What Makes Food Different from Herbs


Foods and herbs nourish and energize us -- what makes them different? Herbalist Rehmannia Dean Thomas writes about this topic in his new book The Three Treasures, which was recently excerpted on Reality Sandwich. According to Rehmannia, herbs are categorized differently because they are derived from perennial plants, rather than annual plant origins.

He compares ginseng and carrots to illustrate this point:

As an example of the difference between foods and herbs, we can evaluate the herb Ginseng, which is found in the same genetic family with carrots. A carrot grows under ground approximately three months; a ginseng root may live in the wilds for fifty years or more. After eight years of growth in the wild, a ginseng root becomes almost invincible to the elements. It develops “adaptogenic” properties, able to fend off bio-marauders, and can withstand climate extremes. In Asia, mature ginseng roots are highly valued, and can cost thousands of dollars.

While we can pull a fresh carrot out of the ground and eat it raw, this is not usually the case with herbs. Where the cellulose of the annual cultivar is still juicy and pliable, the wild herbal perennial plant must develop a tougher skin to survive in its environment. After the first year of growth, the soft green shoot must “harden” its stems to survive, wet, dry, freezing and windy conditions. Its cellular structures form lignin proteins, hardening into wood. The internal plant fluids become encased in the cellulose of these woody structures. As the plant hardens over the years, its fluids are further protected from incursion by boring insects, and becomes more difficult for human or animal consumption to ingest and assimilate.

Perhaps long ago, in the hunter-gatherer period, we may have been able to digest wood and rocks, but our digestive systems have become softened by the cooking and preparation of our foods. Lignin cellulose is impenetrable by our gastric fluids; it’s hard to chew up a piece of wood. The phyto-chemicals we seek must be released and rendered bio-available to us.

Ancient indigenous people on many continents discovered that boiling herbs in water would soften the woody structures, releasing nutrients into the liquid. This process is called “hydrolysis;” rendering into liquid. The ancient Chinese realized this is the same process that occurs in our stomachs; we break down ingested food into a liquid and derive the nutrients while this “chyme” passes through the duodenum and small intestine. By heating a liquid with the herbs immersed, they are pre-hydrolized, sparing our stomachs the effort to digest, allowing easy absorption of the nutrients while in the digestive tract. This was a significant discovery ~ the unlocked nutrients formed a “chai” or “tea,” and consumption of herbal elixirs was born.

Read the full chapter excerpt over at Reality Sandwich.


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