Let Food Be Your Medicine

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Vanquish the free radicals with good eating habits

This article originally appeared in our July 2006 issue.


Photo by David Clifford

“Let food be your medicine and medicine be your food.” These were the words of Hippocrates, the “Father of Medicine,” in 400 B.C. The Chinese have also traditionally not distinguished between food and medicine.

What was true 2400 years ago is even truer today, with the typical North American diet high in processed and fast foods full of sugars and trans fatty acids that burden our bodies with rogues named “free radicals.” These tiny particles are the leading villains in the aging process and a major cause of tissue injury in trail runners.


A free radical is an atom with an unpaired electron. Like an overly aggressive suitor seeking a mate, a free radical waltzes through your body, grabbing electrons from cellular tissue and wreaking havoc. Each free radical may exist for only a fraction of a second, but the damage it leaves behind can be irreversible.

Although some free-radical activity is vital for immune function and hormone and enzyme production, too many of these culprits will suppress the immune system and become a major factor in age-related diseases such as cancer, heart disease and arthritis. The formation of free radicals stimulates the development of even more free radicals, snowballing their production and damaging genetic material.


Bad habits like smoking and eating fast food generate free radicals, but so do good habits like running, or indeed any metabolic activity, due to increased oxygen consumption. Oxygen is inherently unstable. The molecules transmute and oxidize other molecules, injuring cellular tissue in the same way that oxidized metal, or rust, damages your car. The immediate result is muscle soreness, but prolonged tissue oxidation from free radicals contributes to those age-related diseases.

To counter free radicals, you need lots of antioxidants in your diet. Fruits, vegetables and even herbs—especially herbs in the oregano family—are excellent dietary sources of antioxidants and should be an integral part of every runner’s regimen.


Another common herb that alleviates pain and inflammation from athletic injury is ginger. According to Michelle Schoffro Cook, Doctor of Natural Medicine, in her book Healing Injuries the Natural Way, ginger blocks the formation of prostaglandins and leukotrienes, two substances that cause inflammation. Dr. Cook also claims that ginger has antioxidant properties that actually break down inflammation and acidity in the joints’ synovial fluid. This crucial fluid is thick and viscous and provides nutritive support, lubrication and cushioning to cartilage.

Also consider supplementing your diet with antioxidant vitamins and minerals, especially vitamins C and E and the minerals zinc and selenium. When shopping for vitamin E select a natural, not synthetic, version and preferably one with mixed tocopherols, which are more expensive, but more efficiently absorbed. The label will indicate whether the brand has mixed tocopherols. Natural vitamin E will be listed as d-alpha-tocopherol and the synthetic variety will show as dl-alpha-tocopherol.

Antioxidants gobble up free radicals like voracious piranha fish. They neutralize them by binding to their free electrons.


All runners should also ensure they have adequate omega-3 essential fatty acid in their diet. One of the best omega-3 supplements for joints is fish oil, which is rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), both of which fight joint-damaging enzymes and reduce inflammation (often caused by free radicals). As a result, fish oil is a great supplement for reducing joint and tendon pain and preventing wear and tear. That’s why eating fish at least twice per week—especially oily, cold-water varieties like salmon, herring, mackerel, anchovies and tuna—or taking fish oil capsules is recommended.

Fish oil has also proven helpful for overuse injuries. For the past several years, the Danish Olympic rowing team has given its athletes fish oils along with gamma-linolenic acid (GLA, an omega-6 plant oil that acts like an omega-3) to help them quickly recover from inflammation. They use about 600 mg each of omega-3 fish oils and GLA daily.

Combining antioxidants and essential fatty acids appears to be an effective treatment for inflammatory injuries, reported Soren Mavrogenis, a physiotherapist with Denmark’s Olympic Committee. Until now, such injuries typically were treated with rest, physiotherapy and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, commonly known as NSAIDS. “For the first time we are able to offer our patients a safe and reliable treatment for stress injuries with chronic inflammatory response,” stated Mavrogenis in an interview with Reuters Health (April 2000). “I see this as a regular breakthrough in modern physiology. In fact, it is our experience that with this new treatment, as opposed to conventional treatment, athletes are able to train actively while receiving treatment.” Vegetarians can use flaxseed oil, but the EPA and DHA in fish oil are about 11 times more potent than the alphalinolenic acid (ALA) in flaxseed oil.


Other important supplements for the healing and prevention of running injuries include glucosamine sulfate, chondroitin and MSM (methylsulfonylmethane). Glucosamine and chondroitin help rebuild and lubricate cartilage and connective tissue. Because your body can make glucosamine only slowly, and your ability to make it at all atrophies with age, taking it as a supplement effectively speeds the healing of your joints after exercise. Studies have even shown glucosamine and chondroitin to be effective against arthritis in clinical settings, making these supplements first-line treatments for most people with joint complaints. According to Earl Mindell, Ph.D., in his book, Supplement Bible, “Chondroitin draws fluid to the cells in the joint; that fluid provides lubrication and helps bone glide smoothly with each movement. In addition, chondroitin works with glucosamine to replenish collagen and other components that provide the building blocks for cartilage.”

MSM, an organic sulfur, is used by the body to make important enzymes, antibodies and connective tissue. It is found in vegetables, meat, eggs, poultry and dairy foods, but it is difficult to get enough MSM through food as it is often destroyed through processing. The book The Miracle of MSM quotes Efrain Olszewer, M.D., at the International Preventive Medicine Clinic in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as saying, “Sprained ankles, elbows, shoulders, tendon injuries and muscle soreness all respond [to MSM]. The normal pain, inflammation and reduced function of the area of the body all appear to be reduced significantly.” Dr. Olszewer prescribes MSM to be taken internally as powder or capsules and applied topically as an ointment.

All wise runners know the wisdom of the RICE procedure for soft tissue injuries: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. But healthy food and nutritional supplementation have vital roles to play as well. As the ancient Chinese proverb says, “He that takes medicine and neglects diet wastes the skill of the physician.”

Polenta with Oregano
1 cup of milk (or substitute such as nut milk. I do not recommend soy milk.)

1 tbsp. of butter

1 tsp. of sea salt

Pinch of cayenne pepper

1 clove of garlic, minced

1 cup of polenta

1/2 red pepper, very finely diced

1/2 orange pepper, very finely diced

1/4 cup of finely chopped broccoli, lightly steamed

1/2 cup of freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

1 1/2 tbsp. of fresh oregano, finely chopped

Bring the milk, water, butter, salt, cayenne and garlic to a boil in a pot and slowly add the polenta in a slow stream, stirring continually. Reduce the heat to a simmer and continue to stir eight to 10 minutes until the moisture is absorbed and the mixture has a creamy consistency. Add the vegetables and cheese and continue to cook and stir for another couple of minutes. Then thoroughly blend the oregano into the mix. When it is evenly distributed, pour the polenta into a glass pie plate and allow to cool. Serve cool or re-heated. Cut into wedges prior to serving.

Robust Minestrone Soup

2 large carrots, chopped

2 celery stalks, chopped

1 large potato, diced

1 large red onion, diced

3 tbsp. olive oil

1 large can Italian tomatoes

6 cups of chicken, vegetable or
herbed bouillon

4-5 cloves of garlic, minced

1 small zucchini, sliced

Handful of green beans, cut into
one-inch lengths

1 lb. of green or red chard, cut into one-inch strips

1 cup of cooked or canned
white beans

1 cup of small dried pasta
(e.g. rotelli or penne)

1 tbsp. of fresh chopped marjoram or one tsp. of crumbled dried marjoram

1 tbsp. of fresh chopped oregano or one tsp. of crumbled dried oregano

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 cup of freshly grated Romano or Parmesan cheese

Sauté the onion, potato, carrots and celery in the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat for about 10 minutes. Add the stock, pasta, tomatoes and garlic and cook over low heat for another 20 minutes. Then add the green beans, chard, zucchini and white beans and cook for another 15 minutes. Finally add the marjoram and oregano and salt and pepper to taste. Cook for another 10 minutes and then add the cheese to each bowl when serving.

Recipes excerpted with permission from HerbWise: growing cooking wellbeing (HerbWise Inc. 2002), by Bruce Burnett, CH.

Bruce Burnett is a Chartered Herbalist and author of the best-selling book HerbWise: growing cooking wellbeing. He runs the fabulous wooded trails around his home in Ladysmith, British Columbia.

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