‘Food Is Medicine’: Dr Shiva Explains How Indian Medicine Uses Food to Boost Immune Health

May 28, 2020 Updated: May 28, 2020

In ancient traditions of medicine, food played a major role in strengthening the immune system and preventing illness from occurring in the first place before invasive surgeries or drugs were even required.

Today, as people across the globe grapple with the fear of a pandemic, curious minds seek to sift out fact from fiction and determine the truth about how to arm their bodies and immune systems to fight the disease.

Dr Shiva Ayyadurai from MIT is a pioneer in the field of systems biology; he’s also spent two years in India studying traditional medicine from a systems engineering standpoint, gaining fresh insight into a system of medicine that is thousands of years old.

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Illustration depicting Indian herbs and spices (Nila Newsom/Shutterstock)

What Dr Shiva realized was groundbreaking: that the ancient Indian healers were actually looking at the body as a systems engineer would. Rather than focusing primarily on invasive surgeries and treatments at a late stage of an illness, traditional Indian medicine emphasizes prevention: maintaining a healthy body constitution. One of the main ways of doing that was through nutrition.

Vitamins from Food

Most medical doctors are not educated on how the body’s immune system works, Dr Shiva says, or how to strengthen it. Vitamins are one way. What occurs during a viral infection is that viruses penetrate the outer surface of a cell in the body, hijack that cell, and then use the machinery of that cell to produce more viruses. Vitamins, however, can prevent this.

Vitamin A

Vitamin A helps put a “jacket” of protective cytokeratin around the cells in the body so that viruses cannot penetrate, Dr Shiva explains. While you can get vitamin A from supplements, he suggests to get it from food whenever possible.

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Kale (Imsosomg/Shutterstock)

He suggests dark leafy green vegetables, such as kale, spinach, or amaranth, or dark purple fruits and vegetables as excellent sources of vitamin A. Other vitamin A foods include carrots, squashes, mangoes, and papayas, according to Community Eye Health Journal.

Vitamin C

To this day, modern medical establishment is studying the disease known as scurvy, which once plagued sailors, causing their teeth to fall out. Scurvy, it turns out, came from a lack of vitamin C, according to Dr Shiva. “Some of the ships’ captains realized this, and they gave people lime. That’s why sailors were called limeys,” he told The Epoch Times in an interview.

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Hot chili peppers (AllaBond/Shutterstock)

Vitamin C stops viral replication and inflammatory response. It is also a powerful anti-oxidant and helps modulate the immune system.

Among the foods richest in vitamin C are guavas, kiwifruit, bell peppers, strawberries, and oranges, My Food Data reports. Other vitamin C foods include chili peppers, thyme, kale, lemon, and broccoli, according to Healtline.

Vitamin D

Although not a food, vitamin D, that is, being out in the sun, is one of the main supporters of immune health and long life, Dr Shiva says, adding that it is also an anti-microbial and a hormone and is also “phenomenal for your body.”

Gut Bacteria and the Microbiome

Not all bacteria are bad. In fact, the microbiome in the gut is an important part of the body’s immune system health, as it is part of what extracts the nutrients from the food we eat.

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Sauerkraut (Ildi Papp/Shutterstock)

Another major supporter of long life in many traditional cultures was that they all drank some type of local fermented drink, such as wine or rice wine. “In Indian culture, we used to let old rice water [ferment]; we drank it the next day. It supports the gut bacteria, the microbiome,” Dr Shiva shared.

Eating fermented food such as yogurt, sauerkraut, and kimchi is also beneficial for digestion health, according to Science Focus, as are high-fiber foods such as onions, garlic, and beans.

Herbs and Spice

In traditional culture, for thousands of years, medicinal herbs were fully integrated into the diets in India and in other cultures. Mothers would pass down a set of spices to their daughters when they got married and went to live with their husbands, Dr Shiva explains.

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Cloves (Bashutskyy/Shutterstock)

Those spices included cloves, cardamom, turmeric, anis, and asafetida. Turmeric, it turns out, helped prevent liver cancer. “Indians got one third liver cancer than Chinese,” Dr Shiva said. “And the epidemiological results showed it was because of the high consumption of turmeric … and there’s about 6,000 papers written on it.” Additionally, cloves are an “amazing antimicrobial,” he added.

Chai tea is also a delicious way of consuming many of these herbs, and others such as cinnamon and ginger.

Eliminate Sugar and Toxic Residues

It is just as important to cut out unhealthy foods as it is to consume those that are beneficial.

Reducing sugar is something we can all do to promote immune health, as there is a sugar overabundance in places like the United States, which harms the immune system. “We give people loads of sugar, and that sugar creates candida,” Dr Shiva explains, “and that fungus essentially creates gliotoxins, which shut down one of your cylinders of the immune system, your macrophages and your T-cells.”

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Wheat-based cereal (ArtBitz/Shutterstock)

Additionally, non-organic foods such as wheat, beans, honey, tea, and other produce are often sprayed with glyphosate (a chemical found in Roundup) as a drying agent, which does not wash off. This can lead to bad gut bacteria and fungal infection, which in turn can cause inflammation in the brain, behavioral problems, and severe symptoms of autism, according to Zen Honeycutt from Moms Across America Publishing.

Deep Social Connections

Although not food related, friendship and social connections are the number one reason why people lived long lives in many traditional cultures. Having deep social connections, deep fellowship, and deep community were essential to immune health. Conversely, social isolation, Dr Shiva says, “results in detriment that’s worse than high blood pressure, worse than smoking, worse than obesity.”

“Those social connections boost antiviral activity; when you have friendship, when you feel safe, you lower inflammatory response. And this has been shown over and over again and multiple Western science landmark studies,” he adds.

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Portrait depicting Indian villagers in Salunkwadi, India (Tukaram.Karve/Shutterstock)