How 6 Natural Foods Have Impacted Modern Medicine
“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food” is attributed to Hippocrates and although he did not see food and medicine as the same, it’s indicated from his writings that diet and lifestyle are central to health.
But ancient cultures have used food as medicine for centuries, dating all the way back to the Egyptians who used various plants to treat everything from animal bites to mental health issues. Similarly, Chinese Herbalism and Indian Ayurvedic medicine are rooted in eating different foods to manage or cure different illnesses.
Pharmaceutical companies took notes from these ancient cultures and developed new drugs from the active compounds found on land and sea. My PhD thesis was on the synthesis of an anti-cancer compound that was extracted from natural plants – how cool is that?
This blog will highlight the wonders of nature – I’ll cover six foods and how they have impacted modern-day drugs.
An Apple a Day Keeps the Doctor Away
Whether it’s a green Granny Smith or a shiny Honeycrisp, apples have been integral to the research on drugs to balance blood sugar levels.
Apples have always been known to be great for managing blood sugar due to their fiber content, but a newly discovered compound in apples has actually led to the development of a new diabetes drug.
Discovered in the 2010s, the active compound in apples is phlorizin. The compound is found in unripe apples as well as apple tree bark, and it’s now used in drugs to help balance blood glucose levels in people living with diabetes.
Yam’s Medicinal Qualities
Yams are known for being sweet potato’s less popular cousin who gets to shine on holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. But did you know a compound in yams, specifically Mexican yams, has provided a multitude of medicinal benefits?
In the 1930s, researchers found the compound diosgenin in Mexican yams. Diosgenin was first used in the advent of birth control pills in the 1960s. In the years to follow, developers found that the compound was also effective to decrease inflammation for people with arthritis and dermatitis.
The Mexican yam derivative, diosgenin, is still used in drugs today, though it is more likely to be made in a laboratory than extracted from yams themselves. The holidays remain a yam’s time to shine!
Willow Bark’s Medicinal Qualities
Willow bark may be less commonly seen in day-to-day life, but if you have a willow tree in your yard, you may encounter it regularly!
In the 1820s, salicin was discovered in the bark of several varieties of willow trees. Since then, its uses have blossomed, providing anti-inflammatory as well as pain relieving effects. Its derivative, salicylic acid, is commonly used in the treatment of acne.
Salicin was also the original source of aspirin, one of the most commonly used pain relieving agents today.
Barley’s Medicinal Qualities
Barley is a grain that serves as a base to many foods: cereals, bread, beer, whiskey and more. Barley is a good source of carbohydrates and energy (and a buzz when in alcohol form), and has also opened doors for researchers to develop new drugs to assist with dental surgery.
Within Barley is a compound called gramine, which scientists found in the 1930s. Research on gramine led to the discovery of isogramine, which was then used to design lidocaine.
If you’ve ever gotten a tooth pulled, the dentist likely used lidocaine. We have barley to thank that a trip to the dentist can be (relatively) painless!
Peppermint’s Medicinal Qualities
Anyone have any gum? Well, a stick of gum likely doesn’t include peppermint’s active compound, though it takes on the minty flavor.
Peppermint is one of the longest used herbs for its medicinal qualities. Ancient cultures and today’s pharmaceutical companies alike have used peppermint to decrease joint pain, soothe itching on the skin, and manage hives (specifically hives connected to a condition called urticaria).
The compound in peppermint resulting in all of these health benefits is menthol, which is more of a household name as far as drug compounds go. Menthol directly sourced from peppermint is still in use today! BenGay is a commonly used topical pain reliever that uses menthol for pain relief.
Chili Pepper’s Medicinal Qualities
Chili peppers add more than a little (or a lot) of spice to your food. They’ve also made leaps and bounds in various pain relief medicines!
In the 1870s, scientists discovered the compound capsaicin in chili peppers. This is actually the same compound that makes your mouth burn when you eat something spicy!
In the medicinal context, however, capsaicin has been used in topical creams to relieve pain, especially for people suffering from osteo-arthritis and nerve pain from the shingles.
“Nature is so smart it put the medicine inside the food”
Nature has created a plethora of fruits, herbs, and veggies that have been used to support health for centuries, in ways beyond providing basic nutrition. The best part? This is only the tip of the iceberg.
Researchers are currently exploring how herbal remedies, traditional medicines, and other compounds in everyday foods can open the doors to life-changing medicines. If you want to dive deeper into how food is used as medicine, check out the BBC article linked here for more information!Please note: this information is shared out of interest and not as a replacement for current medical treatment or as any medical advice. If you have any of the conditions mentioned in this article, please consult your doctor for medical advice.