4 Foods with Surprising Medicinal Purposes

Many patients prefer complementary alternative medicine over prescription medication.

As health care professionals, it’s our job to individualize treatment to meet patients’ needs.

Notably, many patients prefer complementary alternative medicine (CAM) over prescription medication. According to the Mayo Clinic, nearly 40% of adults report using CAM.

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health classifies CAM therapies as whole medical systems, energy medicine, mind-body medicine, manipulative and body-based practices, and biologically based practices. CAM includes many different therapies, like the consumption of foods and spices we may not even know are medicinal.

Here are some foods and spices patients might already have in their pantries that may have beneficial use.

1. Artichoke

This plant can be eaten from its leaves to its heart. It can be blended into a dip or roasted and served as a side veggie.

The positive health effects of the artichoke aren’t widely reported. Not only is it packed with tons of antioxidants, but it’s also used to battle high cholesterol, alcohol-induced hangovers, and indigestion. High cholesterol’s associated with an increased risk for coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis. Artichokes and artichoke leaf extract reduce cholesterol levels.

A 2001 study conducted in Germany analyzed the effects artichokes had on cholesterol: 143 patients with high cholesterol received 1800 mg of artichoke extract in 450 mg tablets for 6 weeks. The results showed an 18.5% decrease in total cholesterol and a 22.9% decrease in low-density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) in the artichoke group, versus a 8.6% decrease in total cholesterol and 6.3% decrease in LDL-C in the placebo group.

Artichokes can also be beneficial after a night of drinking. Although there isn’t a lot of scientific data on this use, some individuals swear by eating artichokes or taking artichoke extract in order to ease the aftermath of alcohol. One reason may be the high levels of vitamin B6 in the artichoke counteract the depletion that drinking alcohol causes.

Last but not least, the artichoke can be beneficial to patients with indigestion, as it reduces symptoms like nausea, vomiting, flatulence, and stomach pain. Improvement is typically seen after 8 to 12 weeks.

2. Cranberry

The cranberry is a type of evergreen shrub. Some individuals eat cranberries raw, but most enjoy them more cooked or sweetened because it reduces the bitterness.

Cranberries are most commonly used for the prevention of urinary tract infections (UTIs). It was a common misconception that cranberry worked primarily by making the urine acidic, which stunted the growth of bacteria in the urinary tract; however, researchers have disregarded this theory, and they now believe some of the chemicals found within cranberries keep the bacteria from sticking to multiplying cells that line the urinary tract. Although cranberries don’t have the ability to release the bacteria already stuck to the cells, they’re effective in preventing more from getting stuck, which overall can lead to UTI prevention.

Cranberries also contain a significant amount of salicylic acid. By drinking cranberry juice regularly, patients can increase the amounts of salicylic acid in their body, which can reduce swelling and prevent blood clots.

Lastly, cranberries can be used to treat peptic ulcer disease (PUD). The University of Maryland Medical Center recommends drinking cranberry juice and consuming other foods containing flavonoids, as they inhibit the growth of bacteria contributing to the formation of ulcers.

3. Garlic

Garlic is an herb grown around the world. Related to the onion family, it’s grown for both its cooking properties and health effects. Garlic is commonly used in both foods and beverages; home and restaurant chefs alike use fresh garlic, garlic powder, and garlic oil to add flavor to their dishes.

Garlic contains significant amounts of a sulfur compound called allicin, which is believed to be the main contributing factor of garlic’s health benefits. Allicin is a compound that enters the body from the digestive tract and travels throughout the body, where it exerts its biological effect.

According to the National Library of Medicine, garlic is widely used for several conditions linked to the blood system and heart, like hardening of the arteries, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack, and coronary heart disease. When patients take high doses of garlic, their blood pressure decreases, and in some instances, garlic proves just as effective as regular medications.

According to a 2013 study, 210 patients were split into groups and given aged garlic extract at doses of 600 to 1500 mg. Results showed the garlic extract was just as effective as the drug atenolol at reducing blood pressure over a 24-week period.

Garlic can also lower both total cholesterol and LDL-C. Results of one meta-analysis showed a reduction of about 15% in serum cholesterol levels with garlic.

4. Licorice

This plant is commonly added as a flavoring in food, beverages, and tobacco, though it’s less commonly known that licorice root is used to make medicines for several conditions like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), PUD, and female hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

When treating conditions like GERD and PUD, licorice root extract can speed the healing process of the stomach’s lining and restore acidic balance. Licorice root contains glycrrhizic acid, which contributes to its anti-inflammatory and immune-boosting properties. Glycyrrhizic acid has also been shown to suppress H. pylori and prevent further growth of the bacteria in the gut.

Licorice is also used as a type of female HRT, and it reduces the instances of hot flashes in postmenopausal women. A 2010 double-blind, controlled trial examined the effects of licorice roots on the relief and recurrence of hot flash in menopausal women. Ninety menopausal women with hot flashes were split into 2 groups, with 1 group receiving 330 mg of licorice extract, and the other a placebo. Results showed licorice decreased both the frequency and severity of hot flashes.