This Tasty Food Lowers Blood Pressure as Well as Drugs Do
Two and a half thousand years ago, Hippocrates said “Let food be thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.” And though Big Pharma and Big Medicine would like you to believe otherwise, this might just be the best piece of medical advice ever given.
For decades, the medical-industrial complex has told us to put our faith in drugs and surgery. They’ve pooh-poohed the idea that foods can cure—or even treat—disease even while declaring that foods can cause disease. (Low fat craze, anyone?) Anybody who didn’t toe the party line was called a quack and swiftly found their career going down the drain. Even today this is happening, as doctors who advocate food and lifestyle remedies over drugs are exposed to ridicule and sometimes even professional discipline.
Of course it doesn’t make sense. It stands to reason that if foods can cause disease they can also cure disease. Logic, however, had never been Big Pharma or Medicine’s strong suit.
But the tide is turning. As we finally get fed up with the drug industry, we’re turning to natural treatments more than ever before. Natural treatments like supplements, herbs…and our diets. Even as drug spending goes up, a huge swathe of the population is taking Hippocrates’s advice to heart and looking to their plates instead of their medicine cabinets. And here and there, researchers are taking notice. Today I want to tell you about a study just goes to show us that our food really can be our medicine.
It’s as effective as a prescription, and nutritious too
How would you like to take a dose of cheese instead of a daily blood pressure pill? That’s right—cheese. Specifically, a type of hard Italian cheese called Grana Padano. Well, if you have mild to moderate high blood pressure, you might want to try just that. A new study by Italian researchers found that 30 grams of the cheese eaten daily was as effective at lowering blood pressure as your typical blood pressure drug.
I’m not kidding.
It was a small study. And in all fairness, I have to admit that it was funded by a trade group committed to promoting this specialty cheese. But other researchers with no ties to the cheese industry say that they’re not surprised at the finding. Here’s how the study worked:
The people in the study got either 30 grams—about a tablespoon—of Grana Padano or a placebo each day for two months. In this case, the placebo was made of shredded bread which was flavored and scented to look, smell and taste like cheese. The placebo also had the same fat, calcium and salt content as the real thing.
It was a well-designed trial. It included both men and women, unlike many studies. All had mild to moderate high blood pressure. All had been controlling their blood pressure with conventional treatment for at least 3 months before the study. And most importantly, all were instructed not to change any other eating habits and got personalized dietary counseling to make sure that they didn’t.
On average, blood pressure dropped from 139/88 to 130/81 over the two months of the study. And while the placebo-eaters also saw a reduction in blood pressure—the placebo effect is a powerful thing—it was much smaller. The placebo group only dropped to 136/86.
These results are striking. This is the kind of effect we expect to see with prescription blood pressure medications—but without the side effects and dangers. And interestingly, this positive effect was seen in spite of the cheese’s high sodium content, putting another nail in the coffin of the “salt is bad for you” argument.
Hippocrates might not have had Grana Padano, but he knew what he was talking about.
Cheese lowers your blood pressure? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds
Some of the most common blood pressure medications belong to a class of drugs called “ACE inhibitors.” These include Vasotec, Zestril, and many more. What they do is block an enzyme your body uses to narrow blood vessels. ACE inhibitors make the blood vessels relax and open up, making it easier for blood to travel through them. This lowers blood pressure.
Now here’s why the idea of cheese lowering blood pressure isn’t as silly as it sounds: to make cheese—or at least some types of cheese—takes bacteria. These bacteria ferment the milk. The fermentation process creates substances that are natural ACE inhibitors. In fact, the discovery of ACE inhibitors came from studying another natural substance with a powerful effect on the circulatory system—snake venom. So it’s really not so surprising that other natural substances, including foods, might contain ACE inhibitors too.
Once again, it was a small study. And the fact that it was funded by the cheese industry may make it suspect to some, even though it was well-designed. There’s no doubt that we need a bigger study. Hopefully the intriguing results of this one will inspire someone to test the theory on a larger scale. But don’t hold your breath expecting anyone to recommend cheese over drugs, no matter how well it’s shown to work. We’re far more likely to see Big Pharma patent the active compound in the cheese and sell it as a hundred-dollar pill instead.
After all, there’s a lot more money to be made from drugs than from food. So expect this story to disappear into the void where most compelling research on non-drug treatment goes. However, if you want to run your own experiment on food-as-medicine, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- This study only looked at Grana Padano. This is a cheese similar to Parmesan or Romano. Its aged for 9 months to a year and other grating cheeses that aren’t aged as long might not have the same effect. Shorter aging times might not allow time for the active compounds to form. And cheeses, like Parmesan, that are aged considerably longer may have had time for these compounds to break down. We just don’t know.
- To get the full effect, you probably need to be consistent and take your “dose” of cheese daily, just like the study participants did. The study used 30 grams of grated Grana Padrano, which is about a tablespoon.
- Don’t buy your cheese already grated. Instead, buy a block and grate it fresh yourself. Once the cheese is grated, it’s exposed to the air. This subtly changes the chemical structure as it oxidizes. Grate only what you need, and keep the rest well-wrapped in the refrigerator.
And last but not least, if you’re already taking medication, keep a close eye on your blood pressure. If you get the same effect as the people in the study, your medication will need adjusted, possibly several times.
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