Updated: Jul 19, 2021
Bringing science & tradition onto the same page
The world is ever changing, growing at a tremendous pace and we have as W. H. Davies put it, ‘no time to stand and stare’. No time even, to stop and listen as our bodies send out pleas to slow down and take note. We only strive to fill our lives with “feel good” experiences, that lack realness and “feel good” food that unfortunately lacks nutrients. Add to that reduced sleep hours which are disturbed and distracted, technology taking over our every waking hour , working indoors, choking outdoors and an alienation from all things natural and you have is a recipe for disaster. Let us sit still for a minute. Breathe. And bring back focus to what really matters to us today. What we need today is to heal, from the inside out. And the best way to learn is from the best of teachers – Nature.
Our history and our mythology are replete with instances where nature has come to the rescue. The lure of the mysterious “Sanjeevani” plant has many a candidate vying for the coveted title even today. An infuser of life, a plant that brought Lakshman back from the brink of death! And what of Dhanvantri and his ‘Amrita’ – the ultimate ‘elixir’ which came out from the famous churning of the ocean? Historically, Dhanvantri is supposed to have taught Sushruta, the father of medicine and surgery, in ancient India. A number of jadi bootis (more than a 100 plants) described in his Sushruta Samhita were meant to be used both singly and in combination in healing of wounds.
But let us take a closer look at plants and plant products that are closer home – those that aren’t as fabled but play their part quietly in our everyday lives. Their existence is ancient knowledge and they have been essentials in our Indian households – “ghar ke nuske” for everything from treating common colds or fixing stomach pain to even helping those afflicted with gout or malaria. But the scientific basis of their action, their molecular effect and the crucial parts they and their “active” ingredients play in our metabolism are only now being extensively studied.
What follows is a non-exhaustive list of natural products that we consume or use (even take for granted!) but whose medical efficacy is under serious scrutiny and therefore deserve another look –
Haldi or turmeric – This one is an all time favourite in practically every home across India. Our foods get the characteristic yellow from cooking with it, our faces even get a healthy dose of haldi when it is liberally applied as a part of many a ritual! Turmeric in milk can fix your cough and adding it to a topical paste with honey can cure that odd open wound or sore. Multipurpose and ever handy!
But what’s the science behind it?
Curcumin is a polyphenol and is the major active component of turmeric (that comes from the Curcuma longa plant). Its diverse range of properties includes being a good anti-oxidant, analgesic and antiseptic and has historically been used as an anti-inflammatory agent and in healing. Laboratory studies have highlighted its effect on hindering different types of cancer cells. Recently, studies on animal models of skin and oral cancer have shown that curcumin inhibits initiation, promotion and progression of tumors.
Disclaimer: These studies are preliminary at best and should be taken with a pinch of…. well, maybe turmeric.
2. Pepper – Pounding of fresh peppercorns with a mortar and pestle… a sound everyone has heard in their grandmother’s house. It brings back memories of pongal or vadas, maybe even pulaos and preparing aromatic garam masala at home! Pop in a peppercorn-salt mix to fix your toothache and crush it and consume it to alleviate joint pains! A tiny power packed spice if there ever was one!
But what’s the science behind it?
Peppercorns are the dried fruits that come from the flowering vine, Piper nigrum. Piperine (an alkaloid) is the active ingredient in peppercorns. Preliminary studies in cellular models (think lab coats and nerd scientists hunched up, hard at work!) have claimed effectiveness of black pepper and its extracts, particularly piperine, against a wide range of diseases including diabetes, inflammatory disease and cardiovascular disease. Its anti-oxidant potential has also been tested in mice models of diabetes mellitus. Its efficacy in gastrointestinal disorders also holds promise.
Piperine even showed anti-arthritic effects in mice! Interestingly, studies show that piperine increases “bioavailability” of other spices such as curcumin – simply put – black pepper in your foodstuffs could increase the positive effects of turmeric! This dynamic combination has even been studied in the context of treating depression related disorders. A number of studies even highlight the anti-depressant like effect of piperine. Pepper in some positive experiences in life, maybe?
3. Cloves – Cloves or laung are ever present in the home remedy medicine cabinet. Its analgesic properties and its unique fragrance are both its characteristic features (did I mention how they make your biryani an aromatic treat?) Club crushed cloves with honey and you have an instant cure for indigestion. Cloves for fresh breath; cloves to cure sore gums; cloves to even control blood sugar? Its health benefits are manifold and clove oil has secured a niche for itself in the fast growing “organic” market today.
But what’s the science behind it?
Clove flower buds are harvested from Syzygium aromaticum and clove essential oil is extracted from these buds. Eugenol is the major constituent of clove essential oil. The efficacy of eugenol and other compounds including polyphenols (found in clove oil) as antioxidants has been studied in both cellular and mouse models. Bactericidal (“bacteria killing”) effect of clove extracts has been observed against food borne infectious agents such as E. coli and Staphylococcus. In fact, its anti-fungal and its anti-bacterial activity could be applied not only in treatment but maybe also as non-toxic food preservatives. Molecular studies have even identified the cellular protein to which eugenol binds and thus works its pain killer-like magic (for those annoying toothaches).
Bonus: Clove as an insect repellent! Studies have investigated the efficiency of formulations containing diluted clove essential oil against Aedes aegypti (L.) bites (the dengue causing mosquito) as well as their larvae. Eugenol (the active compound), seems to show interesting results as an insecticide. Grandma’s words about clove oil to ward off insects out in the yard come to mind yet?
This little list barely does justice to the extraordinary catalogue of herbs and spices that have been a part of our rich Indian legacy. From the humble onion to the elite saffron – each plant has its own unique story to tell. Watch this space for more on Indian herbs and spices and the science behind them!
Clove (Syzygium aromaticum): a precious spice. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3819475/)
Black Pepper and Health Claims: A Comprehensive Treatise (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10408398.2011.571799?journalCode=bfsn20)
Note: This blog was originally written for https://sevenfoodprocessing.wordpress.com