The Favorite Superfoods & Herbs Of A Functional Medicine Expert
Every time you choose to eat something, you have a choice between foods that feed disease, or foods that nourish health. It’s not a decision to be taken lightly because, according to some estimates, 77% of disease burden and 86% of deaths are related to diet and lifestyle.
When it comes to eating healthy, the first order of action is establishing a solid foundation of vegetables, fresh fruits, healthy fats, fiber, and protein. If you’re getting those in your body on a daily basis, you can rest assured that your diet is boosting your gut microbiome, supporting optimal energy and productivity, and helping fend off chronic disease.
Once you have the basics down pat, get excited because there’s another whole world to explore: The world of superfoods. These foods are chock full of vitamins, minerals, and healthy antioxidant compounds that pack an extra punch when it comes to boosting your health.
As a functional medicine practitioner, it’s my job to sort through all wellness trends and identify the superfoods that will really make a difference to your health.
On that note, here are some of my favorites and exactly how to use them.
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1. Cacao Butter
As a society, we spent years villainizing fat, thinking it was the sole cause of heart disease, obesity, and so many other illnesses and diseases. These days, however, we’re re-thinking this fear of fat in a major way. In fact, many functional medicine experts are recommending that their patients increase their fat intake by way of more clean, plant-based sources of fat (instead of stocking up on meat and dairy).
Enter: Cacao butter. This butter is derived from cacao beans and is a deliciously rich way to take your baked goods, smoothies, or hot chocolate to a whole new level by adding a ton of flavor to your favorite recipes. Try Navitas’ Cacao Butter. It’s organic, vegan, and fair-trade making it the perfect superfood source for getting more fats into your life.
2. Fermented cod liver oil
A medicinal oil from ancient Rome and Scandinavia in use for thousands of years, fermented cod liver oil, or FCLO, is rich in the essential fatty acids DHA and EPA. These fats facilitate healthy weight management and are critical for brain and nerve health. FCLO is also a great source of fat-soluble vitamins A and D. The fermentation process keeps all these wonderful nutrients intact and vital during storage. To get around the admittedly very fishy and intense flavor, consider adding FCLO to your diet in supplement form.
Called the “Immortal Health Elixir” in ancient China, this fermented tea has been around for over 2,000 years as part of the traditional Asian diet. Rich in B vitamins, kombucha can boost energy and those same B vitamins can serve as methyl donors to decrease inflammation. As kombucha is a fermented drink, its probiotic cultures will also help with digestion and immunity, as it contributes beneficial bacteria to your microbiome. On top of all that, kombucha is also high in glucaric acid, which recent studies have shown helps prevent cancer! You can make your own at home or you can find some in your local health food store. Once you get used to the tart taste, you may become a kombucha connoisseur.
4. Bone broth
Bone broth was an essential healing food for ages in many ancient populations from every continent on earth. That’s because its healing and nourishing properties are obvious to all. Make bone broth from the bones of grass-fed cows or organic pastured chickens and you will be providing your body with an extremely nutritious liquid that can heal the gut, soothe digestion, shore up the joints and connective tissue, and more. Few other foods can match it.
Bone broth contains potent antioxidants, vitamins, and many essential minerals. It’s a great superfood for people with food sensitivities, weight loss resistance, small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), autoimmune conditions, and any health problem related to a damaged gut – otherwise known as leaky gut syndrome. To make bone broth, gently boil bones with a bit of vinegar to help them dissolve into the broth and if desired, some onions and garlic for taste, for between 8 and 48 hours. Just be sure to replenish the water as it boils away. You can also use a crockpot or pressure cooker. There are many different recipes online.
Ashwagandha is no stranger to controversy as many people are confused as to whether or not it can help ease symptoms or exacerbate them. This herb has been used for thousands of years in Ayurvedic medicine for its ability to help a variety of ailments that have been backed by recent research such as:
- Improved immune function (1)
- Enhanced brain health (2)
- Calmed anxiety (3)
- Boosted thyroid function (4)
- Regulated blood sugar (5)
But the controversy around ashwagandha isn’t unfounded entirely. Because of its ability to boost thyroid function those with hyperthyroidism should just be more cautious and speak with their doctor to learn more about their thyroid hormone levels. For those who are able to consume ashwagandha and reap it’s benefits, they can create their own elixirs or choose from a number of REBBLs: from Ashwagandha Spicy Chai and Vanilla Spice Protein to Banana Nut Protein and 3 Roots Mango Spice to Cold-Brew Protein and Dark Chocolate Protein.
6. MCT Oil
You may have heard about MCT oil before, possibly in the context of bulletproof coffee or brain health. This oil is made from MCTs—which stands for medium-chain-triglycerides—a special kind of fatty acid that is six to twelve (6) carbons in length. But why are MCTs so healthy? For one, they help us reach ketosis faster. (7) On top of that, they can also help us improve our overall brain health, (8) increase metabolic rate or reduced weight, and lower cholesterol (9) and healthy blood sugar. (10)
As we mentioned before, in functional medicine we’re rediscovering the many ways that fat can improve and support our health; we’re finding that fats are vital for the optimal functioning of our brain, immune systems, and hormones. And if you think about it, this makes sense. We start our lives relying on fat-rich breast milk to give us the energy it takes to grow and develop.
When buying MCT oil, keep in mind that its’ found in two forms—natural and synthetic. Natural sources are going to be the purest and most bioavailable to our bodies and can be found in dairy fats, palm kernel oil, and my favorite plant-based source—coconut oil. Try adding some coconut oil-derived MCTs to your morning coffee or tea and see how it goes.
Ah, hemp. One of nature’s most versatile plants! Hemp is a superstar protein source—at 4g per serving—and is especially good for those of us who try to limit our consumption of animal products. In fact, it is one of the few plant-based foods that contains all nine essential amino acids, which means that it’s a complete protein.
Lucky for us, it’s also a healthy source of fat—containing high levels of anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids. Not to mention, it also contains about 25 percent of your daily magnesium requirements per serving. Hemp really does do it all.
You can find hemp as a powder that you can use in smoothies and other beverages Or, try opting for hemp seeds, which you can sprinkle on your yogurt or salads.
8. Grass-fed beef
In our modern age, the overwhelming majority of the beef in the United States is grain fed, from cows raised on factory farms in massive industrial feed lots where they are pumped with growth hormones and antibiotics to keep them alive and as large and meaty as possible. These animals look nothing like the cattle our ancestors ate. Throughout history, cows have been free to wander and graze on grass, their natural food source. This is how they were meant to live, and the meat from grass-fed beef is naturally leaner than conventional meat, with a superior fat profile: A 3-ounce serving contains 35 milligrams of the heart- and brain-protecting omega-3’s EPA and DHA, compared with only 18 milligrams for the meat from grain-fed cows. Grass-fed cows that get to enjoy green pastures also have twice the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) per serving. Higher CLA levels have been linked with easier weight loss and a reduced risk of heart disease and cancer.
9. Clean, wild fish
Examples: Rainbow trout, arctic char, pole-caught albacore tuna, Alaskan salmon, and barramundi
How often: At least three times a week
How to eat: Steam, bake, grill, broil, saute, or have it sushi-style and don’t cook it at all (as long as it is sushi-grade).
Sure, most people know salmon is healthy – but how many of you have heard of a barramundi? However, many fish are contaminated with pollutants and can actually contribute to excessive mercury levels. Choose the fish listed above, as they are some of the healthiest and cleanest in the word. They all make Seafood Watch’s “Super Green” list of seafood that come from the least-pressured habitats. They also have low levels of industrial pollutants like mercury and dioxins, and contain the highest levels of healthy omega-3 fats.
This ancient Korean dish consists of a delicious blend of fermented vegetables and spices. Lauded in Korea for its healing benefits, kimchi has also been linked to reduced blood pressure and body weight. Other studies have shown kimchi to have anti-cancer effects and to contribute to a reduction of atherosclerosis and autoimmune symptoms. Homemade kimchi is normally better than store bought, but if you do buy some in the store, look out for added sugar and excess salt content.
While many herbs are considered adaptogenic, mushrooms can boast adaptogenic abilities as well and reishi is one that I use on a regular basis. Since adaptogens work to help restore balance to various areas of the body that are out of whack, reishi’s superstar talent is its ability to help those who are struggling with blood sugar problems. With close to 50 percent of America considered either prediabetic or diabetic, many people can tap into the benefits of this fungi. The various polysaccharides and triterpenes (11) found in this mushroom work to decrease excessive fat storage in those with weight gain and weight loss resistance and can also lower blood sugar levels in people with diabetes. It can also help to down-regulate (12) the enzyme alpha-glucosidase that breaks down starch into sugar.
Reishi Cold-Brew Elixir is my go-to Ketotarian beverage when I need a pick-me-up with nourishing reishi.
12. Sweet potatoes
A part of the Central American diet for thousands of years, sweet potatoes (legend has it) came to Europe with Christopher Columbus, who discovered them in the Americas and brought them back to his homeland. The orange flesh of sweet potatoes may be one of nature’s most potent sources of beta carotene, which the body converts to vitamin A. Several studies have shown the superior ability of sweet potatoes to boost vitamin A, which is essential for healthy skin and eye health. Sweet potatoes are also great sources of vitamin C, manganese, vitamin B6, potassium, copper, and fiber.
13. Schisandra Berry
Schisandra is a powerful adaptogen that can get overlooked in favor of some of the more well-known herbs, but should take center stage more often – specifically for those struggling with fatigue and stress.
Cortisol is your body’s main stress hormone. It should start off high in the morning to help wake you up and slowly taper off throughout the day to help prepare you for sleep. It is also inversely proportional to melatonin, meaning when your cortisol is high, melatonin is low and vice versa. Your body releases cortisol through a complex web of communication known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA-axis). When this communication system isn’t working correctly it can lead to an imbalance in cortisol rhythm causing cortisol to be high when it should be low, low when it should be high, always high, or always low. This cortisol imbalance can lead to what is known as adrenal fatigue and stress. Schisandra is able to restore cortisol balance and help to support (13) correction of HPA-axis dysfunction.
14. Sea vegetables
Examples: Nori, dulse, kombu, kelp, Irish moss, alaria esculenta
How often: At least once a week
How to eat: Dried as individual snacks or on top of soups and salads
Most Americans aren’t eating sea vegetables much, if at all, but this is one food group worth turning into a trend because seaweed contains a variety of beneficial minerals and a huge number of health-boosting trace elements. These green superfoods are also an abundant source (14) of B vitamins, vitamin C, and vitamin K, and are the most effective way (15) to get iodine, which your body needs for thyroid hormone production.
Plus, sea vegetables contain good amounts of a compound called fucans that have anti-inflammatory properties, and they’ve also been shown (16) to have a positive blood sugar balancing effect in patients with type-2 diabetes.
One thing to note: Because our oceans can be polluted, some sea vegetables might be high in toxic metals. That means it’s always important to buy from companies that test for heavy metals and are committed to providing an organic, non-toxic product.
A plant-based diet can help drive down inflammation, but if you want to continue to elevate your health, turmeric is always on the top of my list. Turmeric helps fend off chronic inflammation, which is the root cause of so many different diseases in our modern world—including heart disease, autoimmune diseases, and even depression and diabetes.
So how does turmeric work against chronic inflammation? We have a compound called curcumin to thank for turmeric’s potent anti-inflammatory powers, which works by blocking NF-kB, a molecule (17) that turns on genes that are involved in inflammation.
You can take turmeric in a capsule or try making turmeric-rich foods like green curry. Another option is adding a turmeric latte—also known as golden milk—to your daily routine. This ancient drink has become my go-to afternoon treat, gaining extra bonus points for being caffeine-free and low in sugar. I personally like to sip on REBBL’s Turmeric Golden-Milk to get in my daily dose of turmeric – and bonus, it includes black pepper.
16. Organic organ meat
Examples: Liver, kidneys, sweetbreads, heart
How often: At least once or twice a week
How to eat: Saute with bacon or on its own in coconut oil, puree into pate, stir-fry with veggies, or slice thin and dry for homemade jerky.
People tend to have strong opinions about organ meats, either good or bad, but no matter your opinion about their taste, the fact is that they contain dense nutrients essential for health, such as choline and vitamin B9 (folate). Beef liver also offers some of the highest amounts of Vitamin B12, (18) which is generally only found in animal products, and organ meats in general are rich in CoQ10, (19) a nutrient that’s crucial for heart health.
And if you want to support methylation, that uber-important biochemical process happening constantly in your body to enact repair, detoxify, and enable many important aspects of your biochemistry, organ meats are what it takes. They are also an important source for the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K2, which many people who eat a standard Western diet lack.
Examples: Oysters, mussels, scallops, clams, lobster, crab, shrimp, sea snails
How often: At least once or twice a week
How to eat: Steam, saute, broil, stir-fry
Eating shellfish, the superfood of the sea, is a great way to balance the proper trace mineral ratio and help with your stress levels. In addition to many of the nutrients I mentioned above, shellfish are rich with zinc, which medical literature has linked (20) with anxiety and brain problems when zinc is deficient in comparison to copper. Zinc also strengthens the immune system. Oysters are also a good source of iron, (21) which is essential for red blood cell production and function.
Maca is an herb that’s part of a larger group of herbs called “adaptogens.” Adaptogens aren’t high in healthy protein or fats but they can restore balance to important areas of your health that are out-of-whack, particularly your stress response and nervous system. Adaptogens are able to regulate the connection between your brain and your hormones, which plays an important role in your mood and energy levels every single day.
If you’re going to buy adaptogens, remember one thing: They’re not all created equal. Look for a brand that’s using quality ingredients and sources it’s adaptogens responsibly. For example, Navitas’ high-quality Maca Powder is ethically sourced from Peru; you can easily add it to just about any smoothie, drink, or dessert.
So there you have it! As a functional medicine doctor, I’ve seen a healthy plant-based diet—with plenty of superfoods—turn numerous patients’ health around. So try taking one (or all!) or these five superfoods for a spin and see it they are able to take your health to a new level.
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- Ruchi Tiwari, Sandip Chakraborty, Mani Saminathan, Kuldeep Dhama and Shoor Vir Singh, Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera): Role in Safeguarding Health, Immunomodulatory Effects, Combating Infections and Therapeutic Applications: A Review Journal of Biological Sciences Volume 14 (2): 77-94, 2014 https://scialert.net/fulltextmobile/?doi=jbs.2014.77.94
- N Singh, M Bhalla, P de Jager, M Gilca, An Overview on Ashwagandha: A Rasayana (Rejuvenator) of Ayurveda African Journal of Traditional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicines Vol 8 No 5S (2011): Special Issue:Reviews of Modern Tools in Traditional Medicines doi:10.4314/ajtcam.v8i5S.9
- Universal Health News Daily Ashwagandha Benefits May Include Easing Stress and Anxiety April 2020. https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/stress-anxiety/ashwagandha-benefits-ease-stress-and-anxiety-by-44-percent/
- Sharma AK, Basu I, Singh S. Efficacy and Safety of Ashwagandha Root Extract in Subclinical Hypothyroid Patients: A Double-Blind, Randomized Placebo-Controlled Trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2018;24(3):243‐248. doi:10.1089/acm.2017.0183
- Udayakumar R, Kasthurirengan S, Vasudevan A, et al. Antioxidant effect of dietary supplement Withania somnifera L. reduce blood glucose levels in alloxan-induced diabetic rats. Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2010;65(2):91‐98. doi:10.1007/s11130-009-0146-8
- Berit Marten, Maria Pfeuffer, Jürgen Schrezenmeir, Medium-chain triglycerides International Dairy Journal Volume 16, Issue 11, November 2006, Pages 1374-1382 doi:10.1016/j.idairyj.2006.06.015
- Fernando WM, Martins IJ, Goozee KG, Brennan CS, Jayasena V, Martins RN. The role of dietary coconut for the prevention and treatment of Alzheimer's disease: potential mechanisms of action. Br J Nutr. 2015;114(1):1‐14. doi:10.1017/S0007114515001452
- Rebello CJ, Keller JN, Liu AG, Johnson WD, Greenway FL. Pilot feasibility and safety study examining the effect of medium chain triglyceride supplementation in subjects with mild cognitive impairment: A randomized controlled trial. BBA Clin. 2015;3:123‐125. Published 2015 Jan 16. doi:10.1016/j.bbacli.2015.01.001
- Rial SA, Karelis AD, Bergeron KF, Mounier C. Gut Microbiota and Metabolic Health: The Potential Beneficial Effects of a Medium Chain Triglyceride Diet in Obese Individuals. Nutrients. 2016;8(5):281. Published 2016 May 12. doi:10.3390/nu8050281
- Eckel RH, Hanson AS, Chen AY, Berman JN, Yost TJ, Brass EP. Dietary substitution of medium-chain triglycerides improves insulin-mediated glucose metabolism in NIDDM subjects. Diabetes. 1992;41(5):641‐647.
- Thyagarajan-Sahu A, Lane B, Sliva D. ReishiMax, mushroom based dietary supplement, inhibits adipocyte differentiation, stimulates glucose uptake and activates AMPK. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2011;11:74. Published 2011 Sep 19. doi:10.1186/1472-6882-11-74
- Fatmawati S, Shimizu K, Kondo R. Ganoderol B: a potent α-glucosidase inhibitor isolated from the fruiting body of Ganoderma lucidum. Phytomedicine. 2011;18(12):1053‐1055. doi:10.1016/j.phymed.2011.03.011
- Panossian A, Hambardzumyan M, Hovhanissyan A, Wikman G. The adaptogens rhodiola and schizandra modify the response to immobilization stress in rabbits by suppressing the increase of phosphorylated stress-activated protein kinase, nitric oxide and cortisol. Drug Target Insights. 2007;2:39‐54.
- Rajapakse N, Kim SK. Nutritional and digestive health benefits of seaweed. Adv Food Nutr Res. 2011;64:17‐28. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-387669-0.00002-8
- Iodine Fact Sheet for Health Professionals NIH May 1, 2020 https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iodine-HealthProfessional/
- Kim MS, Kim JY, Choi WH, Lee SS. Effects of seaweed supplementation on blood glucose concentration, lipid profile, and antioxidant enzyme activities in patients with type 2 diabetes mellitus. Nutr Res Pract. 2008;2(2):62‐67. doi:10.4162/nrp.2008.2.2.62
- Sanjaya Singh and Bharat B. Aggarwal, Activation of Transcription Factor NF-κB Is Suppressed by Curcumin (Diferuloylmethane) The Journal of Biological Chemistry October 20, 1995 270, 24995-25000. doi: 10.1074/jbc.270.42.24995
- Vitamin B12 Fact Sheet for Health Professionals NIH March 30, 2020 https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminB12-HealthProfessional/
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- Russo AJ. Decreased zinc and increased copper in individuals with anxiety. Nutr Metab Insights. 2011;4:1‐5. Published 2011 Feb 7. doi:10.4137/NMI.S6349
- Iron Fact Sheet for Health Professionals NIH February 28, 2020 https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/Iron-HealthProfessional/
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BY DR. WILL COLE
Dr. Will Cole, IFMCP, DNM, DC, leading functional medicine expert, consults people around the world via webcam and locally in Pittsburgh. He received his doctorate from Southern California University of Health Sciences and post doctorate education and training in functional medicine and clinical nutrition. He specializes in clinically researching underlying factors of chronic disease and customizing a functional medicine approach for thyroid issues, autoimmune conditions, hormonal imbalances, digestive disorders, and brain problems. Dr. Cole was named one of the top 50 functional medicine and integrative doctors in the nation and is the best selling author of Ketotarian and The Inflammation Spectrum.
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