Harnessing the Healing Power of Food

What you eat can do more than nourish and help prevent disease. Under expert guidance, your diet can also have a medicinal effect in alleviating symptoms.
By Jen Maidenberg
For three years, Pamela Cummins of Rockaway suffered excruciating pain and discomfort associated with her monthly menstrual cycle. Her gynecologist thought the heavy bleeding, anemia, nausea, and hormonal imbalance were due to uterine fibroids.

“My doctor put me on medication for fibroids and iron pills for the anemia and was ready to schedule me for a hysterectomy,” says the 47-year-old. However, after an MRI showed her uterus to be fibroid-free, Cummins’ doctor diagnosed her as having adenomyosis, which causes abnormal bleeding and some of the other symptoms she was experiencing. Her doctor still recommended a hysterectomy, which gave Cummins pause, particularly since there were no fibroids. “I was not convinced my uterus was dysfunctional,” she says. “I had begun to lose faith in my doctor. Nothing prescribed for me made me feel better.”

Then, a friend introduced Cummins to Vilasi Venkatachalam, a registered dietitian in Bedminster and former nutritional medicine coordinator at Morristown Memorial Hospital, who now consults with clients on how to adjust their diets to promote healing. “I thought I had a pretty healthy diet,” Cummins says. “Low in sugar, high in fruits and vegetables. I even ate all organic meat.” However, her diet, which may be considered healthy for some, was actually working against her.

Cummins explains that Venkatachalam made some swift changes to her diet in an effort to cleanse her liver of toxins and get rid of “the junk” in her uterus. “This included eliminating gluten, dairy, and red meat, which the dietitian thought were causing inflammation in my gut; and increasing cruciferous vegetables, whole grains, and beans, as well as particular spices, including chili pepper and turmeric, which contain phytochemicals.”

Simply put, phytochemicals are any of the hundreds of natural chemicals found in plant life, many of which have nutritional value, says Felecia Bell-Schafer, a nutritionist with a practice in Bayonne.
“Their role in a person’s diet is to maximize nutrient density in meal planning. Some phytochemicals are protective, such as antioxidants, while others have therapeutic uses.” For example, capsaicin, which is found in hot peppers, is a natural anti-inflammatory; it helps reduce the sensation of pain and prevents the activation of cancer-causing chemicals and toxins in our environment and in our diet.

Foods that contain phytochemicals include red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables; cruciferous and green leafy vegetables, like bok choy, broccoli, and cauliflower; garlic; seeds; and beans.
“Food definitely can be used in the place of medication for many symptoms — not only to treat symptoms, but also to correct the causes of these symptoms,” Venkatachalam says. A common example of employing food in place of medication is the use of ginger or peppermint to decrease nausea. “Ginger, especially fresh, blocks serotonin from binding to its receptors in the stomach,” Venkatachalam explains, “thereby preventing nausea, which would have been caused by the action of serotonin.”

Cummins, now three months into her diet plan, has seen vast improvements to her monthly cycle, particularly a decrease in pain and bleeding. “Before I started the diet, I would feel awful during my period and for three to seven days after,” she says. “Now the symptoms are less, and I’m recovered a day or two after.

“Making changes to my diet wasn’t easy,” she continues. “But within a month I noticed improvement in my digestion and surprisingly, an increase in my strength. My skin even looked healthier. This gave me the incentive to continue. And, more importantly, it gave me hope.”

Jen Maidenberg is the owner of Mindful Living NJ (mindfullivingnj.com).

Preventive Measures

Marda Sussman, a naturopathic doctor at The Rocking Chair – A Women’s Wellness Center in Englewood, advises that people seeking optimum health “eat a primarily vegetarian, organic diet and avoid foods containing white flour, the artificial sweetener aspartame, and trans fats.” When customizing a diet for disease prevention, Sussman recommends the following:

Anti-inflammatory foods
“A highly acidic environment promotes free radical damage and the growth of cancer cells, parasites, viruses, fungi, and bacteria,” she says. “When overburdened with acidity, our bodies tend to get sick easily.” The most acidic foods (in order) are pork, veal, and beef. The most alkaline — and therefore, anti-inflammatory — foods are (in order) fresh cucumber, soy, and dandelion. (Yes, dandelion. While this garden nuisance may have a bad reputation in the United States, in other countries, it is considered a nutritious and delicious vegetable known for its many health benefits.)

Antimicrobial foods, especially fresh garlic
When garlic is crushed or chewed, you get a powerful compound called allicin, which also gives garlic its unique smell. (Let the garlic sit for about 10 minutes after crushing to allow the allicin to fully generate.) Garlic has been used since ancient times for its antibacterial and antifungal properties. Other antibacterial foods to incorporate into your diet are mushrooms and raw onions.

* Always check with your doctor before modifying your diet, especially for medicinal purposes.
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