About 2,400 years ago, Hippocrates noted, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” Modern medicine continues to search for “healing” plants. In fact, the majority of ancient and modern medications have their roots in plants.

Since the time of Hippocrates, the world of plants continues to supply new discoveries and applications in the health continuum. Within the depths of this continuum is food pharmacology. In this branch of study, investigators explore a broad range of compounds that may exert an array of biochemical and physiological effects on cells, tissues, and organs. This exploration compels the investigator to identify and understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms—including signal transduction and cellular communication—that are critical for potential health applications. As some investigate the medicinal properties of drugs, it is equally vital that the classic principles of pharmacodynamics and pharmacokinetics are applied to food systems if we are to better understand their potential relationship to either health benefits or risk reduction.

It is appropriate to recall another quote, this one by Paracelsus, a 16th century physician often considered the father of toxicology. Paracelsus famously observed that “the dose makes the poison.” This principle is easily applied to nutrients and other substances that people consume daily. Thus, in order to have a significant positive impact on health, research should carefully examine plants or crops that are considered staples, are consumed daily and in large quantities, are an integral part of global diets, and, of course, are accessible across all economic segments of the population.

Examining a myriad of chronic diseases, there appear to be clinical intersections that include a variety of signaling pathways. For example, a recent report indicated some anti-inflammatory effects from honey may be modulated through specific toll-like receptors that impact signaling pathways (Tomblin et al., 2014) and reduction of superoxide production by neutrophils (Leong et al., 2012). Knowing the appropriate amount and varietal required to produce these effects is a challenge, however.

As was noted in the September 2012 edition of this column, modern wheat appears to have departed from an ancient diploid (two complete sets of chromosomes) to modern hybrids that include tetraploid and hexaploid genetic makeup. These genetic differences yield distinct compositions, which in turn represent unique opportunities directed to health beyond dietary fiber (Matthews et al., 2012).

Breast cancer is a dreaded disease that affects about 18% of women and 1–6% of males, particularly those older than 70 years of age (McPherson et al., 2000; Chen & Parmigiani, 2007). Data suggest those positive for BRCA1 and BRCA2, the major genes related to hereditary breast cancer, are at greater risk of presenting this disease, and the genes are often the deciding factors contributing to decisions about therapeutic and prophylactic surgical interventions. Numerous dietary interventions have been ascribed in efforts to reduce the risk of breast cancer and other forms of cancer.

Using the rat mammary carcinogenesis model, there was a dose-related response to tumor burden associated with whole, dry red bean consumption (Thompson et al., 2008). The nearly 64% reduction of tumor burden relative to control animals may be associated with decreased circulation levels of inflammatory compounds, which are associated with cell signaling pathways, and possibly an activity modulation or altered expression of some cellular growth factors, and an upregulation of components that promote apoptosis. Interestingly, the intersection of population statistics and bean consumption suggests the biological diversity of this staple crop may exert different health benefits (Thompson et al., 2009). This kind of evidence parallels some mechanisms of action of anti-estrogen tamoxifen, an important medication in chemotherapy, and even medications like Rapamycin, which target cellular phosphorylation events as part of an immunosuppression regimen during organ transplant. Another example is Metformin, an oral antidiabetic medication that functions to blunt postprandial rise in blood glucose. This is a mechanism of action that is shared with beans and even some potato, rice, and corn cultivars (Thompson et al., 2009). It may be that those examining potential health benefits of food could benefit from understanding the pharmacology of prescribed medications.

Evidence points to the next generation of medicines and food cultivars. To improve health outcomes from medications and foods (remember what Hippocrates said), there is a need to incorporate the dynamics of pharmacology, and personal and plant genetics.

References cited are available from the author.

Roger ClemensRoger Clemens, Dr.P.H., CFS,
Contributing Editor
Chief Scientific Officer,
Horn Company, La Mirada, Calif.
[email protected]

In This Article

  1. Food, Health and Nutrition