Herbal Nutrition


When we think of nutrition, what do you think of?  Due to modern academic training, many people think of vitamins, minerals, fats, proteins, carbohydrates.  But why?  Long before we started breaking down our foods into their component parts, people were nourishing themselves, and staying fairly healthy in the process.  They did so by eating whole foods.


Our modern concepts of nutrition remind me of an old Oriental saying:

When a man is young and knows nothing,

trees are trees, mountains are mountains and waters are waters.

But when he has studied and knows a little,

trees no longer trees, mountains are no longer mountains, and waters are no longer waters.

But when he has thoroughly studied and finally understands,

trees are once again trees, mountains are mountains and waters are waters.


In the early 1990s, I predicted that  the next great discovery in the field of nutrition would be recognizing that the "drug-like" constituents of herbs are important nutrients that are essential to human health when taken in their natural form. Today nutritionists talk about sulforaphane and indole-3-carbinol in broccoli, flavonoids in fruits and berries, p-coumaric acid and cholorogenic acid in tomatoes and allylic sulfides in garlic and onions.  So, I believe my predication is has come true.


In fact, nutriceuticals are increasingly popular supplements.  Nutriceuticals are phytochemicals like lycopine from tomatoes that are extracted and sold as supplements.  But why are we so obsessed with taking our food apart?


Foods and Medicinal Herbs are Closely Related


All foods contain numerous phytochemicals. Take, potatoes for example.  We think of these as simple basic food, a source of carbohydrates (starch) for fuel.  However, potatoes are not chemically simple.  About 150 different chemical substances have been identified in this common vegetable including: solanine alkaloids, oxalic acid, arsenic, tannins and nitrate.  None of these substances has any recognized nutritional significance, but many are considered medicines or drugs in their isolated form, or “active” compounds in medicinal plants.


In fact, herbs are considered medicines only because they contain more of these “drug-like” phytochemicals and less of the common nutrients.  However, is this a valid distinction?  Just where does nutrition end and medicine begin?  In many traditional systems of medicine, such as Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) the medicine and nutrition are not considered separate fields of study.  They are interlinked.


They are even interlinked in traditional Western medicine.  Remember it was Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, who said, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.”


Many "Medicinal" Herbs Were Eaten as Food


Many of the "medicinal" herbs used in the West today have been used as food stuffs by "hunter-gatherer" peoples.  For example, dandelions, burdock, marshmallow, comfrey and alfalfa have all been used as food and still are by some people, but today are sold primarily as medicinal herbs.  In his travels around the world, studying the habits of long-lived people, Bernard Jensen noted that “These elderly people used foods we don't even think of too much” such as garlic, rose hips and chamomile (more “medicinal” herbs).


Even herbs considered strictly medicinal by today's herbalists may have been food for some people.  One report suggests that the ancient inhabitants of the Lower Illinois Valley used such herbs as milkweed, wild strawberry, yellow oxalis, spidenard, columbine, amaranth, cleavers, hops and watercress as a part of their regular diet.  Other herbs that archaeologists have discovered were used as food include clover, yarrow, chamomile, cinquefoil, pokeweed, chickweed, violet, mustard, mint, lamb's quarter, cocklebur and bee pollen.


In my own study of wildflowers and edible and medicinal herbs I have noted that many of the herbs I use as medicines were utilized as foods by Native Americans.  I have tasted some of these plants and wonder how they could be considered edible, because they are so bitter, but even truly bitter herbs have been used as food or "spring tonics" by many people.  We can find an example of this in the Bible.  The children of Israel partook of bitter herbs with their passover lamb.  The taste of bitter is helpful in stimulating the flow of bile, which is helpful for digesting the fat in lamb.


These herbal foods have lost favor in the taste buds of civilized man because they tend to have a strong flavor.  We are accustomed to the highly refined, bland foods of modern civilization.  Our vegetables have been bred to be mild tasting.  Many people have noted that that there own garden vegetables have a stronger taste and even regular  vegetables such as carrots and turnips will develop this slightly bitter or "wild" taste when allowed to grow in a semi-wild manner.


Wild Foods (and Herbs) Are Nutritionally Dense


Masanobu Fukuoka, a retiree from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, is also a farmer who developed methods of growing grain, fruits and vegetables without cultivation, weeding or fertilizing.  He claims that vegetables grown in this semi-wild manner have better flavor than those grown in gardens with the aid of chemical fertilizers.  The taste, he says, is richer and completely different from the cultivated vegetable.   He also claims that edible herbs and wild vegetables are higher in nutritional value.  In his book, The One Straw Revolution, he says:

“Edible herbs and wild vegetables, plants growing on the mountain and in the meadow, are very high in nutritional value and are also useful as medicine.  Food and medicine are not two different things: they are the front and back of one body.  Chemically grown vegetables may be eaten for food, but they cannot be used as medicine.” [The One-Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka. Emmaus, PA: Rodale Press, 1978.  p.100]


Anyone who has eaten edible wild plants would readily note that they have a more "wild" or "rich" or "slightly bitter" flavor (depending on your point of view) than foods grown under modern cultivation. This stronger taste is mostly due to the increased content of "medicinal" components like volatile oils, saponins, tannins, alkaloids and the like.  Many of these chemical components are produced as part of the plant's own immune system.  The protect the plant from insect damage and disease.  The more nourished the plant is with the proper trace elements in the soil, the stronger the plant's immunity to the weather and other environmental hazards.


Nutritional Density is Important


Most grocery store foods have weak taste and smell due to a lack of these phytochemicals.  I consider this a sign of weak and sickly, malnourished plants.  Is it possible that many of our health problems arise from a lack of these phytochemicals?  That is what I believe.  If we want to be healthy and strong, then we need to eat plants which are healthy and strong.  Most commercially grown vegetables and fruits have been bred and cultivated until they are so weak and sickly that they cannot resist attacks from insects and diseases without heavy doses of chemicals.  As a result of eating such plants we have also become weak and sickly and our natural resistance has disappeared.


We have studied a little and we no longer think that nutrition is apples, potatoes, etc.  Instead, we think that nutrition is carbohydrates, fats, proteins, vitamins, phytonutrients, etc.  We also keep isolating "active constituents" from plants and calling them drugs.  However, I think when we have thoroughly studied and finally understand, we will realize that nutrition is indeed everything that the Creator put into apples, potatoes and so forth.  We will also realize, like the Chinese, that herbal medicine rightly belongs to the field of nutrition.  Our bodies were designed to require a whole complex of phytochemicals present in a wide variety of natural foods and herbs.