There are many chronic conditions that have a significant impact on the African American community. Diseases such as hypertension, asthma, prostate cancer and uterine fibroids are some of the illnesses that affect our community more than any other. Here we will delve into these disorders and discuss natural approaches such as diet, lifestyle and supplement support to address each of them. With natural medicine and a holistic approach, we strive to leave a legacy of health and wellness for our children and future generations to come.
History of the African American Diet – Where it All Begins
Many crops were brought over to the Americas during the slave trade. Foods such as okra, which likely originated in Ethiopia, were brought onboard the ships to keep the enslaved alive. The crops were grown on the plantation by the enslaved as food sources for themselves. Rice was another food transported and became a foundation for many African American dishes. We can still see similarities between one-pot rice recipes like Jollof, a traditional West African dish, and jambalaya. The word ‘gumbo’ is derived from ‘ki ngombo’, meaning okra in the Bantu language.
Slaves were also largely responsible for salting and smoking meat to preserve it. The least desired cuts of pork, such as the the head, ribs, feet and internal organs, were given to the slaves as food rations. Drawing upon traditional African cooking techniques, vinegar and hot red peppers were often used to flavor the poor cuts of meat, a technique still used in southern barbecue sauces today.
Collard greens, another soul food staple, is comparable to Ghana’s kontomire stew, the likely foundation for this southern dish. Enslaved African Americans would boil the greens in pork fat and seasonings. The left-over juices called ‘potlikker’ was soaked up with cornbread to be eaten. Many African cultures have practiced this tradition of dipping a starch into a vegetable and meat-based stew, such as injera of Ethiopia or fufu in Nigeria.
That tradition of cooking with fatty, salty meat for the rich flavor added to dishes is a blessing to the tongue and a curse to health of many African Americans today.
High sodium intake can lead to hypertension, and high fat consumption can lead to high cholesterol. Elevation in blood pressure above normal has been linked in clinical studies to an increased risk of cardiovascular events. The estimated prevalence of hypertension (HTN), or high blood pressure, in the US is approximately 30% of all Americans, including 40.4% of blacks, 27.4% of whites and 26.1% of Mexican Americans. Only 25 to 30% of patients with HTN are optimally controlled with their present medical regimen.
Risk factors for essential HTN include genetic predisposition, male gender, excessive alcohol consumption, obesity, inactivity, increased sodium intake, and African American race. Secondary hypertension should be ruled out and is defined as HTN due to an identifiable cause and accounts for only five to 10% of cases.
Natural treatments for hypertension can include lifestyle modification, dietary changes, and supplements.
Decreasing caffeine, sodium, and inflammatory foods such simple carbohydrates and red meat, elimination of trans fats and beginning an exercise routine are all good first steps. Start small and progress. Develop and write out a step by step plan that includes stress management and relaxation techniques. Meditation, yoga, journaling and joyful activities all have the ability to lower blood pressure. We also want to correct nutrient deficiencies such as magnesium, potassium, calcium and B-vitamins (B 6, B 12, folic acid). CoQ 10 is great for cardiovascular support and is depleted with excess stress. L- Carnitine, a cofactor required for cellular energy production, and arginine, which improves endothelial function leading to increased nitric oxide levels and improved blood flow, are both ideal for hypertension as well.
Antioxidants like vitamins C and E are great for their heart and blood vessel protective properties.
Diuretic herbs such as burdock, cleavers, dandelion, nettles and parsley are good natural ways to lower blood pressure as well. Cardiac herbs that are considered hypotensive, or blood pressure lowering, include cayenne, garlic, ginger, hawthorn, linden, mistletoe, motherwort, and rauwolfia. Herbs that can increase circulation include cayenne, cinnamon, garlic, ginger, ginkgo and prickly ash. Calming and relaxing herbs like lavender, kava kava, oats, passion flower, skullcap, St John’s wort and valerian can help decrease stress and anxiety with benefits to blood pressure. Acupuncture can be used to treat acute HTN due to emotional injury, for example, or chronic HTN due to improper diet.
Asthma is yet another illness that affects blacks more than other ethnicities with an 11.2% prevalence compared to 5.2% for Asians, 7.7% for whites and 5.4% for Mexicans. Among Hispanic groups, Puerto Ricans had the highest prevalence at 16.1%. Air quality in residential areas where more African Americans reside is one factor that accounts for the disparity.
Asthma prevention strategies include exclusive breast-feeding during the 1st months after birth which is associated with lower asthma rates during childhood.
One study found that cow’s milk allergy was a culprit in asthma manifestation in children. Symptoms included difficulties with infant feeding, diarrhea, constipation, vomiting, intestinal colic, growth retardation, psychological disturbance, as well as eczema and asthma. After milk withdrawal all symptoms were reversible. Considering this, it would be safe to conclude avoiding cow’s milk early in life is ideal, especially if respiratory illness is evident.
Natural therapies for asthma include butterbur root extract, good for chronic asthma, as well as selenium, and vitamins A, C, and E.
Foods high in antioxidants are protective to the respiratory tract. They help protect the body from toxins and damaging free radicals. Foods high in antioxidants include red bell pepper, dark green leafy veggies, strawberries, cherries, blueberries, goji, cranberry, pecans, walnuts and blackberries. Recent studies show that omega-3 fatty acids may improve breathing difficulty in asthma sufferers. Salmon, herring, flounder, sardines, mackerel, trout, flax seeds, chia seeds, navy beans and Brussels sprouts are all good dietary sources of omega-3 fats.
Black men are 60-70% more likely to develop prostate cancer in their lifetime than white or Hispanic men.
In addition, having a father or a brother with prostate cancer more than doubles the risk of the same diagnosis. Research shows a diet consisting primarily of meat and dairy products can increase risk of prostate cancer.
For natural prostate support, eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, nuts and healthy fats like avocado oil and olive oil.
Broccoli and other cruciferous veggies have a chemical called sulforaphane that is thought to target cancer cells and promote prostate health. The antioxidant lycopene in tomatoes and the vitamin C in citrus help protect the prostate gland. Berries are another great source of antioxidants that remove disease causing free radicals from the body. Omega-3 fatty acids in salmon and mackerel help reduce inflammation in the body, also a benefit to the prostate gland. Nuts, legumes and shellfish are high in Zinc which is found in high concentrations in the prostate. Zinc is thought to balance DHT and testosterone hormones. High levels of DHT, dihydrotestosterone, are associated with prostate cell enlargement.
Supplements like Saw Palmetto and fish oil are beneficial to the prostate gland. Boron has been shown to reduce prostate cancer risk, while flaxseed is known to promote prostate health. Green tea and soy isoflavone are also recommended for prostate health. Vitamin E is known to help reduce prostate cancer risk.
For black women, uterine fibroids are too common of an occurrence to be ignored.
A study conducted by the American Society for Reproductive Medicine found that ultrasound detected fibroids in 26% or black women and only 7% of white women who had no symptoms. A thicker endometrium, or lining of the uterus, in black women was found to be a potential clinical implication for this disparity. Being overweight or obese also increases risk of fibroid development, as does having a sister or mother with fibroids.
While fibroids are not cancerous masses, they can grow quite large and can cause many health complications such as anemia, heavy bleeding, pain, difficulty conceiving, miscarriage, frequent urination and constipation.
Natural approaches to fibroid treatment include dietary and lifestyle recommendations. Following a Mediterranean diet rich in steamed green veggies, fresh fruit, legumes and fish is ideal. Avoid red meat, ham, lamb and beef to decrease your risk. Reducing alcohol consumption is also important, as drinking any type of alcohol may increase your risk of fibroids due to raising hormone levels needed for them to grow and increasing inflammation in the body.
Avoid hormone disrupting chemicals that can increase estrogen levels to reduce risk of developing fibroids or enlarging them.
Pesticides, BPA in plastics, dyes, nonstick cookware coating, fire retardants and fertilizers are all estrogen disrupting chemicals. Fat cells make more estrogen, therefore obesity and being overweight can increase risk of fibroids and worsen symptoms.
Vitamin D can help lower risk of fibroids by up to 32%.
Darker skin women are more likely to be deficient in vitamin D, as it takes more sun exposure to support the development of the vitamin in darker skinned people. Foods high in vitamin D include fortified foods like almond milk and orange juice, salmon, mackerel and egg yolks. A vitamin D supplement may be needed to raise levels as well.
If you have fibroids, eat foods high in fiber like oats and beans, and drink green tea. Green tea has the antioxidant epigallocatechin gallate that may slow fibroid growth by decreasing inflammation and high estrogen levels.
While African Americans may be facing more health challenges in certain areas, nature has many remedies, helping to equip the community with tools to take care of our health, naturally.
Prevention is better than cure, and food is our best medicine. If we start teaching African American children how to select healthy foods while they are young, we will set them up for good health and change the trajectory of our health legacy for generations to come.
*Please consult your physician before beginning any new diet, supplement or exercise routine.
The Humble History of Soul Food, Black Foodie