Let Food be Your Medicine: How a Plant-based Diet Can Protect You From Diabetes

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

~ Hippocrates

I’m sure you’re familiar with this quote – it’s one we’ve all heard a hundred times. What I didn’t really get until recently – despite over a decade of studying health and the human body – is that it is more deeply true than we credit. Last semester I did a massive project on the biochemistry of herbal medicines traditionally used to treat diabetes for a course on the biochemistry of disease. What I learned blew me away, and led me to a conclusion I’d never heard mentioned before: that the huge increase in Type 2 diabetes is due not just to an increase in blood sugar levels, but also to the loss in protective compounds as people switch away from a plant-based diet. I’ve since learned that some First Nations elders have been saying this for a while, and the research definitely backs them up.

Before I went back to university and started doing academic research on herbal medicine, I’d thought that there just wasn’t much scientific research on the efficacy of herbal medicine, and that that was one of the barriers to its acceptance by the medical community. I couldn’t have been more wrong. There haven’t been a ton of human trials, but I could spend several lifetimes reading studies on how herbs work. I’ve already read hundreds, and I haven’t yet found one that didn’t find chemically active compounds that have a beneficial effect on the body. Most popular herbs have multiple compounds that work synergistically, and some, like ginseng, have over 700.

Ginseng has over 700 active compounds, many of which have an anti-diabetic action.

Ginseng has over 700 active compounds, many of which have an anti-diabetic action.

But I digress. What startled me about my research was not that some plants have anti-diabetic action – as a Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner I already knew that. What did surprise me was the sheer number of plants, and the variety of ways they work. Pharmaceuticals used to treat diabetes are confined to a few categories in terms of the enzyme they block or their impact on insulin production, for example. Researchers are always searching for new mechanisms to stem to rising tide of diabetes, with limited success. But herbal medicines have been shown to work through these same pathways and many more besides. Many plants act on multiple pathways simultaneously, and when you factor in the fact that most herbal traditions use mixtures of multiple herbs, you’re looking at an incredibly effective way of treating this complex disease.

The plants I studied ranged from edible roots and tubers like chicory root and Jerusalem artichoke (GLP-1 agonists), plants used as drinks like green tea and cocoa (anti-oxidants and AGE-breakers), and traditionally-used herbs from every continent that acted on less-known pathways (such as PPAR agonists and the peripheral micro-opioid receptor system). Many of the plants that have been proven to have anti-diabetic action are culinary herbs and spices: cinnamon, garlic, rosemary, sage, and many more all act to prevent high blood sugar levels. Even traditional strains of corn, a staple of many Indigenous peoples in North America, can protect against the complications of diabetes.

Most food plants contain antioxidants too, with some like blueberries and cinnamon being “big hitters”, earning them reputations as superfoods. As great as superfoods are, if you’re eating a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, you’re on a super-diet. Different plants contain different types of antioxidants, and it’s way better to get a broad range through your diet than taking huge doses of isolated antioxidants such as Vitamin E, which may carry some longterm health risk.

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Goji berries are high in antioxidants, which can help prevent complications of diabetes.

Some cultures specifically include their medicinal herbs in cooking to make sure they’re getting disease-preventing herbs every day. The Chinese tradition is an excellent example of this, with an entire branch of medicine devoted to dietary therapy. But even without deliberately including medicine in your food, if you’re eating an assortment of veggies for dinner and flavouring them with spices and garlic, you’re getting a decent dose of disease prevention every day. Compare that with the standard Western diet: highly processed food flavoured with a ton of sugar and salt, and often not a vegetable in sight. The common drinks of most cultures – herbal teas, green tea, cocoa, and even coffee – contain anti-diabetic compounds, whereas now sugar-heavy sodas and energy drinks are the norm. This is why we’re sick.

Treatment and prevention of diabetes focuses on what not to eat, trying to reduce the intake of sugars and simple carbs to prevent sharp spikes in blood sugar. But that’s only half the story. I think it’s time to include the positive side – what we can be eating every day to keep us healthy. As for me, it’s time for my breakfast of rice porridge filled with yummy Chinese herbs, so I’ll leave it at that.

Moss
Moss Andrewes is an acupuncturist and practitioner of Traditional Chinese Medicine, specializing in women’s health and chronic illness. Originally from the UK and now residing in Canada, she is a writer, speaker, and event organizer, focusing on health, sustainable living and community. Her lifelong passion for making the world a happier, healthier place has led her through many adventures, including off-grid sustainable living, disaster relief, and various community health projects. She currently lives in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with her partner and two cats.

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