image from an ancient materia medica

Leaf from a 1224 Arabic translation of the Materia Medica of Dioscorides (Greek, 40-90 C.E.).  Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  In this illustration, the man is preparing medicine from herbs and honey.  

We all understand that some things are going to make us healthier — and more often than not, they don’t come in a pill.  Often, they don’t even come on a plate.  Exercise, sleep, community, and moderation might well outweigh anything you put in your mouth.  Having said that, there are legitimate anti-aging, protective, vitality-enhancing foods and substances out there.  In no particular order, here are seven.  

NAC (n-acetyl cysteine)

is a cysteine derivative with profound benefits throughout the body. It protects all our cells. It reduces inflammation and erosion in the intestinal tract and lungs.  It protects the brain and heart from oxidative damage.  It both prevents problems and fixes them.  Taken daily, it has the best research I’ve ever seen for preventing the flu.  Taken acutely, it halves the duration and severity of colds.  It can lessen compulsive thoughts and addictive behaviors.  It makes pregnancy safer for the mother and fetus.  It helps the liver handle toxins – which benefits both the liver, and the body in general.  It decongests and detoxifies.

And all that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  And to be clear, these are not slight or marginal benefits.  Given enough time, they are noticeable and significant.

How can one nutrient do all that?  It turns out, NAC raises the levels of an antioxidant called glutathione in the body.  And glutathione is amazing.

As you probably know, antioxidants are protective compounds that neutralize damaging free radicals, created by sun exposure, pollution, exercise, and life.  We can never escape free radicals, so neutralizing them is an every-day, every-second activity.

Most antioxidants are exogenous, meaning they come from outside the body – basically, we eat and drink them.  Once absorbed, these sort of “bounce around” randomly until they intercept a free radical.  Endogenous antioxidants, on the other hand, are produced in the body, precisely where and when they’re needed.  So, they work with pinpoint accuracy to detoxify and cleanse and repair and maintain tissues and systems.

And glutathione is our most important endogenous antioxidant.

Now are you starting to see how NAC can do so much?

It is beyond the scope of this article to get into specifics, there are so many of them!  We’ve gone into more detail here http://debrasnaturalgourmet.com/dont-get-sick, here http://debrasnaturalgourmet.com/a-naturally-healthy-pregnancy-part-2-supplements/, and here http://debrasnaturalgourmet.com/nac.

A standard dose is 600 mg twice a day.  I take NAC daily.

Green Drinks:

Do you eat as much salad and leafy greens as you think you should? Neither do I.

So now there are all these “green drink” powders – basically, salad in a bottle.  They include ingredients like wheatgrass juice, spirulina, blue-green algae, etc.  Think of the health benefits of lettuce and spinach, only more concentrated.  If that doesn’t sound too appetizing, maybe it isn’t if you just mix it up in water and drink it straight.  But throw it in with a smoothie or blender drink, and you wouldn’t even know it’s there.  I have a toddler who happily drinks smoothies with “green drink” powder!

I like the Vibrant Health brand, because it includes a lot of organics and concentrates, plus probiotics and small amounts of tonic herbs.  I like the one from Dragon Herbs for containing higher levels of tonic herbs and medicinal mushrooms, too.

Green Tea:

Let me say first, coffee is good for us. Not eight cups a day….  But one or two, if it doesn’t bother you, seems to do more good than harm.  So, I’m not recommending green tea because there’s anything wrong with coffee.

But where coffee is good for us, green tea is great.  Green tea has arguably the most impressive body of research on cancer prevention of any supplement or food, and for a variety of cancers, too.  It reduces risk factors for heart disease – and reduces heart disease risk.  The research on weight management is sound as well.  (That’s not to say a cup of green tea will “melt away the pounds” overnight.  But give it a few months).  Plus, it supports healthy gums.  Plus, it fits into your daily routine, hot or iced.  Not to mention caffeine in green tea is counterbalanced by theanine, which offsets the caffeine jitters.

What’s not to love?

Well, some people say the taste is not to love.  But bear in mind, green teas can be as diverse as red wines.  Almost everyone can find one they’ll enjoy.  If you don’t want to brew a cup, try matcha (Matcha is powdered green tea but with well over a hundred times the antioxidants of regular brewed green tea).  You can get fine, ceremonial-grade matcha (Rishi Tea is one Debra loves) or medium-to high-grade matcha to add right into smoothies and pastries.  If you’ve ever the Matcha Tiramisu off our catering menu, you know exactly how good it can be!

Omega-3 Fats:

Omega-3 fats are among the most researched molecules in health and wellness, with literally thousands of published clinical trials. When people talk about “healthy fish oil,” “healthy flax oil,” and “healthy fats in nuts and seeds and free-range eggs,” they’re talking about omega-3s.  And we’ve all heard that talk: how these healthy omega-3s reduce heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s risk; treat arthritis and depression, and more.

Not all omega-3s are created equal, and long story short, the ones from animal products (free-range eggs, wild fish, truly pastured meat and dairy) are better than the ones from vegetarian sources.  But they’re all good.  If we’re talking supplements, a splash of clean fish oil in your morning smoothie is easy enough.  Or a few softgels.  For children, there are flavored liquids that are downright delicious.  You can also seek out wild, cold water, fatty fish; free range eggs, and nuts and seeds like hemp seeds, walnuts, and flax seeds.  Generally, we aim for 3,000 mg of omega-3s from fish (EPA and DHA), and maybe 6-9,000 mg from vegetarian sources (ALA).

Recently, there’s been a fair amount of research that has called into question the efficacy of omega-3s.  It’s important to note, however, that none of this research demonstrates that omega-3s “don’t work.”  It just suggests that they may not work as well or as universally as we’d hoped.  So maybe fish oils don’t prevent heart attacks across the board – they still prevent heart attacks in people at high risk.  Maybe they don’t reduce the risk of all cancers – they still reduce the risk of many.  Maybe they don’t treat ADHD in all children, at all times – they still reduce impulsivity and quickness to temper, and often address sensory integrative disorders.

Medicinal Mushrooms

This is a broad category, with lots of different mushrooms. Maitake mushroom, turkey tail, lion’s mane, cordyceps, coriolus, reishi, chaga, the list goes on and on and on.  And of course, they’re all just a little bit different.  Lion’s mane is especially relevant for neuropathy and general nerve health.  Cordyceps increases oxygen uptake through the lungs and gives us energy.  Reishi is especially good for the liver.

But for the most part, medicinal mushrooms have more in common than they don’t.  Most medicinal mushrooms help the liver – at least a little bit.  They reduce cholesterol – just a little bit.  And then the immune system.  What really makes all these medicinal mushrooms shine is their ability to upregulate a kind of immunity called Th1 immunity, the “hand-to-hand combat of the immune system” which protects us against viruses and cancer.  Not only that, it also redirects chronic, self-perpetuating, counterproductive inflammatory immune responses (think autoimmunity) towards Th1 and away from ongoing damage.

Everyone could use a little more viral and cancer immunity.  And almost everyone’s immune system could use a nudge back on track.  So once or twice a day, take a squirt of good mixed-medicinal- mushroom tincture.  In your tea, in your smoothie, or straight in your mouth (it doesn’t taste bad!)  Or fry up some maitakes and lion’s manes in a cast iron skillet with butter and parsley and thyme.  Or throw some shiitakes into your soups and stews.  Grind chaga mushrooms into your coffee.  Heat extracts mushrooms.  Heat is good.

Ginseng:

By this, I don’t just mean actual ginseng, but all the herbs we call “ginseng,” such as Siberian ginseng (Eleuthero root), Indian ginseng (Ashwagandha), and Arctic ginseng (Rhodiola), among others. All of these are what we call adaptogens – substances that help our non-specific adaptation to stress. And what does that mean?  Well, there are all kinds of stressors.  Anxiety, sleep deprivation, low blood sugar, overtraining, etc.  As different as they are, they all drain our adrenals, raise our blood pressure, and lower our immunity.

Now of course there are ways to address these stressors, one by one.  For example, a sandwich will address low blood sugar.  A nap will address sleep deprivation.  What adaptogens do, however, is address the physiological impact of these stressors – of all stressors.  Regardless of what’s causing the stress, adaptogens ensure it doesn’t hit us quite so hard.

So, think of how you feel worn down after a few days burning the candle at both ends.  Or how you just want to collapse on the couch after the holidays.  How, after 8 hours of studying, your brain feels fried.  And then realize that, even on a normal day, some of that is still going on, to a certain degree.

Regular use of adaptogens makes us more resilient.  Read more about them here: http://debrasnaturalgourmet.com/pick-your-tonic/.

Soluble Fiber:

oh, this un-sexy-est of nutrients! Fiber: it’s to help you poop.  Well, yes.  But it’s a lot more than just that.

First bear in mind, there are two kinds of fiber, soluble and insoluble.

Soluble fiber dissolves and absorbs water, kind of like a sponge.  Think of oats becoming thick oatmeal.  Pectin thickening into jelly.  These are both examples of soluble fiber.

Insoluble fiber doesn’t dissolve and tends to hold its shape in water.  If soluble fiber is like a sponge, insoluble fiber is like a scrub brush.  So, think of whole wheat or carrots: both rich in fiber, but neither one ever really thickens up a liquid you cook it in.

Both kinds of fiber are important for good health.  However insoluble fiber is primarily for regularity.  Soluble fiber, on the other hand, helps regularity to a certain degree, but also does so much more.

First, it absorbs water, expands, and fills you up so you tend to eat less.  It also slows down the rate at which sugars (including sugars converted from starches) absorb from the gut, so our higher-glycemic meals tend to spike blood sugar less.  It binds cholesterol, so we can get rid of it more efficiently.  So now we see how a healthy gut feeds a healthy heart.  It also feeds the healthy gut bacteria, which in turn help us detoxify, and support our immunity.  Heck, maybe even our mood too (although that research is still in its infancy).  Finally, those healthy gut bacteria that eat soluble fiber produce byproducts like butyric acid which feed the cells lining the gut wall.

The thing about soluble fiber (and fiber in general) is it’s not just good for you, it’s a marker for healthy foods.  With very, very few exceptions, foods rich in soluble fiber are otherwise healthy in other ways.  Foods that are naturally rich in fiber, with the fiber removed, are some of the worst offenders with our long-term health.  Think white sugar, white flour, white rice.  Yes, even natural fruit juice, in excess, is not a good idea.

Honorable Mentions: beehive products, vitamin K2, herbs and spices (generally speaking).