The Restorative Measures of Food

My childhood doctor was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. Small and quaint, the center of his office boasted a beautiful wooden rocking horse painted in red and white and adorned with a worn leather saddle and strap; waiting chairs encircled it. Doctor Jones had white hair and round spectacles, wore a suit under his white coat and was always “on duty.” He retired at the young age of 80, just when I had matured beyond pediatric care. What I remember most about Dr. Jones was not his office, but his home visits. When one of us was too sick to be taken to his office, he would arrive promptly at our front door with his black satchel in hand.

Dr. Jones always included food in his prescriptions. My favorite remedy for belly aches was coca cola syrup. It may sound silly, but coca cola syrup always made me feel better. Placebo or not, the result was health restored. The BRAT diet also seemed to fix any intestinal disturbances within a day or two. For those unfamiliar with the BRAT diet, it stands for bananas, rice, applesauce and toast. Once strength had returned, chicken noodle soup, saltine crackers or perhaps a salted boiled egg was the next step to full recovery. These measures always seemed to turn the tide towards health.

Curious if the BRAT diet was still a thing in the medical community, I did some quick research and discovered mixed reviews. Some view the BRAT diet as too restrictive for long term recovery where others touted the efficacy of this low fiber pause for angry intestines. In brief, the short-term benefits were mostly accepted. While simple food fixes for what ails us won’t work for everything we catch, they sure are a comforting reminder that food can be a kind of medicine.

A cherished relative of mine, who passed away many years ago, was a nursing student in the early years of the University of Maryland School of Nursing. An Eastern Shore native, she kept detailed notebooks on her studies in the year 1919. I feel privileged to be in possession of these paper archives, and have benefited from reading about typhoid fever, medicines, and her extensive notes on the complications of childbirth in that it has provided me perspective on the modern evolution of the science of healing. However, the pages of notes that captivate me most are those entitled “Food Principles.”

Photograph courtesy of Cathy Schmidt.

From her journals: “General rules for broth: broth comes from beef, lamb, fowls, mutton. Cut meat into small pieces and crack the bones. Soak in cold water before heating. Use a steam type kettle and simmer, not boil. Make the day before using that the fat may be more easily removed. Cook long and slowly. Add rice, barley, white of an egg or whole egg may be added to increase the nourishment.”

Her recipes also included how to extract raw beef juice for patients, e-coli notwithstanding. Interestingly, the harmless strain of E. coli that naturally exists in human intestines was discovered in 1885 by Theodor Escherich. The strain of E. coli that causes food borne illness was not recognized as a food pathogen until 1982.

The extent of her food principles notes speaks to the importance of food in the 1919 nurse’s repertoire of techniques for nursing a patient back to health. She writes: “Food is anything taken into the body which builds or repairs tissues or produces heat and energy.”

Curiously, her recipes included a pudding made from Irish moss, which I promptly Googled and learned that Irish moss, seaweed actually, has been harvested for centuries and is rich in potassium chloride, vitamins A, E, F, and K, calcium, sulfur and iodine. It is known to ease congestion and mucous and holds anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties. From cracking bones for beef broth, to boiling sweetbreads, to making wine gelatin and apple tapioca, a nurse from this time period used food that she most likely prepared herself as a means of healing.

Healing through food is nothing new, Native Americans have a long history of using indigenous plants for a wide variety of medicinal purposes. The ancient Greek physician Hippocrates (460-370 BC), also known as the father of modern medicine, said, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” He also said,” Wherever the art of medicine is loved, there is also a love of humanity.” It is in the art of medicine where synergistic interactions of food and medicine combine to heal.

Even before Hippocrates, in Southeast Asia people were drinking teas for medicinal purposes as early as 1500 BC. Tea drinking continues today all over the world and it is commonly accepted that certain teas can provide comfort for certain ailments. In fact, the National Institutes of Health has studied tea and health with favorable indicators for its efficacy in promoting healing.

Mrs. Rabbit gave Peter some chamomile tea after indulging in too many cabbages in Mr. McGregor’s garden. She was a wise mother, as chamomile calms the stomach and promotes sleep. Peppermint tea is also known for helping with digestion as is lemon balm tea. Ginger tea helps with nausea, drains sinuses, and is an appetite booster. The list of healing teas is endless.

I could not address healing through food without exploring the reputation chicken noodle soup has as the gold standard cold slayer. Research from the University of Nebraska Medical Center has found that chicken soup may ease the symptoms of respiratory tract infections.

According to the author, Vicky Cerino, “The research was originally conducted in 1993 when Dr. Rennard’s wife, Barbara, prepared three batches of chicken soup in their home, and Dr. Rennard studied it in his laboratory under controlled conditions. Known as ‘Grandma’s Soup,’ the recipe includes chicken, onions, sweet potatoes, parsnips, turnips, carrots, celery stems, parsley, salt and pepper.”

The study found that chicken soup may have some anti-inflammatory value, but they could not isolate the ingredient or ingredients that made chicken noodle soup an effective cold fighter. They concluded that it may be a combination of ingredients in the soup that work together to have beneficial effects. Does grandma’s love count as an ingredient? Yes, I believe grandma’s love does factor in when it comes to healing and I believe there is a psychological component in some healing foods. For example: chocolate. I really enjoy chocolate, not just for the taste, but I am almost always happy after I eat it, and studies show cocoa boosts brain serotonin.

Whether you are recovering from a bone break, repairing a muscle tear, boosting your immunity, or trying to reduce inflammation in the body, there’s a food to help with that – food definitively plays a supportive role in healing. Several books have been written about the subject, but an old favorite of mine is Food – Your Miracle Medicine, by Jean Carper. Written in the 1990s, her ground-breaking compilation of 10,000 studies made science obtainable and relevant for people seeking information on how to support their body’s healing through diet. But healing through food isn’t always about what you eat. Sometimes it’s all about what you don’t eat. Often the absence of a food is the best medicine of all.

With constant distractions around us, it’s easy to lose connection with our bodies and how to read the often-subtle signals it sends us. When we don’t feel well, whether it’s by germ or eating what we shouldn’t, our bodies discomfort begs us to pay attention. Do you listen to your insides and ask: “What restores me?” By recognizing the powerful effect that food has on the body and mind we can empower ourselves to make meaningful and thoughtful choices. We all can have periods of disequilibrium with our health and seek restorative measures of various kinds. Whether we seek repair by a doctor, a medicine, a day of rest, meditation, food or tea, our goal is a return to baseline. Eating the right food just might get you back to feeling yourself again, but I don’t recommend raw beef juice, that’s a little too 1919 for me!

Cathy Schmidt writes from Trappe where she and her husband Chef Brian Schmidt own Garden and Garnish Catering. A food explorer, Cathy loves to garden and cook from scratch.

Resources and Readings

A Brief Overview of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Its Plasmid O157.

Irish moss is named carrageen and should not be confused with carrageenan, a derivative of the natural state of the moss achieved through heating and processing. There are some controversial studies on the long-term effects of carrageenan.

People who eat dark chocolate are less likely to be depressed.

Can food effect your mood?

Antimicrobial activities of widely consumed herbal teas, alone or in combination with antibiotics: an in vitro study.

Tea and Health: Studies in Humans.

Cold or Flu? UNMC researcher says try chicken soup to ease symptoms. By Vicki Cerino

“Food, Your Miracle Medicine,” by Jean Carper.

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