The benefits of food on our health

Health, healing and the medicinal properties of food

There are many beneficial effects that certain foods have on health, many having potential healing or medicinal properties. Emerging research is telling us that certain substances found in foods can help to protect us against disease. There are many ways that food can help in your life from helping to cope with stress to sleep.

Boost your immune system with berries

In this article, we will look at the following:

  • Foods to help the body cope with stress.
  • Foods to help increase the body’s defense system.
  • Foods to improve eyesight.
  • Foods to relieve depression.
  • Foods to help improve your skin.
  • Foods to combat PMS.
  • Foods to combat poor concentration and tiredness.
  • Foods to improve your sleep.
  • Foods to help improve your bones.

Foods to help the body cope with stress

B vitamins help the body to cope with stress, so including more foods that are rich sources of B vitamins could help. This group of vitamins are essential for the nervous system. Try to eat more wholemeal products such as bread, pitta bread, scones and wholegrain breakfast cereals such as branflakes, fruit and fiber, porridge, Weetabix, muesli and Shredded Wheat.

Other beneficial foods are fruit and vegetables, lean meat, poultry, eggs, low-fat dairy products and pulses (for example, peas, beans and lentils). Try to avoid drinks containing alcohol and caffeine. Alcohol acts as a depressant on the nervous system; excess caffeine can lead to palpitations, rapid breathing and disturbed sleep.

Foods to help increase the body’s defense system

The immune system helps protect the body from bacteria and viruses. Research has proven that a diet low in vitamin C, zinc and beta-carotene reduces the body’s ability to fight invasions from hostile organisms. Foods that are high in vitamin C are citrus fruit and berries. Foods that are a rich source of zinc include oysters, liver, pumpkin seeds, red meat and sardines. Beta-carotene rich foods include sweet potatoes, carrots, apricots and oranges.

Alcohol, when consumed in large amounts, increases the risk of long-term damage to health. Try to limit your intake of alcohol to 3 to 4 units per day (equivalent to two pints of beer) if you are a man, and 2 to 3 units per day (equivalent to two glasses of wine) if you are a woman. These guidelines are benchmarks and are not targets to drink up to. Benchmarks are a guide to how much alcohol can be taken without putting your health at risk.

Foods to improve eyesight

There have been links made between some antioxidant substances and a reduced risk of eye problems such as cataracts and glaucoma. Wholegrain foods and red meat contain B vitamins and may help to maintain the health of the optic nerve, an essential part of good vision. Green leafy vegetables and orange coloured fruit and vegetables are a good source of beta carotene which is needed by the eyes to allow them to adapt to darkness.

Vitamin C containing foods such as citrus fruits and berries may reduce the risk of raised pressure in the eye which is useful for people with glaucoma and those prone to cataracts.

Foods to relieve depression

Dietary changes prove to be most beneficial in people suffering from mild to moderate depression. Oats contain saponins, alkaloids, B vitamins and flavonoids, all known for their anti-depressant actions. Basil contains a substance called basil camphor which is thought to have an antidepressant action.

Eat more Brussels sprouts, beetroot, broccoli and asparagus as all are rich in folate; low levels of this B vitamin are linked to depression. Breakfast cereals and yeast extract are fortified with folic acid which acts in the same way as folate.

Vitamin B6 is responsible for converting a substance called tryptophan into serotonin which raises mood. Good sources of vitamin B6 are wholemeal products, cod, turkey, beef and bananas.

Foods to help improve your skin

Diet plays a large role in the maintenance of healthy skin. Vitamin E and monounsaturated fats help to maintain skin structure and help wounds to heal, try eating more avocados to provide you with Vitamin E. Zinc, protein and iron are contained in red meat; these nutrients may help to reduce inflammation, help the skin to renew itself and promote wound healing. Oily fish contains omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA, which can decrease inflammation and improve the skin’s water resistance and can help in the treatment of psoriasis. Beta-carotene and vitamins A and C help the body to protect itself from sun damage, top foods to eat are citrus fruit and orange or dark green coloured vegetables.

Foods to combat PMS

Bloating is a symptom of premenstrual syndrome; foods that may be beneficial are fruit, vegetables and oats as they are all rich in soluble fiber which is easier for the digestive system to deal with than insoluble fiber. Avoid swede, cabbage and pulses as these foods can cause bloating. Cut back on salty foods as they can cause bloating associated with water retention. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are rich sources of omega-6 fatty acids; it is possible that if you have PMS you may be deficient in these essential substances. Green vegetables, bread and pasta are good sources of magnesium and this is needed for normal hormone function. If you are deficient in magnesium it may contribute to muscle cramps and aches. Finally, evening primrose oil capsules taken daily have been shown to help reduce breast discomfort.

Foods to combat poor concentration and tiredness

If you are unable to concentrate and are generally feeling tired all the time you may have anemia. This is caused through poor iron intake and people who eat little or no meat (vegetarians and vegans) are particularly at risk. Another group of people who are at risk are women, including teenage girls. Women menstruate every month and this loss of blood increases women’s requirement for iron. Try eating red meat and, if you like it, liver is a really good source of iron.

Foods to improve your sleep

How well you sleep can depend on what you eat. Try having a small meal or snack no less than three hours before going to bed. Limit your intake of caffeine in an evening from tea, coffee and soft drinks. Another tip to improve your sleep is limiting your alcohol intake at night and try to drink a cup of warm milk before bed. While watching what you eat can help, don’t avoid food entirely at night. If you go to bed hungry, your body may wake you in the middle of the night. Regular physical activity will also help you sleep well; but, avoid exercising three hours before you go to bed because that, too, can keep you awake.

Foods to help improve your bones

As we get older the density of our bones lessens, increasing the risk of fractures. This is called osteoporosis. Foods that can help are dairy products such as semi-skimmed milk, low-fat yogurts and cheese. Try to have three portions per day. Oily fish such as mackerel, sardines, salmon and fresh tuna provide vitamin D which helps the body absorb calcium more efficiently. If you don’t like oily fish; eggs, butter and fortified margarine are also good sources of vitamin D.

Carbonated soft drinks, such as coca cola, are best avoided as they contain phosphoric acid that contributes to calcium losses and therefore increases the risk of osteoporosis. There are many different foods that can be therapeutic in varying conditions and life stages; calcium and vitamin D containing foods during the years when the bones are still forming, iron for those people who are tired, lethargic and possibly anaemic.

So whether you are suffering from pre-menstrual syndrome or sleepless nights, it is worth remembering that food has a part to play in helping these conditions.

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