Photo of the cover of Neal's Yard Remedies Healing Foods book
Neal's Yard Remedies' new book contains 175 healing foods and 130 recipes to help you live a healthier life [Image: Dorling Kindersley]

Healing Foods – cooking with medicinal herbs

1 May, 2013

The food we eat has an overreaching effect on our health and well-being, whether we are conscious of it or not. Becoming more aware of your diet and the healing properties of food will help you to make necessary adjustments to meet the needs of your body – and it will do an enormous amount to maintain and improve your health.

While we would not advocate a rigid approach to a particular diet, there are things that can be learnt and adopted from traditional ways of eating such as the Inuit, Japanese, Mediterranean and paleolithic or ancestral diets. Humans are very adaptable and it is interesting to see the ways in which different cultures have adapted their diets to remain healthy in widely different environments.

What many of these diets have in common is that they are plant-based, with meat reserved for feast days and occasional treats. They include plenty of oily fish so are rich in the omega-3 fatty acid DHA. Their overall balance of essential fatty acids is healthier (i.e. higher in omega 3 than 6, unlike modern diets), and they are high in antioxidants.

People who follow these diets rely on seasonal fresh food produced without industrial chemicals, which means they eat a wide variety of nutrient-dense foods necessary for optimal heath throughout the year. They tend to eat sensible portions and rarely “snack” between meals.

Another difference is that traditional diets often make less of a distinction than we do in the West between plants used for ‘culinary’ and ‘medicinal’ purposes.

In fact, there are fewer distinctions between the two than we sometimes think and most medicinal herbs can be incorporated into our daily diet.

Their healing benefits are most concentrated as a tincture or tea; they are subtler when used in smaller ratios for cooking. Prolonged exposure to heat is not recommended for any herb, however, so add towards the end of cooking. Consider these ‘dual purpose’ herbs, roots and berries:


Helps improve energy levels

What’s it good for?

A tonic that can help raise your energy levels if you are feeling run down or are convalescing. Astragalus is also useful for enhancing the function and number of white blood cells and increasing resistance to viral infections, as it has natural antibiotic properties. It is full of antioxidants that protect cells against free-radical damage, and is a natural diuretic.

How Do I Use It?

Astragalus is a healthy ingredient in soups. Try combining 10–15g (1⁄4–1⁄2oz) of the herb with shiitake mushrooms, onions, garlic, miso, and carrots, or use as a base for a stock in which to cook rice. To make a tea, steep 2 tsp fresh or 1 tsp dried herb in 175ml (6fl oz) of boiling water for 5 minute.


Helps calm the nerves and promote peaceful sleep

What Is It Good For?
Used to treat a variety of conditions including insomnia, anxiety, and nervous restlessness.  Sometimes described as “nature’s tranquillizer”, it has been extensively researched in recent years. Test results suggest it works in a similar way to prescription tranquillizers by increasing gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA) – a substance that has a calming effect on the nervous system – in the brain.Other uses include treating digestive problems, nausea, liver problems, and urinary tract disorders.

How Do I Use It?
Considered inedible raw, valerian root is best taken as a soothing hot tea; combine in equal parts with fresh ginger root as a good circulation booster too.


Has natural sedative properties

What Is It Good For?

A classic remedy for anxiety and sleep disturbances. It is excellent for children, easing colic, teething, restlessness, and hyperactivity. Soothes gastrointestinal cramps, and also inflammation in mucous membranes and the skin. Its antibacterial action helps fight infection, while its sedating qualities benefit the immune system by helping to lower levels of immune compromising stress hormones.

How Do I Use It?

Its sweet, apple scent makes it a pleasant garnish for salads, rice, or fish dishes. Chop and add to butter or soured cream to top baked potatoes. For bread and cakes, replace the water with a chamomile infusion and add 3 tbsp each of dried chamomile and lavender flowers.


Invigorates the mind and body

What Is It Good For?

An adaptogen, it stimulates or calms the body according to its needs. It can help improve physical, mental, or spiritual energy and is a renowned aphrodisiac for men and women. It supports kidney and lung function and helps improve circulation, which in turn provides benefits for the heart and skin, and may help revive a poor memory and build stamina.

How Do I Use It?

A common ingredient in traditional Chinese and Korean cuisines. Add the berries to rice dishes, soups, vegetable patties, jellies, jams, and even drinks.


Helps heal stomach ulcers

What Is It Good For?

Rich in mucilaginous (gum-like) fibre, it acts to soothe irritation and inflammation of the mucous membranes, stomach, and intestines. It may be particularly useful for gastric ulcers and irritable bowel syndrome. It can also help heal respiratory and urinary disorders. Its mild laxative effect makes it useful for treating occasional constipation.

How Do I Use It?

Make into a medicinal drink: soak 30g (1oz) of root in 600ml (1 pint) of cold water overnight and strain. The liquid will be very viscous and may need further dilution. Drink small servings throughout the day.


Supports healthy liver function

What Is It Good For?

A powerful antioxidant that helps heal the liver and support its ability to break down and metabolize fats and proteins. It is considered a good treatment for gall-bladder inflammation, and any premenstrual and menopausal liver function. It can also help increase breast milk production.

How Do I Use It?

To make a soothing brew grind 1 tsp of seeds in a coffee grinder and steep in 175ml (6fl oz) of boiling water for 5–10 minutes. Or peel fresh stalks, soak overnight to remove bitterness, boil until just tender, and add butter.


Helps lift depression

What Is It Good For?

It can help treat mild-to-moderate, but not severe, depression. In many studies it has been shown to work as well as conventional antidepressants. It is also a remedy for seasonal depression, PMS, and depression and anxiety in menopause. Less well known are the herb’s antibacterial, anti-inflammatory and antiviral properties, which make it a useful wound healer when used externally.

How Do I Use It?

Take as a tea or, like chamomile, substitute water with a strong infusion of the herb in baking or savoury broths and stocks.