Suffer from heartburn or migraines? Instead of heading straight to the medicine cabinet, you may want to check out the kitchen first. "Many foods provide vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help ease ailments and possibly prevent them," says Susan Lark, MD, a physician and nutritionist in Los Altos, California. "Even if you take medications to relieve symptoms, what you eat can help as well," Dr. Lark says. Next time you experience one of the following minor conditions, just open your refrigerator. (If your symptoms persist or worsen, consult your doctor.)
Try: Fatty fish such as trout, sardines, and herring
Preliminary research suggests that eating fatty fish, which are high in long-chain omega-3 fatty acids, may lower the body's production of prostaglandins, hormone-like chemicals that can induce inflammation and pain, causing migraines. "We found that adolescents who took 1.25 grams of fish oil daily for two months experienced fewer headaches, which were less severe and didn't last as long," explains Zeev Harel, MD, the lead researcher on the study and an associate professor of pediatrics at Brown University.
How much? Have one four- to six-ounce serving two or three times a week, says Dr. Harel. Or consult your doctor about taking fish-oil supplements.
Avoid: Processed meats, artificial sweeteners, MSG, red wine, chocolate, hard cheeses, and citrus. Research shows that 20 percent of migraine sufferers are sensitive to one or more of these foods.
Prostaglandin production is also a large factor in monthly cramps. "As the prostaglandins are released into the tissue, the uterus reacts by going into spasms," explains Dr. Lark, author of Menstrual Cramps: Self-Help Book (Celestial Arts, 2003). Studies show that flaxseed can inhibit the release of certain prostaglandins in the same way that fish does; both work by providing omega-3's.
How much? Have one to two teaspoons of ground flaxseed daily. Try sprinkling it over cereal or salad, or stir it into a smoothie.
Avoid: Red meat and dairy products. These foods contain arachadonic acids, which instigate the production of cramp-causing prostaglandins.
Try: Quinoa (keen-wah)
This low-fat grain is a healthy source of three major nutrients that keep your energy soaring: protein, B vitamins, and iron. Unlike other sources of these nutrients — primarily beef and poultry — quinoa also contains complex carbohydrates, your body's main source of energy.
How much? Eat one and a half cups of cooked quinoa daily, recommends Diane Grabowski-Nepa, RD, a dietitian in Camarillo, California. To add flavor, cook it in vegetable or chicken broth.
Avoid: High-sugar foods and caffeine, both of which cause energy levels to spike and then plummet soon afterward, says Grabowski-Nepa.
Chocolate is full of the amino acid L-tryptophan, which can boost the production of serotonin, a brain chemical that regulates mood. (People who suffer from depression often have low serotonin levels.)
How much? A small amount will do: Try four Hershey's Kisses (100 calories) when moodiness hits.
Avoid: Alcohol. While it may relax you initially, it's a depressant and will make your mood worse after a few hours, says Grabowski-Nepa.
Black, green, and oolong varieties work equally well, says Christine Wu, PhD, associate dean for research and a professor of periodontics at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Dentistry. Wu recently conducted a study that found that compounds in tea stop the growth of bacteria that breed bad breath. (Decaf works, too.) Herbal teas such as chamomile and peppermint aren't derived from the tea plant, so they may not provide the same benefits.
How much? Have one cup after a meal.
Avoid: Onions, garlic, and cabbage.
Try: Low-fat popcorn, honey, graham crackers, whole wheat pretzels
Low-fat carbohydrates can increase production of serotonin in the brain, which helps relax you, says Judith Wurtman, PhD, director of the program in women's health at MIT.
How much? Grabowski-Nepa suggests having whole-grain toast or oatmeal topped with one teaspoon of honey. Or try snacking on a cup of air-popped popcorn or five small graham crackers when you're feeling anxious.
Avoid: Caffeine, which is a stimulant and can make you more nervous.
Vitamin C — which is abundant in strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries — may help slow wear and tear on your joints. A study from Boston University Medical Center shows that arthritis sufferers who had the highest vitamin C intake were three times less likely to strain or injure their joints than those whose intake was lowest. The vitamin's antioxidant activity may keep free radicals from wreaking havoc. Plus, vitamin C plays an essential role in the formation of collagen, a key component of cartilage and bone.
How much? Try to get 120 milligrams daily, which can be provided by two oranges. Other C-rich foods: cantaloupe and broccoli.
Avoid: No foods have been shown to trigger joint pain.
Ginger may help strengthen the lower esophageal sphincter (LES). This is the valve that keeps stomach acid from reversing into your esophagus and causing a burning sensation, says John Hibbs, a naturopathic physician and an associate professor of clinical medicine at Bastyr University in Seattle.
How much? Fresh ginger is strong, so make the herb into a tea to dilute it. Add one-half to one teaspoon freshly grated gingerroot (or one-quarter teaspoon of the powdered variety) to a cup of hot water. Let steep for 10 minutes, strain the ginger, and drink.
Avoid: High-fat foods like butter and red meat, which can hamper functioning of the LES. Spicy foods, or acidic ones like tomatoes, can also cause heartburn.
Try: Peppermint tea, fennel seeds
"Peppermint and fennel both work as antispasmodics to relax bowel muscles. This helps prevent pain caused by the buildup of gas, which gets stuck in the gastrointestinal tract when the muscles are constricted," explains Cindy Yoshida, MD, director of the Women's GI Clinic at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
How much? Try drinking one cup of peppermint tea or eating a half teaspoon of fennel seeds after a meal.
Avoid: Carbonated drinks and sorbitol-sweetened foods, all of which are harder for your digestive tract to break down, says Dr. Yoshida. Gas forms when undigested foods are broken down by bacteria in the colon. Also, limit your consumption of beans, tofu, legumes, and cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower. (Before you eat them, try taking Beano; the supplement contains a natural enzyme that helps break these foods down.)
Try: Apples, pears
Fiber-rich foods like these help the digestive tract function regularly. Produce that has a high water content (such as pears, melons, tomatoes, and grapes) can also help keep things moving.
How much? Aim for 20 to 35 grams of fiber daily, which can be met by eating five servings of high-fiber fruits and vegetables. Increase your intake slowly, by just four to five grams per day, or you may experience stomach discomfort, says Dr. Yoshida. Also, be sure to drink at least two additional glasses of water every day, which will help push the fiber through the digestive tract.
Avoid: Processed foods like frozen meals, high-fat meats, and coffee (limit yourself to two cups daily). And don't skip meals: Eating at regular intervals ensures that your gastrocolic reflex is stimulated, which keeps you regular.