Healing Foods for Common Health Woes

What you need may be in the fridge, not the medicine cabinet

Illustration of first aid kit with food Illustration: Giacomo Bagnara

A healthy diet is the keystone for living longer and better. Eat right—plenty of fiber, lean protein, healthy fats, whole grains, beans, vegetables and fruit, and nuts and seeds (read: lots of plants)—and you’ll reduce your risk for heart disease, diabetes, colon cancer, dementia, and many other conditions.

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Plants’ benefits stem from their many naturally occurring chemical compounds, such as flavonoids and lignans. “These compounds are essentially information that speaks to your genes. Certain foods have substances in them that may turn on anti-inflammatory genes, for example,” says Sonya Angelone, RDN, a spokes­person for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “As a result, adding some foods to your diet may help you avoid the expense and side effects of medication.”

The idea of food as medicine isn’t new. “Before we had actual drugs, food was the main option,” says Christy Alexon, RDN, PhD, a clinical associate professor of nutrition at Arizona State University. “Of course, there are some conditions where you can only go so far with food, but for a lot of your normal everyday issues, food may be able to help.” And because the following “prescriptions” are all healthy foods that are part of a well-rounded diet, it’s hard to go wrong. (If a problem is ongoing, speak with your doctor to determine the cause and the best course of action.)

Gout

Try: Tart cherry juice. Gout is caused by a buildup of uric acid in the blood that leads to the development of crystals. These crystals can collect in joints and tissues throughout the body, causing inflammation and pain. A small 2019 study with overweight subjects, published in the journal Current Developments in Nutrition, found that drinking 1 cup of tart cherry juice daily for four weeks reduced blood levels of uric acid and C-reactive protein (a marker of inflammation) by almost 20 percent. “It contains a molecule that’s similar to the drug allopurinol, which is used to treat gout,” says Alexon. “Look for 100 percent juice, not the sweetened kind.” Eating raw cherries may also help reduce the risk of a gout attack.

What to avoid: Alcohol, fatty meat, and sugary drinks can aggravate gout.

Constipation

Try: Raspberries, artichokes, and chia seeds. These are some of the best sources of the kind of fiber (insoluble) that helps move stool through your gut, says Alexon. Try a cup of raspberries as a snack, add some marinated artichoke hearts to a salad, or mix a tablespoon of chia seeds into a smoothie. “Dried fruits, such as prunes and apricots, can frequently be helpful with chronic constipation because they have a lot of insoluble fiber and contain other chemical components that have their own laxative properties,” says Joel Mason, MD, a gastroenterologist and professor of medicine and nutrition at Tufts University in Boston. Just remember to increase your water intake when you’re adding fiber-rich foods, Alexon says. “If you don’t, it can make the problem worse.”

What to avoid: Cut back on fatty meat, dairy products, and refined carbs, which may be reducing your intake of nutrient-dense, high-fiber foods.

Insomnia

Try: Oatmeal or kiwifruit. “There is some research showing that having a snack with some complex carbohydrates before bed, such as oatmeal, can increase levels of the mood-regulating chemical serotonin, which helps induce sleep,” Alexon says.

Kiwis have serotonin, too, and that may be one reason people in a small study (sponsored by a kiwifruit marketer) who ate two kiwis an hour before bed dropped off more easily. They’re also rich in folate, a B vitamin. Low folate levels have been linked to insomnia.

In general, eating a Mediterranean-style diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, nuts, healthy fats, and lean protein, has been correlated with better sleep quality, according to a 2020 study published in the journal Nutrients.

What to avoid: Drinking or eating foods with caffeine too close to bedtime can leave you staring at the ceiling, especially if you do so in the afternoon or evening. Alcohol can disrupt sleep in the middle of the night, and eating heavy meals too close to bed can upset your stomach or cause heartburn or acid reflux, which can also disrupt your slumber.

Frequent Urination

Try: Pumpkin seeds. These green seeds, aka pepitas, contain compounds called sterols. Researchers believe these may help improve urination problems that accompany benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), which occurs when the prostate gland becomes enlarged. A 2014 German study, with almost 1,500 men with BPH, found that those who ate the equivalent of about 2 tablespoons of pumpkin seeds a day saw greater relief in prostate symptoms than those who took a placebo or pumpkin seed extract capsules.

What to avoid: Diets high in fat and red meat may increase BPH risk. Alcohol and caffeine may trigger the urge to urinate.

Depression

Try: Salmon, tuna, trout, and sardines. These cold-water fish are rich in eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), an omega-3 fatty acid—known for anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective benefits. A 2019 study published in Translational Psychiatry found that consuming omega-3s (up to 1,000 mg a day), especially those that contain mostly EPA, helped improve depression. A 3-ounce serving of herring contains approximately 770 mg of EPA, 3 ounces of salmon has 590 mg, and 3 ounces of rainbow trout has 400 mg. Aim for at least two servings of fish a week.

What to avoid: Diets that are made up of a lot of processed, refined foods and which lack nutrient- and fiber-dense vegetables and whole grains can negatively affect gut health. Research shows that the gut has its own mini nervous system that is connected to the brain. When there are digestive issues, the gut can send signals to the brain that may trigger or worsen feelings of anxiety and depression.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the June 2022 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.


Janet Lee

Janet Lee, LAc, is an acupuncturist and a freelance writer in Kansas who contributes to Consumer Reports on a range of health-related topics. She has been covering health, fitness, and nutrition for the past 25 years as a writer and editor. She's certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine and Yoga Alliance, and is a trained Spinning instructor.