The Foods – Herbs – Drugs Spectrum Part 3

The Foods – Herbs – Drugs Spectrum Part 3

In parts one and two of this series (click on the links to read them), I introduced a way of understanding foods, herbs, and drugs based on how herbs are defined in sophisticated systems of herbal medicine. One end of the spectrum represents substances that are entirely neutral. They are therefore quite safe, but also have almost no ability to alter imbalances in health. At the other end of the spectrum are substances that are so strong in one or more respects that they always cause damage. This means they have great potential to shift major imbalances of health, though they take an unreasonably big toll.

I previously discussed how drugs and herbs might be considered from this viewpoint. This week we’ll look at food. Foods are like weak herbs or very weak drugs. There are foods that are slightly heating or slightly cooling, slightly moistening or slightly drying, slightly sedating or slightly stimulating, but in all cases, this is usually a subtle effect. Just about anyone can eat just about any food without noticing much of a change in how they feel.

It takes large amounts and/or consistent consumption of the same foods over a relatively long period of time to have a pronounced effect – negative or positive – on one’s health. For instance, if you wished to control very high blood pressure using only dietary modification, it would require a focused effort, it would probably yield significant results only after weeks or months, and the results might never be satisfactory. On the other hand, minor and early stage illnesses can respond quite well to dietary therapy. In any case, if you have a health problem, even one that requires treatment with herbs, drugs, or another kind of therapy, it’s always worthwhile to simultaneously consume foods that will assist your process. (You’ll want to see a holistic nutritionist for this.)

Foods cannot be counted on for fast or strong medicinal actions, but on the other hand, they are unlikely to produce negative side effects except when consumed in excess. They can be reliably and safely eaten day in and day out. However, if the same kinds of foods are eaten day after day, month after month, year after year, they begin to produce a more definite effect on the consumer. When “dosed” this way, a food becomes more like a drug. The outcome depends a lot on the compatibility of the food and the eater. Eating fresh, healthy, high quality, constitutionally appropriate foods for years is like taking an anti-aging or anti-cancer drug. Eating sugary treats several times a day over years is like taking a drug with bad side effects, including obesity, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes.

Here, once again, is my graphical representation of this spectrum:


There are two important exceptions to the notion that foods generally fall at the neutral (left) end of the spectrum. The first exception is foods that we have a personal sensitivity to. Consuming foods we are sensitive to irritates the body – sometimes, in the case of true allergies, to a potentially life threatening degree. Most of the time sensitivities are rather insidious. We don’t suspect them because they’re foods we’ve eaten forever. Actually, the habitual consumption of certain foods can be a means of overexposure that eventually leads to our intolerance. This is probably why the most common sensitivities – milk products, wheat (and other sources of gluten), corn products, soy products, and eggs – happen to be ubiquitous ingredients in our diets.

Sensitivities tend to provoke inflammation, which is a culprit in most of the things Americans die from. They also cause us to retain fluid. Many people lose several pounds of water weight immediately after cutting out foods they’re sensitive to. Eating foods we’re sensitive to often drains our energy, so food sensitivities should always be suspected in cases of fatigue – especially when it occurs shortly after eating, and you haven’t overeaten.

The second exception among foods is spices (including the leafy spices people often refer to as herbs, but I’ll call them all spices here to avoid confusion with the term “herbs” as I’ve used it so far to refer to medicinal herbs). Spices are unique in that they belong more in the herb category than the food category. They are more dynamic in their properties than foods are, and they all have medicinal effects. Most are relatively mild medicines, and the leafier ones could often be thrown by the handful into a salad, but that doesn’t make them less useful. And many – such as oregano or nutmeg – only seem mild because we’re accustomed to consuming them in tiny amounts.

While a pinch of nutmeg won’t cause any noticeable effect, a whole nut will make you hallucinate. Cayenne and other hot peppers are strong enough to produce noticeable effects even in very small doses (warming, eye and nose watering, pain). The old school naturopath, John Christopher, considered cayenne a very important medicine. He wrote of many accounts of heart attacks being stopped by the consumption of a full teaspoon of cayenne in warm water.

As such, it would not be wise to assume that every spice is an appropriate medicine for every person.  However, in small doses, spices are unlikely to have any negative consequences, and their generally high content of antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-microbial compounds outweighs any concerns. If you see a practitioner who is familiar with herbal medicine, be sure to tell them about any spices you use in large amounts.

Here are a few recommendations based on the ideas I’ve covered in this series. First, if you have an affinity to natural therapies, I recommend finding a skilled practitioner of herbal medicine. (I’m partial to the Chinese system, since it has thousands of years of uninterrupted history and evolution.) Make sure they have multiple years of training, including supervised clinical experience. A good herbal formula, made on the basis of an accurate diagnosis, is usually at least as effective as the pharmaceutical alternative, but with the advantages I discussed last time.

Second, unless there is no alternative, do not tolerate negative side effects from any system of medicine. One of the things I love about Chinese herbal medicine is that side effects are considered to be a clear indication that something is wrong with the formula. It shows that the medicine is causing an imbalance and should lead the practitioner to refine their diagnosis and alter their prescription. Taking one drug to address the side effects of another drug is bad medicine. Find an alternative.

Third, vary your diet. You’re much less likely to run into problems from over-consuming any single food if you mix it up. Consume all flavors – bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and pungent.

Fourth, be a good scientist. Pay close attention to what happens when you put food, herbs, nutrients, or drugs in (or on) your body. It doesn’t matter if a food is supposed to be really good for you or an herb is supposed to have a certain desirable effect; what actually happens inside you is what counts. Listen to and honor your body’s feedback.

Be well,

Dr. Peter Borten

No Comments

Post A Comment