5 ‘foods’ that control common chronic conditions

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS, for MDLinx
Published March 7, 2019

Key Takeaways

Many supermarkets nowadays have pharmacies where you can fill prescriptions while shopping. But emerging research suggests that the spices, herbs, and fruits that line the aisles may also proffer health benefits that could aid in the treatment of chronic disease.

Granted, much of this research merely hints at the possibility of supplementing prescription medications with a variety of plant-based products for treatment of chronic disease; more research needs to be done. Nevertheless, these naturally occurring therapeutic interventions definitely serve as food for thought.

St. John’s wort

This plant likely gets its name from John the Baptist because the plant blooms in late June, around the time of the feast of St. John the Baptist.

St. John’s wort is a yellow-flowered perennial plant native to Europe but also found in the United States. This plant is one of the oldest medicinal plants on record (dating back to the ancient Greeks) and, in modern times, has been studied extensively for the past two decades for the treatment of depression.

In several randomized, controlled trials, researchers have shown that St. John’s wort beats placebo in the treatment of mild-to-moderate depression and results in fewer adverse effects than pharmaceutical antidepressants. Overall, however, results from trials evaluating the efficacy of St. John’s wort with respect to the treatment of depression have been mixed.

St. John’s wort works by inhibiting serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine in the central nervous system and may modify autonomic nervous system reactivity. Adverse effects include gastrointestinal upset, restlessness, headache, and photodermatitis. Withdrawal symptoms are similar to those of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) antidepressants, and it should gradually be tapered to discontinue use, as with SSRIs.


The hibiscus is more than just the state flower of Hawaii. It is frequently used to treat hypertension. More than 300 species of Hibiscus exist across the world, and many are used in different foods and beverages—both hot (sour tea) and cold. Hibiscus sabdariffaL. is a tropical plant rich in organic acids, polyphenols, polysaccharides, anthocyanins, and volatile constituents, which likely contribute to its cardiovascular effects.

In a systematic review and meta-analysis of five randomized controlled trials in which researchers assessed the impact of H. sabdariffaL. on arterial hypertension, they found that supplementation of treatment with H. sabdariffa L.-based beverages lowered systolic blood pressure (BP) by -7.58 mmHg (95% CI: -9.69 to -5.46; P < 0.00001) and lowered diastolic BP by -3.53 mmHg (95% CI: -5.16 to -1.89; P < 0.0001).

“The ability of H. sabdariffa to decrease global oxidative stress is an important mechanism by which this natural product exerts its beneficial effects against arterial hypertension,” wrote the authors. “Hibiscus sabdariffa is rich in polyphenolic antioxidants, and polyphenols are known to improve endothelial function and decrease BP through regulating nitric oxide bioavailability. Moreover, polyphenols and hibiscus acid from H. sabdariffa calyxes have been suggested as phytochemicals responsible for the antihypertensive effects of this plant.”


You may think of rolls and other unhealthy sweets flavored with this aromatic condiment, but cinnamon has been hypothesized to benefit the treatment of diabetes, despite the literature being mixed.

Cinnamon means “sweet wood” (from the Malay and Indonesian kayu manis) and is harvested from the inner bark of cinnamon trees as a spice or ancient herbal remedy for various health issues, including the common cold, gastrointestinal disorders, and diabetes. In addition to antidiabetic properties, cinnamon has been reported to possess antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and antifungal properties.

In a recent meta-analysis, researchers found that supplementation with cinnamon decreased fasting blood sugar levels by -19.26 mg/dL (95% CI: -28.08 to -10.45; I2: 96.5%; P=0.0001) compared with placebo. But cinnamon had no effect on glycosylated hemoglobin, body mass index, body weight, waist circumference, insulin levels, or insulin resistance. Moreover, the researchers expressed caution when interpreting the results of their study due to the high heterogeneity.


Yet another reason to eat avocado toast: Avocados are a rich source of monounsaturated fat and might exert positive effects on lipid profiles. Substituting saturated fats and trans fats with polyunsaturated fats and monounsaturated fats could decrease risk for dyslipidemia (although low-fat diets are usually best). The Hass avocado, which is most often found in the United States, contains 71% monounsaturated fatty acids, 13% polyunsaturated fatty acids, and 16% saturated fatty acids.

In a 2016 meta-analysis of 10 studies that examined the effect of avocado-enriched diets on plasma lipoproteins, researchers found that avocado consumption significantly decreased levels of total cholesterol, low-density lipoprotein cholesterol, and triglycerides. High-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels, however, didn’t decrease significantly.

“Substituting dietary fats with avocados vs adding to the free diet should be the primary recommendation strategy,” concluded the authors. “Larger trials looking at the impact of avocados on major adverse cardiovascular events are warranted.”


For the past several years, pomegranate juice has been hyped as a panacea for all that ails you. Nevertheless, experts suggest that pomegranate consumption might help with the treatment of type 2 diabetes.

This antidiabetic effect of pomegranate juice could be due to its ability to decrease oxidative stress and lipid peroxidation via antioxidant activities, metal chelation activity, decreased resistin formation, and inhibition of transcriptional factors. Known compounds in pomegranate—such as punicic acid, methanolic seed extract, and pomegranate peel extract—have been shown to reduce fasting blood glucose levels. Finally, the juice sugar fraction of pomegranates contains unique polyphenol antioxidants, such as tannins and anthocyanins, which could help control type 2 diabetes.

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