I look forward every spring to harvesting and eating stinging nettles (Urtica dioica), an herbaceous wild plant native to Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. If you’ve ever encountered nettles and suffered their sting, you may be doubtful as to their edibility. Nettle leaves are armed with tiny needle-like hairs filled with irritating compounds, including formic acid (the same compound secreted by red ants). But a simple quick sauté neutralizes the irritants, allowing us to enjoy a tasty, nutritious vegetable with a flavor similar to spinach.
With the advent of a growing scientific field of study called nutrigenomics, the old adage “you are what you eat” is proving to be much more than folk wisdom. Nutrigenomics takes into consideration the relationship between diet and genetics, and identifies the beneficial or detrimental health effects of various dietary components. What researchers have discovered is that there is far more to dietary health than proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and that simply meeting the minimum daily requirements for vitamins and minerals isn’t enough for optimal health and disease prevention.
Although it’s often said, “You are what you eat,” it’s more accurate to say, “You are what you absorb.” You may be eating a perfect diet and taking handfuls of supplements, but if you aren’t absorbing what you’re consuming, your body won’t have the raw materials needed for energy, maintenance, and repair. Without proper absorption and assimilation of nutrients, health problems inevitably arise.
One of my favorite botanicals for improving digestion and absorption is black pepper (Piper nigrum), which is the dried fruit of a flowering tropical vine. I find it interesting that black pepper plays such a prominent role in our cuisine, and that so many of us enjoy grinding fresh black pepper onto our food at the table. Along with adding flavor to our plate, we’re taking advantage (perhaps intuitively) of the health promoting benefits of this ancient spice, which include the ability to enhance the absorption of many of the medicinal nutrients in food. Although black pepper is well established in Western cuisine, the use of the spice originates in south India, where it has been appreciated for thousands of years not only for its culinary appeal, but also for its myriad health benefits.
Vitamin and mineral supplements can be found almost everywhere these days—grocery and convenience stores, big box discount stores, and drugstores commonly carry a plethora of supplements, and online retailers offer thousands of choices of every supplement imaginable. The supplement industry is enormous—it’s estimated that one of every three American adults uses nutritional supplements on a regular basis.
My oldest coffee mug is decorated with a big picture of a dandelion and emblazoned with: “If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em.”
Many people consider the humble dandelion to be a pesky weed, and attempt to eradicate it from their lawns and gardens with toxic herbicides. But no matter how many poisonous chemicals are dumped onto dandelions, the bright yellow flowering plants not only survive, they thrive.
The scientific name for dandelion is Taraxacum officinale, which translates as “the official remedy for disorders,” acknowledging the esteemed position that dandelion has held as a medicinal herb. For centuries, dandelion (both the leaf and root) has been used in traditional healing in cultures around the world.
“Feel better! Have more energy! Live longer!” Sounds like a late night infomercial, or the claims made for patent medicines in the late 1800’s, doesn’t it?
But in truth, there is a class of herbs that will increase your energy, help to prevent disease, and even likely extend your lifespan. These herbs are called “adaptogens”, and I recommend them to everyone for increasing vitality and well-being.
Adaptogens got their name from their unique ability to buffer the effects of stress—they actually help the body adapt more readily to the demands of life. Everyone experiences stress, whether it’s everyday worries about work, money, and relationships; the physical demands of athletic competition; or the emotional and physical stressors of chronic illness.