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Five ways to support your health with food and herbs

1) Begin to understand some foods as a kind of medicine which can rebalance your body. When you find your body out of balance, certain foods can often help restore it. Foods have a subtler and slower effect than herbs, supplements or medications, but over a period of months and years they can support your immune system, build your body’s endurance, aid in ridding the body of the results of overindulgence, and support various body organs. Adjustments in diet alone may not be adequate to treat illness or disease, but the role food can play in healing should not be underestimated.

In most Asian cultures it is understood that food can play a role in addressing both our constitutional or genetic health patterns as well as bodily patterns developed through our lifestyles. Once these patterns are understood, food can be part of the care needed. For example, eating bitter salad greens or watermelon can help clear unwanted heat from the body from overindulgence in spicy or fatty food, alcohol or coffee. Pears and almonds are both nourishing to the lungs when there are recurring lung problems. Eggplant can move stagnant Qi (vital energy) or blood to help relieve pain. All five flavors—salty, sweet, sour, bitter and pungent—can have a healing effect on specific body organs as well as helping to offset imbalances. There are many other examples of how food can have a therapeutic effect. This view of food is not limited to categories of nutrition like fat, protein, vitamins, minerals, fiber, enzymes or anti-oxidants. Learning more about this different view of food (and eating accordingly) can make a significant contribution to health.

2) Include more herbs in your meals and think about some herbs as food. Most of us include herbs in our meals through culinary seasonings, but the range of herbs that can be used in food is much wider than those in your spice cabinet. You can select herbs to accompany food based on the constitutional patterns or imbalances in your body. Even better, you can add whole seeds, leaves, berries, roots or flowers from herbs to get a stronger therapeutic effect or intensify the flavors. Mint, lemon balm, nettles, dandelion, lotus seeds, Go Ji berries, and many others are examples of herbs that work well as food. Reducing your consumption of certain spices can also be helpful. For example, most of us in southern California run quite warm, so reducing the use of very warming herbs like cinnamon, dry ginger, hot pepper sauces or salsa, black or white pepper and curry may be helpful. This doesn’t necessarily mean these shouldn’t be eaten, just that they should be eaten less frequently or in smaller amounts.

3) Eat more soup. Most of us need to keep our weight down. Those who eat soup one or more times each day find it easier to reduce their weight than those who eat an equal number of calories without any soup. A well-rounded soup without a lot of added salt both nourishes and rehydrates while helping to rid the body of wastes. It also satisfies the appetite and provides bulk with a relatively modest calorie content. But if your “soup” looks more like fondu, eating more soup may not be so helpful. Aim for a soup with a broth that includes plenty of vegetables or grain. Homemade is best to avoid excess salt and chemicals. Soup is also an ideal vehicle for including more herbs in your diet and these can have therapeutic effects. In China these are called “congees” and include grains like rice, pearl barley or oats with herbs appropriate for the individual’s condition.

4) Drink teas. Teas often have health benefits and with few calories. Groceries these days have a selection of herb teas including well-known individual herbs or blends of mint, chamomile, rosehips, hibiscus and others. You can branch out into making teas with other herbs that are not as widely consumed but equally interesting like tulsi, redbush, American ginseng and many, many others. The trick is to get familiar with the therapeutic actions of whatever you’re drinking so ideally you can find teas that you enjoy, that are also best for your health needs. You may want to do some reading, asking around and experimenting with different teas to find those you favor. This can be an adventure. But also be cautious, especially if you take medications, so that you avoid those which may not be appropriate for you.
Green or black teas also have health benefits. For example, solid scientific research on humans indicates they can play a role in controlling cholesterol levels. Don’t expect them, however, to prevent cancer—that is unproven. And if caffeine is a problem for you, drink them decaffeinated or stick to other herbal teas.

5) Grow your own herbs. Ojai provides an ideal climate for this. Those of you who garden probably already do this. You might want to expand your gardening to herbs with stronger therapeutic value. Mint, thyme, and oregano are good choices, but California poppy, tulsi, lemon balm, Go Ji berries, the angelicas and many others grow well here also. For those who feel they lack the proverbial green thumb, you should know that most herbs are far less demanding than garden vegetables or flowers. Many are used to growing wild. Most do well in pots; so try just one or two herbs in a pot to start with. What will greatly increase your success is to find herbs you like—whether it’s the taste, look, smell or flower—if you really like an herb, it will usually respond by growing for you. Research has shown that many herbal essential oils contain some substances apparently not necessary for the functioning of the plant, but which are often useful to humans. This has lead to the theory that herbs may have “bonded” with humans, which you could think of as similar to domesticated animals. They can best be our partners in health if we care for them ourselves.

This article is provided as a public service by Nathan Kaehler, MA, LAc, Ojai Herb and Acupuncture Clinic, www.ojaiherbs.com. It is provided as general information rather than professional advice.