HAVE TROUBLE sleeping? Plagued by stiff, painful joints? Feel a cold coming on?

Instead of reaching into the medicine cabinet for those over-the-counter medicines, rubs and other conventional remedies, head to your refrigerator for some culinary healing.

Chef-turned-doctor John La Puma, aka Chef MD, believes that health can be improved and ailments prevented and in some cases healed with the right combinations of healthy foods.

La Puma is a California internist and professionally trained chef who once worked for Food Network chef Rick Bayless. He's penned a new book that claims that food is the key to preventing and even curing many common ills.

We're not just talking about eating apples every day to keep the doctor away.

La Puma says that he has distilled information from more than 3,000 clinical studies - on everything from hypertension to high cholesterol, from arthritis to the common cold - into a 300-page recipe book, "Chef MD's Big Book of Culinary Medicine" (Crown, $24.95), that offers a comprehensive guide to combating 40 health problems with gourmet dishes that contain dozens of power foods. These include nuts, avocados, whole grains, herbs and yogurt.

Along with the flavorful recipes, the Lifetime television star and "Today Show" regular offers tricks that he says can help the body absorb more vitamins and build up immunity.

Want to relax your arteries before eating a high-fat meal? Chomp antioxidant-rich walnuts or almonds.

Want your morning vitamins to work better? Take them with a small dose of fatty food.

Losing sleep over your persistent insomnia? A dose of turkey, fish or bananas should have you snoozing soon.

Sound too good to be true?

If you're skeptical about using foods as medicine, you're not alone. Health professionals continue to research the effects food can have on health, even as Americans bounce optimistically from one diet regime to the next - from the popular wine- and fish-rich Mediterranean diet to controversial "detox" programs that use foods and herbs to rid the body of toxins.

Eating healthy foods is never bad, experts agree, but the stuff isn't always the answer to your medical woes.

"If you look at it one way, foods have compounds that act in the same way as medicines," said the American Dietetic Association's local spokeswoman, Althea Zanecosky.

"Studies show certain diets, like the Mediterranean diet, can help with cholesterol. But I don't think you can make a promise that diseases or illnesses can be prevented or cured with foods in the same way as a medicine your doctor prescribes to truly treat you."

La Puma is not saying that food should be a replacement for medicine. But he says that many people who change their diet and eat regular doses of the foods he recommends can see energy boosts, weight loss and improvements of certain medical conditions in a matter of days or weeks.

We chatted with him recently about his new book and his culinary philosophy.

Q: Tell me a little about your food-as-medicine studies. And how does a chef decide to become a doctor?

A: I am an internist with a practice in Santa Barbara, and the practice focuses on lifestyle change and permanent weight-loss through lifestyle change. But I am also a culinary school [graduate] and worked in Chicago at Rick Bayless' Frontera Grill. I have blended the two to create culinary medicine, which is the art of cooking blended with the science of medicine.

I've always suspected the missing link for weight loss and controlling medical conditions with food was flavor [in the food]. Getting people to eat the right foods was about showing them they could taste good.

People still associate health foods - in these days of incredible advances from farmers' markets to health food stores - to tasting like cardboard. It can taste like restaurant quality.

Q: How was the idea for this book born?

A: I started by crunching 3,000 scientific studies . . . the medical literature, culinary literature, agricultural literature and the food-chemistry literature . . . and I'm sure we just scratched the surface. I wanted to see how food works in the body and how it has medical effects, and [I] boiled it down to about 300 pages [explaining] what do you eat for that [medical condition], and blended it with my training in cooking.

Q: How did you come up with the recipes for the book?

A: I do a regular television segment for Lifetime called "What's Cooking with Chef MD" on a show called "Health Corner" [airing at 9:30 a.m. Sundays in Philadelphia].

Every week we send out thousands of e-mails asking viewers for free, quick, healthy recipes. The responses we got helped shape the flavors in the book: Mediterranean, Latin American, Asian. It is basically global cuisine, locally sourced. The flavors pop. It's richly flavored food that tastes way better than anybody expects it to.

Q: So how does it work? You combine certain foods and the compounds work together to mimic the effects medicines can have on the body?

A: The way that foods work is not simply because they are made up of folic acid or vitamin D. Foods have hundreds of different compounds that can work together as a symphony to . . . prevent disease.

Q: Can you offer any rules of thumb for people who might want to try the program?

A: In general, use fat where it counts. People are afraid of fat, but, for example, adding healthy fats to food can help you absorb more of the vitamins inside the foods.

Add avocado to salad and you can absorb seven times as much lutein . . . [a lack of which] is the leading cause of blindness. Or use a full-fat salad dressing. You want to absorb more of the lutein in the salad. But don't drown the salad. Dress the salad.

If you take vitamins in the morning, vitamins D, E, A and K are fat-soluble. So that means you want your breakfast to be something other than a Pop Tart. Eat a little healthy fat at breakfast - a little bit of egg or some almond butter on a whole wheat muffin. That's helping you absorb your vitamins.

The same goes for marinara sauce. Cook it with a little olive oil and you absorb four times the lycopene in the tomatoes, which is a heart and prostate protector.

Q: What are some secret ingredients you recommend in the book?

A: Spices have powerful antioxidant protection, so add herbs and spices to food. Using rosemary in a marinade for meats helps you block the cancer-causing chemicals when meats are cooked to very well done, because the rosemary increases the antioxidant barrier around marinades . . . .

And organics really do matter. In the book, I list 12 of the highest pesticide-containing foods. Anything with a thin skin - potatoes, nectarines, plums - the thin skin doesn't protect them from synthetic pesticides.

Q: So how long would one have to follow your guidelines and eat these foods to see an improvement in a medical condition such as high cholesterol or arthritis?

A: Some changes work within minutes. If you eat walnuts 20 minutes before a fatty meal or a fast-food meal, you will help to block the stiffening of the arteries that the saturated fats and transfats will otherwise create. The artery will stay more flexible and allow more blood flow.

I see results in days to weeks in my own practice. [Foods can work for] lower blood pressure or cholesterol or acne. We generally see changes within several weeks and, in the book, I create an eight week plan everyone can follow to do a systematic change.

This is the first effort that I know of to make the art of cooking and science of medicine come together - in a way that everyone can understand - and begin to reverse disease processes. People don't have to worry about being perfect. They can just start with a little thing, and they will feel better about their health. *

To learn more about the book or Dr. La Puma's studies, go to www.drjohnlapuma.com.