Let’s consider now the healthy function of organs.
General good health includes the body doing a good job of:
- building, and maintaining itself.
- adapting to its surroundings and circumstances.
The overall functioning of the body is carried out by a set of organs working together. Each organ is adapted to perform a different function and makes its own contribution to the body’s overall health.
It’s easy to see how important food is to the function of the body. The body uses substances from food
- as the raw materials it needs to build, and maintain itself.
- to help it adapt to its surroundings and circumstances.
Thus, poor organ function and poor health can often be due to the body not getting the dietary substances it needs to
- maintain itself.
- adapt to its surroundings and circumstances.
And where do these dietary substances come from?
The Natural Substances We Need Should Be Coming From Our Food But They May Not Be
Natural substances include plants, animals, vitamins, and minerals, but for our purposes we want to focus more now on those special substances found in plants.
Directly or indirectly, all animal life depends on plants. When we get all our food out of a store it’s sometimes easy to forget that without plant life (like plants, algae, fungi, etc.) there’d be no animal life (like animals, insects, etc.). And without plant life and animal life we’d have nothing to eat. Can you think of anything that could keep you from starving to death that doesn’t come from a living organism (like plants, animals, algae, fungi, insects, etc.)? Although it would be great to be able to say that our intake of dietary substances is getting better and better, there’s a good chance it’s getting worse.
People are eating more and more processed, altered, and artificial foods. These foods have been designed to be more convenient to prepare, to last on the shelf longer before spoiling, or to provide a greater profit; not necessarily to work better in our bodies. Likewise, plants are being bioengineered to produce more harvest per acre, and to resist insects, and to be grown at lower expense; not necessarily to work better in our bodies.
It’s quite possible that our individual diets might be missing some of the natural dietary substances our bodies need to maintain themselves. It’s one thing to get enough calories to prevent starvation, and it’s another to get the dietary substances we need to maintain good health. It’s possible to be overfed and undernourished.
For example, 100 years ago in this country, some people would get a disease called pellagra (which we’ll discuss more below). Pellagra causes skin rash, diarrhea, dementia, and sometimes death. People would get pellagra not because they weren’t getting enough calories but because they weren’t getting enough of a special dietary substance in their diets.
If it’s possible for people to be missing substances in their diets that can result in death, it’s certainly possible for people to be missing substances in their diets that can result in poor health. And these days that’s becoming more possible all the time.
Different Dietary Substances Maintain Different Bodily Functions
Different organs are able to provide different functions because they are built differently. Since they are built differently, it’s easy to see how specific dietary substances can be especially useful to the body in maintaining different organs.
And since specific functions are performed by specific organs, and specific dietary substances are especially useful for different organs, it’s easy to see how specific dietary substances are especially useful in supporting specific bodily functions.
For example, a dietary deficiency of Niacin (vitamin B3) causes a disease known as Pellagra which was first described in 1735. This condition always existed but was only first described in 1735. What do you think people thought of the symptoms before that?
Did outside observers say things like “you’re fine,” “just part of everyday life,” “just part of getting older,” or, “all in their heads?”
It wasn’t until 1937, when Conrad A. Elvehjem, an agricultural chemist at the University of Wisconsin, discovered that Pellagra was due to a dietary deficiency of Niacin. Pellagra means “rough skin” and refers to the thickened rough skin of the persons with pellagra. At first, the skin can become red, with itching and burning. Then it can blister, and as this process continues the skin eventually becomes thickened. The digestive tract can also become affected, with poor appetite, nausea, abdominal pain, and increased salivation, diarrhea and inflammation of the tongue. Pellagra can also affect mental function and cause depression, anxiety, irritability, and poor concentration. It can eventually lead to dementia, coma, and death.
Another case of discovering , a dietary deficiency of Vitamin C can result in malfunction that’s very different, a disease called Scurvy. In 1540, a French explorer named Jacques Cartier learned of a remedy for scurvy from the Native Americans of lower Canada, which was prepared by soaking needles of pine trees in hot water and then drinking the water. In 1617, a Dr Woodall described scurvy and published a book (The Surgeon’s Mate) that listed lemon juice as the cure. Dr Woodall persuaded the East India Company to provide lemon juice for its sailors. Nevertheless, nearly 100 years later, sailors were still getting scurvy because of “official indifference” about the disease. In 1714, Dr Lind, an officer in the British Royal Navy rediscovered that oranges and lemons cured scurvy and it took Dr Lind 41 years to convince the British Royal Navy to implement his recommendation. Finally, the British used lime juice instead of lemon or orange juice to prevent the disease, and the sailors became known as Limeys.
A lack of Vitamin C causes a breakdown of collagen which is important in tendons, ligaments, bones, blood vessels, and teeth. Scurvy causes weakness, joint pain, and bruises. At the first visible signs of scurvy, raised red spots appear on the skin around the hair follicles of the legs, buttocks, arms and back. Gums hemorrhage and their tissue becomes weak and spongy. Dentin, which lies below the enamel and is part of the root of teeth, breaks down. Teeth loosen and eating becomes difficult and painful. It can eventually lead to cardiac arrest and death.
Thus, pellagra causes
- thickening of the skin
While scurvy causes
- severe joint pain
- gum hemorrhaging
- loosening of the teeth.
It’s easy to see that different organs, and therefore different bodily functions, are more dependent on certain dietary substances than others.
Specific Substances That Are Especially Useful To Specific Organs/Functions Are Often Found In Plants
As we saw with pellagra and scurvy above, the solutions to debilitating and even life-threatening health problems can
- often be found in plants.
- work just the same for centuries before anyone understands completely why.
- go for decades more before they are used in common practice.
Nutritional deficiencies, like pellagra and scurvy, described above can easily account for severe illness, permanent damage, and even death. But we know that some deficiencies can be more quickly devastating than others.
For example, you can only live a few minutes without air, a matter of days without water, and a matter of months without food. Likewise, just because there are a few nutritional deficiencies that can cause death within months, doesn’t mean there aren’t many more that can cause severe illness that can easily last for decades.
Just as people found that pine needles and lime juice can correct scurvy, so too have people found over the centuries that many other plants can help many other problems. In fact, even sick animals will instinctively eat more of certain plants.
Scientists have observed that apes in the rain forest will sometimes eat nothing but a single plant species for several days when they are sick. And they won’t eat the leaves, just the juice that’s in the stems. The scientists have been able to show that the chemistry in the stems is different than the chemistry in the leaves.
There are also stories of elephants who rub their cuts against certain plants, and those plants have later been found to have antibiotic qualities.
The study of animals self-medicating with medicinal plants has developed into a field unto itself called zoopharmacognosy. By watching animals, scientists can identify compounds that are medically important for humans.
Many severe health problems can be completely eliminated by certain plants, just like scurvy can.
Many plants appear to have medicinally restorative effects on specific organs and functions. It is likely that these effects are sometimes due to
- simply correcting nutritional deficiencies.
- triggering adaptive responses in the organs of the body.
- specific medicinal actions of the plants.
With pellagra and scurvy, we’ve discussed the correction of nutritional deficiencies, now let’s discuss…
The Body Adapts To Its Surrounding and Circumstances
For example, the
- skin responds to sunlight with a tan
- muscles respond to work by getting stronger
- blood responds to high altitudes by making more red blood cells
- metabolism slows down in response to starvation.
The body also adapts to living in northern and southern climates, as well as to the time of year. Adapting well to its surroundings is one of the major functions of the body and it does it in ways too numerous to count.
The body adapts to stimulus, signals, or conditions it receives from the environment. If our bodies adapt so strongly to signals outside of our body, how much more must they adapt to signals that actually go inside our bodies in the form of food?
How Plants Can Help The Body Adapt To Its Surrounding and Circumstances
Historically, the foods we ate could tell our bodies a great deal about our surroundings and circumstances. Almost certainly the food we ate told our bodies a lot about the geography of where we lived, because we would only have access to foods that grew locally. The substances in the food could easily have provided our organs clues or signals to function more one way than another another in order to better adapt to our environment, just as our bodies react to sunlight.
The foods we ate almost certainly provided clues about the time of year, since certain foods are only available certain times of the year.
For thousands and thousands of years our bodies could tell a great deal about our surroundings and circumstances from the food we ate. But these days, all that has changed. Just think how much the world has changed in the last 200 years. It’s now possible for ordinary citizens of Oregon to eat food that was in Europe the day before. Certain foods can also be eaten out of season now because they can be
- shipped from countries experiencing different seasons
- grown out of season
- preserved from different seasons
It would seem that these changes in our food supply alone could explain a lot of maladaption or symptoms in our country.
Natural Substances From Plants May Also Have Direct Medicinal Effects
Just as plants provide natural substances that can
- correct simple nutritional deficiencies
- provide organs with stimulus to adapt to its surroundings and circumstances
it is likely that natural substances can also have a direct medicinal, or recalibrating effect on the organs.
In the United States about 10 percent of the major medical drugs used today still have as the primary ingredient a compound extracted from plants, and more than 25 percent of our common medicines contain at least some compounds obtained from plants.
Source: Beryl Brintall Simpson and Molly Conner Orogzaly; Economic Botany: Plants in Our World, 2nd Edition [New York: McGraw Hill,1995], 376
If so many medically helpful substances have already been found in plants, just imagine how many haven’t been found yet. There are approximately 272,000 plant species worldwide.