Credit: Chinh Le Duc

How to create the ultimate healing pantry

Before we had easy access to healthfood stores, acupuncturists and herbalists, our family kitchens were the go-to medicine cabinets. From spices and healthy oils to nutritionally rich plant foods, many ingredients in our kitchens are strong allies with powerful healing benefits. So the next time you develop a health niggle, chronic condition or simply notice signs that a cold is coming on, take a look in your kitchen pantry and fridge and see what potent remedies you can find there.

Star staples

Some foods are multi-healers with an impressive range of health benefits, so it’s good practice to keep them in your kitchen at all times.


There’s a reason why turmeric lattes (aka “golden milk”) have become such a popular choice on the cafe scene. Turmeric, known as the spice of life in India, offers many wellbeing benefits. It’s high in curcumin, which in the brain helps reduce the build-up of damaging proteins that cause Alzheimer’s disease. Studies also suggest that turmeric can reduce the spread of breast cancer and joint swelling caused by arthritis. It may also reduce blood vessel growth in fat tissue, possibly halting fat tissue secretions that promote inflammation and further weight gain, according to research from Tufts University in the US.

Tip: Add it to curries, scrambled eggs or tofu, soups, Turkish-style breakfasts, hot milky drinks, rice dishes, muffins, pancakes, freshly made hummus, vegetables (eg sweet potato, steamed cauliflower), oven-roasted chickpeas or a savoury yoghurt bowl.

Coconut oil

Next time you’re suffering from bad breath, a thrush infection or pimple breakout, reach for some coconut oil. Whether applied directly to skin, swallowed or used in a coconut oil pull (swishing the oil around your mouth), coconut oil’s high levels of medium-chain fatty acids (such as lauric, caprylic and capric acids) can help fight bacterial growth. Research from the University of Paraiba in Brazil also shows that the combination of daily exercise and coconut oil intake can help reduce high blood pressure.

Tip: As well as using coconut oil in muffins and homemade bread, it’s a good choice when oven-roasting vegetables or cooking pancakes. Coconut oil has a high smoking point, which means it maintains its health qualities even when heated to quite high temperatures.

Apple-cider vinegar

Want to blitz your nasal congestion, boost good belly bacteria, reduce your appetite and weight or lower your blood glucose levels? Through its healthy impacts on your belly microbiome (the bacteria that live in your gut), apple-cider vinegar can offer all these health benefits and more. It also helps reduce heartburn, hayfever symptoms and skin problems such as acne and pimples.

Tip: Choose an ACV that contains “the mother” as it is unrefined and boasts more beneficial bacteria. Add a tablespoon or two to a small glass of water at meals once or several times daily.


In recent years, some hospitals have been returning to the ancient remedy of honey for wounds and infections that won’t heal. Research from the American Societies for Experimental Biology has shown that bees make a protein they add to the honey called defensin-1, which scientists are now trying to harness to treat burns and skin infections and to create new treatments for antibiotic-resistant infections. Modern science is finally catching on to what healers have known for centuries: that this sweet, golden liquid has powerful antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, which can reduce bacteria growth. For this reason, honey is an effective cough suppressant and can help reduce symptoms of allergy and bring antibiotic-resistant streptococcus infections under control.

Tip: Make sure you choose a good-quality organic raw honey. Some apiarists and honey producers bombard their bees with antibiotics all year, which can compromise the health of the bees and reduce the medicinal power of the honey.


Gingerols, which are the active components of the thick, knotted stem of the zingiber plant, have healing super powers that go well beyond soothing morning sickness and nausea. Research shows that ginger can ease muscle pain, reduce asthma symptoms and help alleviate arthritis pain. The gingerols inhibit an enzyme called COX-2 (cyclooxygenase), which causes inflammation. They also block a particular pain receptor in the brain that responds to pain triggers such as heat and acidity. Research at the University of Minnesota in the US has also recently shown that ginger may help inhibit the growth of colon cancer cells.

Tip: As well as adding ginger to stirfries and smoothies for extra zing, slice some and steep in hot water or ginger tea for a health-boosting hot drink in the morning.

Olive oil

Rich in healthy mono-unsaturated fatty oils, olive oil lowers bad LDL cholesterol and boosts good HDL cholesterol. It also contains an anti-inflammatory compound called oleocanthal, which works in the same way as ibuprofen, so can be protective against dementia and type 2 diabetes as well as heart disease. These compounds also help to kill off cancer cells. It’s high in antioxidants and one in particular, called DHPEA-EDA, protects red blood cells from damage. This may be why olive oil appears to be protective against breast cancer. And its health benefits show. The more olive oil you eat, the less wrinkled your skin appears, according to Monash University in Melbourne.

Tip: Add a dash of cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil to pasta, dips, soups and salads. When compared to many other oils, olive oil has a higher satiety effect, keeping you full for longer, according to research from the Technical University of Munich.


These are bursting with minerals that can aid the methylation process in your body, which helps you produce important neurotransmitters. If you are not methylating properly, your body can contain too much of chemicals like histamine and adrenalin and too little of chemicals like SAMe (S-Adenosyl-L-methionine) and serotonin, which boost your mood and help you sleep. So keep a range of seeds in a dark, cool cupboard, including flaxseeds, linseeds, pepitas, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds.

Tip: If you suffer menstrual issues like bloating, breast tenderness and mood dips, rotate seeds into your diet throughout the month. Seeds like flaxseed and pepitas can be used to stabilise oestrogen levels in the first two weeks of the menstrual cycle and sesame and sunflower seeds help to do the same job in the second half.


It may contribute to fluid retention and high blood pressure in some people, but salt is a great first line of treatment for infections. Salt water can be used in a:

  • Warm water gargle to treat a scratchy, itchy or sore throat or bad breath.
  • Warm homemade saline solution applied to the nose through a small syringe to help minimise cold symptoms and issues with bacterial build-up in mucus.
  • Neti-pot. Some people swear by this daily ritual of nasal irrigation to prevent colds and reduce allergy.

Tip: If you make the concentration of salt too high, it may cause burning that can worsen or trigger inflammation. So don’t overdo it.

Pantry protection

If you want to prevent disease and treat health niggles, your pantry should always be your first port of call. Here are just a couple of examples of conditions that can be helped by healing, health-boosting foods.

Respiratory: asthma, eczema & allergy

  • Apple-cider vinegar. This contains acetate, which can help improve your balance of good bacteria and settle your immune system so it doesn’t over-react to pollens and other allergy/asthma triggers.
  • Leeks and shallots are members of the allium food family. They help reduce the release of histamines, which are often involved in the asthma response.
  • Brazil nuts. These can help replenish selenium, a mineral that has been shown to help reduce asthma in small-scale studies.
  • Along with strawberries and other red foods like capsicum, these are bursting with antioxidants, which can help reduce symptoms of hayfever and skin rashes.
  • Can improve skin hydration and elasticity thanks to an antioxidant called lutein. This means the protective barrier of your skin is more effective and less likely to be sensitive to irritants that cause eczema.
  • This fish boasts long-chain omega-3 essential fatty acids, which reduce allergenic responses such as eczema and asthma.
  • This nutty-tasting sesame paste boasts high amounts of zinc, a mineral that helps the skin heal and can also help combat the common cold.
  • Fermented foods like kombucha, miso and sauerkraut help boost your levels of good bacteria, which can improve skin health and reduce allergenic hayfever and asthma.

Cardiovascular: heart complaints & blood pressure

  • Along with other fish like sardines and tuna, salmon is brimming with healthy omega-3 fatty acids that reduce heart arrhythmias and blood clots, according to research from the CSIRO. Fish contain heart-protective long-chain omega-3s called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). Plant foods like canola oil, soy milk and walnuts are high in omega-3 fatty acids called ALA (alpha-linolenic acid), which may convert to DHA and EPA in the body.
  • Purple grapes. These round flavour-bursts contain resveratrol, the nutrient that helps make red wine good for you. Studies suggest grape juice can help reduce risk of blood clots.
  • Spinach and other leafy vegetables is high in folate, which breaks down a substance called homocysteine, an amino acid related to higher risk of coronary heart disease.
  • Greek yoghurt. Put a few dollops on breakfast cereal or in curries or a banana smoothie. Research using data from the Harvard Nurses Study found that women who eat five serves of yoghurt a week are 20 per cent less likely to develop high blood pressure.
  • An amino acid in this juicy pink fruit helps dilate blood vessels and prevent prehypertension from progressing to high blood pressure, according to research involving Florida State University in the US.
  • Macadamia nuts. These flavoursome nuggets of goodness help reduce bad LDL cholesterol, according to a study from Penn State University in the US.
  • Pomegranate juice. Drinking a glass a day of this antioxidant-rich crimson juice appears to counter hardening of the arteries and helps reduce the belly fat that causes a muffin top or spare tyre.
  • A rich source of vitamin B12 and one of the nutrients shown in studies to lower levels of the amino acid homocysteine.
  • Dark chocolate (70 per cent). The potent flavonoids help protect the health of blood vessel walls, enabling them to dilate easily. Chocolate also reduces blood pressure and bad cholesterol.
  • In the large Spanish Predimed Study, participants enjoyed lowered risk of heart disease and cancer simply from eating 30g of nuts every day.
  • Add chickpeas, lentils, peas and borlotti beans to salads, soups, dips and stews. The high fibre helps lower cholesterol and blood pressure.

Brain-protective foods

Feel like you keep having those “tip of the tongue” experiences where you can’t think of a word or a name? Worried that your brain might be losing its edge because you have trouble concentrating, or have to re-read whole paragraphs of your bedtime novel because the words just aren’t computing? Then head for your kitchen. Serve the following foods at breakfast, in brown-bagged lunches and home-cooked dinners to boost your memory and cognition, and help stave off dementia.


  • These are high in choline, a B-complex vitamin. Lack of choline has been linked to poor memory and concentration, while the right amount can assist brain cells to communicate more effectively.
  • Often called the “brain berry”. The pigment that gives blueberries that gorgeous, deep purple-blue colour comes from an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which can help improve concentration, co-ordination and short-term memory. Enjoying berries in a daily smoothie can help increase powers of concentration by up to 20 per cent, according to a study by the University of Reading in the UK.

Lunch & dinner

  • Regularly tucking into cold-water fish may reduce your risk of developing dementia by around 60 per cent, says research at St Luke’s Medical Centre in Chicago. The higher your intake the better your memory and concentration, so eat more fish, pumpkin seeds and nuts, particularly walnuts.
  • Whole grains. Whole grains like rye and quinoa are packed with folate and vitamins B12 and B6 — all crucial for tip-top brain function. They help break down homocysteine, which in high levels has been linked to Alzheimer’s and heart disease. Brown rice is also brain-friendly because it contains GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid), which helps prevent memory impairment.
  • Black-eyed peas. The flavonoids in these pulses help enhance blood flow in the brain, while their high folate levels may promote faster recall and processing of information.
  • The carnosic acid in this flavoursome evergreen herb appears to be protective against dementia and other degenerative brain disorders.

Snacks & drinks

  • Pears & apples (skin on). They contain quercetin, an antioxidant that offers protection against Alzheimer’s disease, shows research from Cornell University in the US.
  • Grape juice. Studies show that drinking grape juice can substantially help improve motor skills and short-term memory.

Could this meal prevent heart disease?

Want to cut your risk of cardiovascular disease by 76 per cent? The “polymeal” is designed to do just that. It’s based on research from the Netherlands and Melbourne’s Monash University, and consists of the following food daily:

  • 400g fruit and vegetables
  • 150mL wine
  • 100g dark chocolate
  • 7g (a clove or two) garlic
  • 68g almonds
  • 114g fish

6 bone boosters

Keep your bones healthy and strong by throwing these foods in your shopping trolley:

  1. Packed with vitamin D, which helps increase the absorption of calcium, making your bones stronger.
  2. A rich source of phosphorous, which helps maintain healthy bones — up to 85 per cent of the body’s phosphorous levels are found in the skeleton and teeth.
  3. These flavour enhancers contain a special peptide that helps prevent calcium being leached from bones. Their levels of silicon may also help build new bone.
  4. Pumpkin seeds. Little pepitas are a great snack because they’re high in magnesium, which works with calcium to build strong bones.
  5. The lycopene that makes tomato red helps slow the breakdown of bone.
  6. Plums and prunes. Plums are high in a natural fibre called inulin, which enhances calcium absorption and uptake, keeping bones strong. Prunes appear to help restore bone mass, which may be due their high calcium levels.

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield

Stephanie Osfield is an award-winning freelance health journalist. She is an advocate of nutritional medicine and specialises in all aspects of health, from exercise and disease prevention to stress, depression and women’s health issues.

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