic. Prebiotics stimulate the growth and activity of beneficial bacteria, usually by acting as their food supply.
Friendly bacteria produce antimicrobial substances that protect us from harmful bacteria, so when they aren’t enough of them, the unhelpful bacteria multiply, producing toxins that injure the lining of the gut and confuse the immune system, leading to chronic low-grade inflammation and infection, and a compromised metabolism that can contribute to weight problems. By comparison, friendly gut bacteria help maintain our amino acid stores (our protein building blocks!), protect us from colorectal cancer, balance carbohydrate and fat metabolism, support immune system function and protect us against food allergies/sensitivities. They boost our nutritional status by synthesizing vitamins (biotin and vitamin K) and enhancing the absorption of various nutrients. Adding garlic to your grains and legumes, for example, can boost the availability of iron and zinc by 50%!
Aside from its uses as an anti-nausea herb, ginger has an impressive range of therapeutic properties that makes it a family favourite, both in the clinic and the kitchen. I particularly love the way ginger can help people who are suffering from migraine-headaches and menstrual cramps. As Dr Greger points out in his bestselling book How Not to Die, some of the studies done on ginger have garnered some promising results. “Even just one-eighth of a teaspoon of ginger powder three times a day dropped pain from an eight to a six on a scale of one to ten, and down further to a three in the second month.” Upping the dose to one-quarter of a teaspoon three times a day was found to decrease of pain from a total of nineteen hours down to fifteen hours. In studies comparing ginger to ibuprofen, ginger was found to be equally as effective in reducing menstrual cramping, but it has an edge that ibuprofen does not: reducing the amount of menstrual bleeding, from around 125ml per period down to 60ml.
My favourite personal medicinal use for ginger is as a peripheral circulatory stimulant to help warm up my cold hands! In the herbal dispensary, I add it to herbal prescriptions when I need to calm and improve digestive function; reduce inflammation and food allergies/sensitivities; or treat infections, arthritis of poor circulation. Both ginger and turmeric, along with caynne peppers, contain anti-inflammatory phenylpropanoid derivatives (curcuminoids, shogaols and gingerols). Another phytochemical ginger shares with turmeric is a sesquiterpene renowned for its herbal “carminative” action. Carminative herbs are perfect for calming and soothing digestive troubles such as gas, cramping and bloating.
Ginger comes with some warnings though; like many “hot” herbs, care needs to be taken when people have peptic ulcers, because they can be a bit irritating to raw tissue. Dose needs to be monitored very carefully in pregnancy, when there are gallstones, and when people are using blood thinners like warfarin. Like so many plant foods, ginger has an antiplatelet action, meaning it functions beautifully as a natural blood thinner, so the combination of warfarin with ginger put you at risk of bleeding due to your blood becoming too thin.
CILANTRO and CORIANDER
As Vegan Risha explains in her book Vegan Risha’s Indian Kitchen, coriander is the whole or powdered seeds, whereas cilantro is referring to the leaves of the coriander plant. I adore Thai curries but don’t ask me to eat cilantro! I’m one of those people for whom cilantro tastes just the way you imagine cockroaches might taste. In his book How Not to Die, Dr Greger explains that there is a phytochemical in cilantro (and stink bugs) that you can only smell if you have a particular gene. “Coriander lovers may just be genetic mutants who have an inability to smell the unpleasant compound.” Twenty sprigs a day for two months reduced inflammation levels in arthritis suffers and cut uric acid levels in half, so this is probably a good herb for people who suffer from gout, says Dr Greger.
I personally prefer the seeds. Dried coriander seeds that is! The fresh seeds are said to smell just as awful as the leaves! I love crushing dried coriander seeds in my mortar and pestle and adding them to Indian potato-based dishes such as Aloo Gobi, also known as Indian cauliflower potatoes. Corander seeds are also important ingredient in garam masala, a well-known Indian spice blend that Richa describes as being like an all-purpose seasoning with a stronger, more complex flavour than curry powder. Curry powder, says Risha, is a British or Western spice blend “approximating the masala spice blends from north and south India.”
Coriander contains a sedative, antispasmodic phytochemical called linalool which is also found in lavender, being soothing for both the digestive and nervous systems. In the traditional healing system of India (Ayurvedic medicine) coriander is often combined with caraway and cardamom seeds for use as a digestive tonic.
Cayenne pepper is hot, red chili powder that has anti-carcinogenic properties, while also being anti-inflammatory and balancing for the immune system. Like ginger, cayenne improves circulation to our extremities, delivering extra blood and warm to cold hands and feet, and a better oxygen supply to our brain. Besides being a circulatory stimulant, cayenne is a metabolic stimulant that can assist weight loss programs, but what I find most interesting about cayenne is the way it can help treat painful conditions such as angina (heart pain), irritable bowel, and cluster headaches. “Within a month of taking one and a half teaspoons’ worth of cayenne pepper a day,” writes Dr Greger in How Not to Die, “stomach pain and nausea [associated with indigestion] improved.”
Cayenne pepper can also improve your stomach acid if it’s become deficient. Hydrochloric acid in the stomach is vital for the digestion of nutrients, and indigestion can just as readily be caused by not enough acid as too much. Did you know that antacids (heartburn medication) can reduce your ability to absorb certain nutrients? It’s frustrating to watch people using antacids as an excuse to keep over-eating and over-indulging in alcohol, refined sugar, fatty foods, over-salted foods and junk foods: the very excesses that so often cause indigestion in the first place!
In How Not to Die, Dr Greger tells an hilarious story about a group of researchers who were fascinated by the fact that if you rub hot chili peppers inside your nostrils, your nose will start running and hurting, and you’ll start sneezing. Lucky for us, this seemingly pointless (and painful) research study led to the discovery that repeated exposure results in desensitization. In other words, keep putting chili up your nose and after a while your body gets used to it and stops complaining. “Exposed day after day, the nerves exhausted their stores and could no longer transmit [pain] messages until they made more neurotransmitter from scratch, which takes a couple of weeks.” This then led to the discovery that up-the-nose cayenne peppers can be used to treat cluster headaches, commonly nicknamed the “suicide headache”, and irritable bowel disease (IBS).
Why didn’t I list this spice first, you might be asking? After all, isn’t it the best spice in the world?! Turmeric hype has saturated the internet, but to me, it’s just another herb, no more or less amazing than all the others! The reason you’ve heard so much about turmeric is because it’s been more intensively researched than most of the others, with researchers hoping to find an active ingredient (like curcumin) to isolate, concentrate, patent, and cash in on. It isn’t profitable to research the therapeutic action of whole herbs. Beside which, science takes a reductionist approach that doesn’t lend itself well to the study of whole herbs and the synergistic interactions of the thousands of phytonutrients they contain. While I’m happy to use turmeric in my cooking (I seriously love that golden colour, don’t you?!) and to prescribe it in a liquid herbal blend, I point-blank refuse to use the isolated ‘curcumin’, as though this were the only active ingredient in turmeric and somehow superior to the whole herb, which it isn’t.
Like many of the other herbs we use in our kitchen, turmeric is anti-inflammatory, anti-carcinogenic, antioxidant, and helpful for treating indigestion, arthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Like ginger and garlic, it has antiplatelet properties, which helps keeps the blood thin and prevents blood clots. Like garlic, it plays a role in protecting us from heart disease, because it lowers cholesterol and blood lipids, a property it shares with fenugreek. Turmeric is a choleretic herb, meaning it stimulates the production of bile, which functions as a natural laxative and helps the body release toxins. Along with rosemary and garlic, turmeric improves the liver’s ability to detoxify toxins and carcinogens. Your liver is a chemical factory that sorts, recycles or clears out past-their-use-by chemicals (like hormones) as well as identifying and clearing out toxins you might ingest, breathe on or absorb from the world around you. Given we can turn yellow when our liver isn’t working properly, I find the colour of this herb quite apt!
As with ginger, it’s not a good idea to use turmeric if you are suffering from gallstones, but its excellent for helping prevent them in the first place, especially when these glorious spices are combined with a healthier diet. The worst thing you can do to cause gallstones is to have a high intake of saturated fat (highly unlikely on a vegan diet!), trans-fatty acids (from animal products and junk foods), cholesterol (impossible on a vegan diet), and refined sugars/carbohydrates. The same things that protect us from gallstones (and liver problems) are the same things that protect us from heart disease: fibre from plant foods, vegetables and fruits consumption, unsaturated fats, and vegetable protein intake.
Many diseases share common underlying causes, and a diverse, wholefoods plant-based diet filled with scrumptious herbs and spices is the best prevention (and cure) for most chronic disease patterns. In Part 2 of “The Healing Properties of Kitchen Herbs and Spices” (next edition!) we will be learning about fenugreek, parsley, thyme, rosemary, paprika, marjoram and oregano.