Chinese Herbs as Food Therapy

Guess who’s in the kitchen – and cooking? by Susan Tretakis

Chinese herbs can be more than just therapeutic. They can add great taste to your favorite dishes!

Studying Chinese Medicine has accomplished what my mother, high school home economic classes, various friends, an ex-husband, cooking show or any YOUTUBE video never managed to teach me.

I have learned to cook for myself – and I love it.

Trust me when I say that for someone who truly believed in the world of take-out, home delivery or in making reservations when it came to food preparation – this is an incredible accomplishment.

Trust me, too, that I now love my kitchen and its appliances – and while I am quite certain that late at night, the stove quietly asks the refrigerator, “Do you think new people have moved in?” I pay no attention to their whispering.

Research shows that certain Chinese herbs can double as culinary spices. It’s not just digestion that benefits from these herbs, but I was amazed at how much less my old joints hurt and how much clearer was my thinking.   And, while I loudly and clearly admit I am no “chef” I will say this: once you eliminate all preservatives from your foods, once you stop eating food cooked for you by strangers, you will be amazed at how healthy – and with the right Chinese Herbs – how flavorful a simple dish can be.

Total self-disclosure: I am not a nutritionist or a dietician. I’m just a senior citizen who has had a love/hate relationship with food all of my life. I am not a vegetarian or any of the other “arians” that abound in today’s society. I just pay more attention to where my food comes from – and what my food has consumed and where and how it was raised.

In “Your Health”, Dean Ornish wrote, ‘’Seasonings have been used since Biblical times to perk up the flavor of food. What’s new: there is now research showing that some of seasonings – in the form of spices and herbs – can enhance your health.”

Let’s hear it for “enhanced health” – WITHOUT drugs – without doctor visits!

The USDA estimates that the average American consumes 3.3 pounds of spices annually, but more than a quarter of that is black and white pepper and mustard seed (in prepared mustard). Mustard seeds contain many protective substances called phytochemicals, which may inhibit the growth of existing cancer cells and help prevent normal cells from turning into cancerous ones. Modern science is beginning to uncover the ultimate power of spices and herbs, as weapons against many illnesses, including Alzheimer’s disease. “We’re now starting to see a scientific basis for why people have been using spices medicinally for thousands of years”, writes Bharat Aggarwal, Ph.D., professor at the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and author of “Healing Spices” (Sterling Publications, 2011)

Aggaral notes that in earlier times, spices tended to be used by the handful. Incidences of diet-related diseases like heart disease and cancer had been very low. As more and more Westernized eating habits were adopted, rates of these diseases began to rise.   While many researchers blame the meatier, fattier nature of Western diets, Aggaral and other experts believe that herbs and spices – or more precisely, the lack of them – are an important piece of the dietary puzzle. “When people eat more and more Westernized foods, they’re getting much fewer spices than their traditional diet contains,” he explains. “They lose the protection those spices are conveying.”

In an article published in 2016, Yuan-Yuan Han writes that “for thousands of years, herbalists and Chinese medicine doctors have been cultivating health and healing ailments through the use of herbal medicine. Chinese herbal therapy “follows foundational systems that include the Yin Yang and Five Element Theory, incorporating the five flavors and tastes, colors, properties and nature. If you are truly interested in following up on this connection, I would respectfully refer you to a qualified doctor of Chinese Medicine for specific information on this essential connection.

And if you are not sure where to find such a doctor, I refer you to any of the wonderful, kind and competent doctors who are part of this website.

One of the mega benefits for me was that by using Chinese herbs and spices, I was able to cut down on some other-less healthy ingredients, such as table salt, added sugars and saturated fats. So, slowly, but steadily, I made some changes.

First, I threw out all iodized white salt – and all spices that have been quietly sleeping in my spice cabinet for 17 years. In fact, I truly believe that most of them had perished in a quiet death years ago! I am not a person who likes the taste of salt, but I do know that salt enhances the flavors of foods, so where the white salt once sat, there now is a bottle of pink, Himalayan salt.

Chinese herbs such as turmeric, ginger, and cinnamon have strong therapeutic properties and are present in many traditional herbal formulas.

I carry a bottle of organic Turmeric with me everywhere. In fact there is another bottle on my kitchen counter for use as others may use table salt. Turmeric is a member of the ginger family and is a powerful antioxidant and has been used in Chinese medicine for centuries. Preliminary studies suggest it may help prevent or treat Alzheimer’s disease. Turmeric also enhances immune function, improves digestion and is a proven anti-inflammatory. I sprinkle it on everything: from grilled or steamed vegetables, in my scrambled egg whites and on grilled fish or even a baked sweet potato. I find my arthritis and fibromyalgia attacks are less severe– and besides – I love the taste. Just last week, I purchased a delicious Turmeric tea from my local health food store. The world has discovered Turmeric – and I could not be happier!

By the way, if you are waiting for specific recipes – don’t be. I may be cooking more, but my meals are best for me and my health needs. I would encourage you to experiment – in your own kitchen – with your own foods – with your own herbs and spices for healthful eating.

I have fresh ginger root in my freezer – and I slice it to use when I steam or grill asparagus, as well as mashing it into a paste for a chicken stir fry or baked fish. While many people know that ginger is effective in preventing symptoms of motion sickness and calming one’s stomach, ginger also contains an inflammation-fighting substance called “gingerol”. Call me crazy, but anything that has the remote possibility of helping me lesson the pain of chronic inflammation has a home in my kitchen.

Rosemary is a common herb that grows easily on my patio. It also contains substances that have an anti-inflammatory effect and has been shown to improve immune function and circulation. While I use rosemary in my sauces and stir-fry dishes, I also use it in aromatherapy. Research shows that when rosemary is diffused through the air, it may enhance memory and cognition.  At my age, when “senior moments” sometimes become “senior hours”, I’ll take all of the enhanced memory and cognition I can naturally get!

Coriander, also called cilantro, is rich in protective phytochemicals and is a good source of iron, magnesium and manganese. I will admit that coriander took some getting used to, but as one who has the blood markers for “thalassemia” – a genetic type of anemia which usually requires iron shots and iron pills. Neither of those options are pleasant and neither are the side effects they cause. It was far easier for me to develop a taste for this herb – which when used with fresh garlic, ground pepper and olive oil – is quite palatable. Best part: my past two blood tests have shown remarkable improvement in red blood count and I no longer require those hated iron pills.

Cinnamon, while last on this list, is one of my favorites. Cinnamon is one of the oldest spices known and research shows it too seems to reduce inflammation. Studies have shown that cinnamon – either in food or taken in capsule form, can be beneficial for those with type 2 diabetes. In another study, chewing cinnamon gum or simply smelling the spice, improved attention and memory. My favorite use of cinnamon – in addition to a great cinnamon tea – is when it is sprinkled over warm fruit, such as sliced apples. The natural sweetness of the heated apple mixes with the spice of the cinnamon and truly, this is my new, go-to comfort food.

This list of five is where I started – and there are many, many more spices and herbs left for me to explore: chili peppers (said to improve metabolism), saffron (said to lift one’s mood), parsley (said to inhibit breast cancer–cell growth), sage (said to help to preserve memory and soothe sore throats) to name a few. Many can be eaten as well as used in aromatherapy.

Never would I ever think I would or say this sentence: I can’t wait to get back in the kitchen and start cooking!

Maybe those late night whispers of my stove to my refrigerator is right on target: a new person has moved in!!   Not just into my home, but to my mind and body!!

Learn more about our Chinese Herbal Pharmacy here at Care Wellness Center in Margate Florida.



Google: Chinese Spices and Their Role in Nutrion

WebMD: Spices and herbs for arthritis and fibromyalgia

“7 Chinese Herbs that Double as Culinary Spices”, Yuna-Yuan Han, April 4, 2016

“Spices are More Than Flavor Enhancers”, by Dean Ornish, published in “To Your Health, 2014”

“Little Guide Book: Chinese Herbs, Spices and More”, by Terry Tan, November, 2014 Amazon Publishing