Sunday, November 16, 2008

let thy food be thy medicine

Here's a brief article I recently wrote for the community gardens newsletter. Enjoy!

Let Thy Food Be Thy Medicine

Darcey French

Certified Clinical Herbalist, Clinical Nutritionist, Presidio Gardener

The father of Medicine, Hippocrates said, “Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food.” As a lover of plants, both wild and domestic, I’ve learned that some of our most common food plants can be amazing medicines. Here is just a small selection of in-season vegetables, and their lesser known medicinal uses.

Carrot (Daucus carota)

The freshly grated root of the common garden carrot makes a wonderful poultice for nasty sores and ulcers that just won’t heal; painful, festering, and don’t form a scab, i.e. bedsores, cold sores, diabetic ulcers, and persistent boils or cysts. The carrot poultice stimulates the body’s natural healing processes (granulation), cleanses, cools inflammation and reduces the pain. William Cook, a doctor and herbalist in the 1800’s said, “Sores in which it seems impossible to arouse a healing process by ordinary means will usually improve at once under this application. The raw carrots are not to be continued after full vital action in the part has been established.” To make a poultice, grate a fresh carrot and lay it on cloth in a layer about ¼ - ½ inch thick. Lay the cloth carrot side down on the affected area, and wrap the cloth/carrot with another cloth or loose ace bandage to hold it in place. Leave on for 20-30 min. Poultices are most effective when applied several times a day, use a fresh carrot for each application.

Beet (Beta vulgaris)

Beets have long been used in Europe as a liver cleansing and blood building food medicine. Beets contain betaine, a potent nutrient that helps to breakdown homocysteine (a major contributor to cardiovascular disease), and increases liver production of glutathione and superoxide dismutase. These antioxidants are vital to healthy liver function and are considered preventative for cancer. Beet juice or raw beet is helpful for constipation, but start with small doses (1 oz of juice), otherwise it may cause diarrhea. Rich in iron and blood building nutrients, beets are a good food for menstruating women who tend to get pale, dizzy, and weak during menses.

Cabbage (Brassica oleracea)

Many people have heard of drinking raw cabbage juice for gastrointestinal ulcers, it was a prime remedy used the by the ancient Romans for gangrene, war wounds and more, and is an excellent drawing agent for skin infections. A cabbage leaf poultice stimulates circulation and is used in mastitis, arthritis, bruises and sprains, sore throats, and lung congestion. Take a whole cabbage leaf, bruise with a jar or rolling pin, lay on the affected area, and cover with a cloth or ace bandage, leave on for 20-30 minutes, until the leaf becomes warm.

Garlic (Allium sativum)

Garlic is well known for its beneficial effects on cardiovascular disease like lowering LDL cholesterol levels and hypertension. But garlic is so much more! Garlic is one of my personal favorite food medicines for fighting off all sorts of winter illnesses and infections. If I feel like I’m coming down with anything at all (sore throat, sniffles, influenza, cough, UTI) I often reach for some fresh garlic. The easiest way is to crush a quarter clove, smother in honey, taken by the teaspoon every hour. Garlic can be hard on the stomach so I usually suggest taking fresh garlic with food. One of my favorite flu-season recipes is a syrup made with equal portions of honey, garlic and ginger juice (use a juicer for this). The secret to this recipe though, is to bury your jar of syrup in the earth for 17 days. This recipe was passed down to me from my teacher, who learned it from an elder Yogi from India. It keeps well in the fridge for the winter season (3-4 months), and is much easier on the stomach than fresh garlic. Mix in salad dressings, marinades, or take plain in hot water. Garlic is also an excellent remedy for infections on the skin. Never use fresh garlic directly on your skin though, as it will burn and blister. Chopped garlic can be steeped in warm water, wine or vinegar (overnight and strained) and used to wash infected wounds.

This is just a smattering of the many medicinal uses for plants we grow as vegetables in our gardens. As with any herbal medicine, you should always do your own research or consult with someone knowledgeable about the use and safety of botanical medicines. It is prudent to seek the advice of a health practitioner if symptoms do not improve or get worse.

Questions or comments? Feel free to e-mail me @


University of Maryland Medical Center, Betaine.

Liver-protecting effects of table beet (Beta vulgaris var. rubra) during ischemia-reperfusion. Nutrition. 2007 Feb;23(2):172-8

Project Foodie. Cabbage: A Vegetable Medicine Chest.

The Earthwise Herbal: Complete Guide to Old World Medicinal Plants. Matthew Wood. 2008.

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"The mother of us all, the oldest of us all, Hard, splendid as rock, Let the beauty you love, be what you do. There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the earth"~ Rumi ~