by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
The next time you go to a pharmacy, take a look at the shelves behind the counter. They’re packed with hundreds, perhaps thousands, of drugs, all designed to cure what ails us. The key word here is cure, meaning fixing something that is wrong. However, we are slowly relearning what ancient medicine has taught for ages: The best solution to a health problem is to prevent it in the first place. And if we do develop a health condition that isn’t immediately life threatening, our first approach should be the gentlest one.
Many conditions can be prevented or remedied with lifestyle adjustments, and diet tops the list. By now, we should all know that eating healthy—reducing fat, salt, and alcohol, increasing fruits and vegetables—can have a profound impact on our health. But there are other dietary resources that can stave off disease and improve overall health. Specifically, common medicinal herbs and other botanicals can complement or even replace the pharmaceuticals in our medicine cabinet.
As an integrative physician, I rely on herbs and botanicals to help promote optimal health. Medicinal herbs have evolved to provide a variety of beneficial natural compounds, such as antioxidants and phytonutrients, which support good health in numerous complex ways. But these are simple, easy-to-find natural remedies, many of which flourish right in our own backyards. This is, of course, the best natural pharmacy: a garden full of vital, living remedies rich in healing properties. In fact, many traditional herbalists insist that our best medicine can be found growing closest to us, fresh and in season.
One of nature’s most potent antibiotics and a powerful immunity booster, thyme has been used medicinally for centuries. In addition, its decongestant properties can fight bronchitis, whooping cough, and upper respiratory tract inflammation. It is a powerful fungicidal agent and helps fight parasites. Thyme tea can also help relieve headaches and menstrual pain, aid digestion, and offer antioxidant support.
Several active ingredients in garlic—allicin, alliinase, and sulfur compounds—have powerful antibiotic, antiviral, and fungicidal actions. Garlic can also lower blood pressure, stabilize cholesterol, boost immunity, and protect the cardiovascular system from inflammation and oxidative stress. High levels of vitamin C, a vital antioxidant, protect blood vessels and reduce free radicals. Vitamin B6 lowers homocysteine levels, also protecting blood vessels. Garlic helps remove toxins and heavy metals from the body, as well.
In addition to its pleasant fragrance, mint is a cooling herb that can aid digestion and reduce stomach discomfort. Mint can be used in teas or salads and can relieve irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), limit harmful bacteria in the stomach, and reduce digestive tract inflammation. Mint can also help clear congestion in the nose, throat, and lungs.
Cilantro is a popular Mediterranean herb, and it also contains compounds that help remove heavy metals and other toxins from the body. Cilantro is rich in antioxidants and dietary fiber, too, which help reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol levels while increasing HDL (good) cholesterol levels. The plant’s leaves and stems contain polyphenolic flavonoids, such as quercetin, which offer anti-inflammatory support and affect a number of proteins linked to cell survival and cellular growth.
Broccoli and Other Cruciferous Vegetables
Your mother was right—eat your broccoli! Cruciferous vegetables like cabbage, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, kale, and broccoli offer powerful health benefits. In addition to being high in vitamin C they’re great sources of indole-3-carbinol, which, upon digestion, produces the powerful active component DIM (diindolylmethane). These and other phytonutrients unique to this class of vegetables boost immunity, increase DNA repair capacity, protect cardiovascular health, fight cancer growth, help balance hormones, and support overall health.
After you eat your vegetables, you may hunger for something sweet. Strawberries are high in vitamin C and other antioxidants. They can also support immunity, improve eye health, and reduce LDL cholesterol. Strawberries also contain ellagic acid, which has been shown to help fight cancer growth. A recent study found that strawberries helped slow esophageal cancer growth. Since strawberries can be heavily sprayed, always opt for organic.
Of course, this is only a partial list. There are numerous other easy to grow plants that can enhance health. Some, like the tenacious dandelion, are even considered weeds! Lemon balm, parsley, lavender, chamomile, and comfrey are other common favorites. And let’s not discount another advantage of a garden full of medicinal plants: They’re often quite beautiful, and enhance our surroundings, providing a source of natural calm in our lives.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, Ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more information about his work, visit dreliaz.org.