The Science Behind 'Food is Medicine' & 'Medicinal Foods' - Dr. Axe

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The Science Behind ‘Food is Medicine’ & ‘Medicinal Foods’


Food is medicine - Dr. Axe

Hippocrates was to thank for the famous quote, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” — which we translated to “food is medicine” and use as our motto. Still to this day medical doctors and historians consider Hippocrates to be the founder of medicine as a “rational science.”

Considered to be one of the most influential figures in the history of medicine and healing, Hippocrates was ahead of his time when, around the year 400 B.C, he advised people to prevent and treat diseases first and foremost by eating a nutrient-dense diet.

Why is a calorie not just a calorie when it comes to your health, and how come it matters so much which types of foods you get your calories from?Foods provide us with energy (calories), but they do much more than that.

The foods you include in your diet also play a critical role in controlling inflammation levels, balancing blood sugar, regulating cardiovascular health (including blood pressure and cholesterol levels), helping the digestive organs to process and eliminate waste, and much, much more. Did you know that certain anti-inflammatory foods even contain powerful active ingredients that help control how your genes are expressed?

Hippocrates and the Ancient Greeks weren’t the only ones onto something when they studied the many medicinal properties of foods. Many traditional systems of healing which have been practiced throughout history — including Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine, for example — have taught for thousands of years that food is medicine and a healthy diet is a powerful tool for protecting one’s health.


Below you’ll learn which medicinal foods we now know make the biggest impact in someone’s health overall, which foods you should avoid most, and how to get started today eating a healing diet.

How Food Works Like Medicine

Perhaps more than anything else in our lives, the foods we regularly eat help determine whether or not we will become ill, or remain healthy into older age. Whether vegetables, fruit, meat, oils or grains, foods contain influential substances including antioxidants, phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, fatty acids, fiber and much more.

Nutrient deficiencies and toxicity from a poor diet are linked to nearly all modern health conditions. John Hopkins University reports that some 80 percent of cancer patients are believed to be malnourished, and that treatments used to battle cancer (like chemotherapy) only increase the body’s need for nutrients and very high-quality foods even more. (1) You probably already know that diabetes and heart disease (currently the No. 1 killer in the U.S. and most industrialized nations) are also illnesses that are highly influenced by one’s diet — and the same can be said for allergies, autoimmune disorders like arthritis, thyroid disorders and many more.

The expanding field of Nutrigenomics (also called Nutritional Genomics) is devoted to studying how food influences gene expressions and contributes to either health and longevity or to disease and earlier death. The principles behind nutrigenomics can be summarized in several key points: genes play a role in disease development and prevention; a poor diet can be a serious risk factor for many diseases; nutrient deficiencies and toxic chemicals in low-quality foods have an effect on human gene expressions; each person is different in terms of how much their genes/health are impacted by their diet; and a healthy but also personalized diet can be used to prevent, mitigate or cure chronic diseases. (2)

Some of the ways that medicinal foods specifically act like natural protectors against disease and help to slow the effects of aging, include:

  • Decreasing & Controlling Inflammation – Inflammation is the root of most diseases and a major contributor to the effects of aging. Inflammation is a response from the immune system when the body perceives it’s being threatened, and it can affect nearly every tissue, hormone and cell in the body. Research also shows that “obesity has a strong inflammatory component,” a problem that now affects nearly two-thirds of all adults in the U.S. (3)
  • Balancing Hormones − Hormones affect every part of health, from your energy and cognitive abilities to your body weight and sex drive. Abnormal hormonal changes contribute to accelerated aging, diabetes, obesity, fatigue, depression, low mental capacity, reproductive problems and an array of autoimmune diseases. (4)
  • Alkalizing the Body – The human body keeps a tight grip on its internal pH level, working hard to keep it around a pH of 7.36. Studies show that when it comes to the pH and net acid load in the human diet, “there has been considerable change from the hunter-gather civilization to the present.” (5) Processed, low-quality foods make the body more acidic and allow diseases to thrive more easily. An alkaline diet (high in plant foods that are detoxifying) helps with cellular renewal and might promote longevity.
  • Balancing Blood Glucose (Sugar) – Diabetes and weight gain are tied to poor insulin response and other hormonal changes. Poorly managed blood sugar levels due to consuming high amounts of sugar and processed carbohydrates can lead to cravings, fatigue, neurological damage, mood disorders, hormonal balances and more. To sustain normal blood sugar, experts recommend that low-glycemic and non-processed carbohydrates take the place of refined, empty calories and added sugar. (6)
  • Detoxifying & Eliminating Toxins – Toxicity is tied to poor digestive health, hormonal changes and decreasing liver functioning. In modern society, we are bombarded by chemicals from our diet and environment that contribute to inflammation, autoimmune diseases, infertility, hypothyroidism, fibromyalgia, and so on.
  • Improving Absorption of Nutrients – Many of today’s illnesses are due to nutritional deficiencies and high rates of free radical damage. The majority of processed convenience foods are stripped of their natural nutrients or at least partly manmade, packed with synthetic ingredients and preservatives but very low in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, fiber and enzymes.

7 of the Best Medicinal Foods

As we get older and our appetite starts to decline, we tend to consume less calories overall and, therefore, our food choices matter more than ever. Research shows that as caloric intake and absorption of nutrients drops among the elderly, rates of diseases including cancer and heart disease steadily increase.

To help prevent deficiencies and lower your risk for illness, it’s crucial to make every calorie count. Here are six food groups that help protect you most:

1. Fresh/Raw Vegetables

Green vegetables (like kale, wheat grass and spinach, for example), sea vegetables and fresh vegetable juices are considered some of the healthiest foods on earth, known to dramatically help slow aging. They help restore the body’s proper pH, prevent nutrient deficiencies, curb hunger and detoxify the blood. They are also super low in calories, yet beaming with antioxidants, phytonutrients and vitamin C, vitamin K, magnesium, potassium, iodine and fiber.

Antioxidants found in vegetables are an amazing thing: They develop within plants to protect the plant from its damaging environment including ultraviolet radiation, predator pests, toxins and pollution. Phytonutrients have the purpose of shielding plants from predators (and also provide their color, flavor and smell), and we obtain the same benefits when we eat them.

Nearly all diseases including infections, osteoporosis and even cancer thrive in an acidic environment, but by alkalizing your body naturally through eating more plant foods (especially fresh veggies), you help prevent cellular damage. Veggies of all kinds help lower free radical damage and control inflammation, plus many provide prebiotics and a high dose of fiber.

2. Organ Meats & Bone Broth

Organ meats, including beef or chicken liver, are some of the most nutrient-concentrated foods available to us. Liver is a true superfood and exceptionally high in zinc, iron, vitamin A, vitamin B12 and more.  It might not seem appealing to you at first, but consider that a “nose to tail” approach of eating animals has been practiced for thousands of years — and for good reason!

Consuming nutrient-packed organ meats and all edible parts of an animal, plus making bone broth with the remaining parts that are normally discarded (like bones, skin and ligaments), provides us with hard-to-find nutrients like collagen, glucosamine and an abundance of electrolytes and trace minerals. These nutrients help ward off and treat illnesses like irritable bowel disorders (IBD), arthritis and joint pains, chronic fatigue, leaky gut syndrome, anemia and allergies.

3. Probiotic Foods

Probiotics are not only critical for optimal digestion, but also for overall immune function and health. The digestive system is the second largest part of our neurological system and holds 80 percent of your entire immune system! A huge array of illnesses actually stem from poor gut health, including thyroid imbalances, chronic fatigue, joint pain, psoriasis, autism and food allergies.

The microbes that make up our gut flora are involved in weight control, appetite, inflammatory processes, cognitive functioning and neurotransmitter production. (7) This means that everything from your mood and energy levels to your ability to prevent common colds is tied to your gut.

Beneficial bacteria and other microbes living in the digestive tract thrive when we regularly replenish them by consuming both probiotic-rich foods (like yogurt, kombucha, kefir and cultured veggies) and also those with prebiotics (like chicory, asparagus and articohokes).


4. Omega-3 Foods

A diet high in “good fats” is essential for controlling inflammation, cognitive health, hormone production, cancer prevention, weight loss and cellular healing. Omega-3 fats are natural anti-inflammatories and help counteract the effects of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fats, which are very high in modern-day diets. (8)

The best sources of omega-3s include wild-caught fish like salmon, sardines, halibut, tuna and mackerel. Other plant sources include walnuts, flaxseeds and chia seeds. Try to avoid hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils, trans fats, soybean oil, canola oil and other vegetable oils which are very high in omega-6s.

5. Healthy Fats

Not all fats are created equal (see directly above), but the certain good ones pack a lot of medicinal punch. From lowering bad cholesterol and helping shed excess weight to giving you shiny hair and healthy nails, your body will reap the benefits of healthy fats like avocado, grass-fed butter, ghee, coconut oil, MCT oil, extra virgin olive oil and yes, omega-3 fats (such as found in wild-caught salmon.)

It’s been been proved there is no evidence that dietary saturated fat increases a person’s risk for coronary heart disease or cardiovascular disease. (9)

Additionally, a seven-year study of more than 48,000 women showed that low-fat diets don’t lead to more weight loss or less disease. (10) And yet another study found that, when subjects ate either a Mediterranean diet (which is loaded with healthy fats), low-fat diet or low-carb diet, those following a high-fat, low-carb meal plan not only lost the most weight, but also drastically reduced their bad cholesterol levels. (11)

6. High-Antioxidant Foods

ntioxidants slow the effects of aging by decreasing free radical damage. A good indication that a food has a high amount of antioxidants? If it’s naturally brightly colored (red, orange, yellow, green, etc.) chances are it’s supplying nutrients like beta carotene, resveratrol, flavanoids and more. Some of the best foods for obtaining antioxidants include: berries, red wine, raw cocoa, acai, spirulina, leafy greens, fresh herbs and spices, cruciferous veggies and bright root veggies.

7. High-Fiber Foods

Here’s a scary finding: it’s estimated that less than 5 percent of Americans get the recommended amount of dietary fiber they need each day! You might already know that dietary fiber helps keep you “regular” in the bathroom, but did you know it’s also very important for heart health, your entire digestive system and gut, and even your immune system?

Fiber helps to reduce cholesterol and triglycerides, strengthens the colon walls, plays a role in regulating blood sugar levels, helps prevent insulin resistance, and promotes the growth of beneficial probiotic bacteria in your gut that influence immunity.

It’s recommended that adults get at least 25–30 grams of fiber daily. (12) High-fiber diets are associated with better protection against obesity, cancer, cardiovascular diseases, digestive disorders and menstrual problems (just to name a few). High-fiber foods include leafy greens, cruciferous veggies, avocado, coconut, starchy veggies, berries, nuts, seeds, sprouted legumes and ancient grains.

The “Food Is Medicine Diet”: What It Looks Like In Action

Eating a healing diet, filled with medicinal foods that help prevent and treat diseases naturally, is easier than you might think. My Healing Foods Diet consists of eating roughly equal amounts (33 percent each) of clean protein sources, healthy fats, and low glycemic carbohydrates in the forms of fruits and vegetables. Each person’s needs are a bit different, but balance and eating a variety of real foods is key.

Here’s what a “medicinal diet” looks like when use nutritional foods to your benefit:

  • Organic Vegetables (all kinds, raw and cooked): especially those that are high in fiber and low-glycemic including leafy greens, mushrooms, asparagus, artichokes, squash, sea vegetables, fresh herbs and so on
  • Fresh Fruits: especially berries, citrus and melon, which are great sources of antioxidants
  • Grass-Fed/Pasture-Raised Meats: grass-fed and free-range meats offer not just protein, but also many fatty acids missing in the Standard American Diet (SAD) such as aracodonic acid, congegated linoleic acid, and omega 3 fatty acids. Turkey, beef, cage-free eggs, lamb, venison, fish and organ meats, and also raw dairy products are all good choices
  • Low-Glycemic Carbohydrates: in addition to fruits and veggies, this includes sprouted ancient grains (gluten-free is best), soaked legumes and beans, nuts and seeds
  • Healthy Fats: good sources include wild seafood, coconut oil/cream, real olive oil, avocado, nuts and seeds
  • Other Superfoods & Condiments: these include other ingredients that highly nutritious, low in calories, and capable of adding major flavor to food naturally. Sources include apple cider vinegar, garlic, raw honey, spices like turmeric and cinnamon, cocoa, sea salt, and stevia
  • Healthy Drinks: the beverages you consume should be free from added sugar, hydrating, high in antioxidants and low in sugar. Good choices include plain water or seltzer, herbal teas, fresh veggies juices, bone broth, and coffee and red wine in moderation


While a nutritional foods certainly help to promote overall health, it’s still best to seek medical care from a professional and not to discontinue any medications without being monitored or told to do so. As you’ve seen, the majority of diseases can at least be partially prevented through a healthy diet and lifestyle, but there are some instances when a diet filled with medicinal foods might not be enough.

Each individual is different in terms of how their genes react to certain foods, so for some people even if they eat a perfect diet they might still develop an illness. Genetics certainly play a role in the development of diseases like cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, and more. Regardless of whether or not someone’s disease or illness could have been prevented through a healthier lifestyle, eating a nutrient-dense diet is still one of the best ways to help manage symptoms and increase odds of recovery.

Final Thoughts

  • Because foods have an effect on inflammation levels, blood sugar, energy, hormones, brain and heart health, they truly do act like medicine once consumed
  • A healthy diet plays a role in how genes are expressed and can tip the scale in favor of preventing disease, even if one runs in your family
  • Some of the most medicinal foods there are include vegetables and fruits, organ meats, grass-fed meats, healthy fats like coconut and seeds, sea vegetables and superfoods like cocoa and red wine

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