Before there were pharmacies on nearly every corner, people relied on Mother Nature’s medicine chest. Native healers all over the world took advantage of the medicinal properties of plants.

Now, scientists are confirming that Hippocrates was onto something when he urged his patients to let food be their medicine. A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition (February 2014) showed that women who eat more berries and drink more tea are less prone to develop Type 2 diabetes.

The investigators identified antioxidant compounds called flavonoids and anthocyanins as responsible for this protective effect. Anthocyanins give fruits like blackberries and blueberries their lovely color, but clearly they do other important things for human metabolism.

Not only does a diet high in such plant-derived chemicals reduce the risk for insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes, it also lowers the likelihood of heart attacks (Circulation, Jan. 15, 2013). That may be in part because these natural substances make blood vessels more flexible. They also reduce inflammation that increases the chance of a heart attack or stroke.

Readers of this column have been reporting anti-inflammatory effects from foods and spices for decades. Here’s one testimonial:

“My mother has osteoarthritis. Her joints have been overused and she hurts everywhere. She has been miserable.

“She read about tart cherry juice and bought some. Less than a week later, she is smiling and bubbly and HAPPY! She says most of the pain is gone.

“She started with a full glass daily, not knowing how much to take. It is a bit pricey, so she is now taking 1 ounce a day as a maintenance dose. I think the larger amount slammed her body into fighting the inflammation.”

Cherries are not the only food with anti-inflammatory activity. One reader offered his experience:

“I read about pineapple for arthritis, and it has certainly helped me. The juice is too high in sugars for me, so I have a slice of fresh pineapple each day. Without the pineapple, I wake up feeling every joint in my hands has been broken.”

Spices also may offer benefit against inflammation, as another reader discovered:

“Turmeric really works for me for finger and knee arthritis. How do I know? Twice I’ve run out of turmeric for two-week periods, and pain, redness and visible swelling occurred in my little pinky finger joints; all my other joints were achy.”

Another reader discovered a different benefit from turmeric: “I am a 53-year-old menopausal woman, and I can say that my hot flashes (flushes) have diminished greatly after taking turmeric for this problem. The turmeric also eased pain in my achy knees and the soles of my feet.”

There are many other medicinal foods. One study found that powdered sesame seeds worked better for arthritic knee pain than acetaminophen (International Journal of Rheumatic Diseases, October 2013).

To learn more about the health benefits of specific foods for common ailments, you may wish to consult our book “Quick and Handy Home Remedies” from National Geographic (online at Researchers are rediscovering what Hippocrates knew 2,500 years ago: Food really is the best medicine.