My panacea for all ails - Herbal Health

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Tuesday, 5 February 2013

My panacea for all ails

Winter sniffles in my family are usually addressed with more natural remedies that include herbs and spices rather than a heavy reliance on OTC medicines and conventional drugs treatments. Two of the key herbs in my repertoire of strategies in tackling the run-of-the-mill colds and coughs include plants that are common ingredients in tradition Indian cuisine: tamarind and asafoetida. So what is so special about these ingredients?

Tamarind (Tamarindus indica)
Also referred to as the Indian date, the plant is a tree that is native to Africa and now cultivated and widely distributed in other regions of the continent and other parts of the world. It is a substantial tree with heavy drooping branches and dense foliage. During each season, the tree produces irregularly shaped curved pods in abundance all along its branches. Each pod has a thick outer shell that encases a deep brown sticky pulp enveloping 2-10 hard brown coloured seeds. It is the pods that are extensively used in cuisines around the world and it is the most widely used condiment spice in South Asian cuisine. Fresh tamarind pods are available in late spring and early summer . However, several different forms of processed tamarind can be bought in specialists stores and markets such as compressed tamarind blocks, ready-to-use slice, paste concentrates and tamarind balls etc…

Health Benefits of Tamarind
  • a multi-nutrient as it contains several minerals, vitamins and dietary fibre along with certain essential volatile chemical compounds known to be beneficial to health
  • its sticky pulp is a rich source of non-starch polysaccharide (NSP) such as gums, mucilage, hemicellulose, pectin and tannins. Being a good source of dietary fibre, it helps in digestive function through regular bowel movements and helps maintain healthy levels of cholesterol by binding to the ‘bad’ form of it (LDL-cholesterol) and removing it from the body
  • it is rich in tartaric acid, a powerful antioxidant (E334) thus protecting the body from harmful free radicals. The tartaric acid also gives tamarind its distinctive sour taste
  • its numerous medicinal properties can be attributed to the many volatile phytochemicals in it such as limonene, geraniol, safrole, cinnamic acid, methyl salicylate, pyrazine and alkylthiazoles (digestive uses: carminative, laxative, addresses bile disorders; antimicrobial function: fever, skin cleanser and purifier/tonic for the blood).
Tamarind has an exceptional taste and is widely used in all types of cuisine all over the world. Its medicinal uses is part based on tradition particualrly in more remote parts of the world which has had to rely on herbal remedies due to lack of provision in conventional medicine and surgery:
  • the leaves have astringent and antiseptic properties therefore a decoction of them (where the leaves are boiled and the liquid mixture is consumed), is effective at killing intestinal worms in children. A tea made from tamarind leaves is used to reduce the fever caused by malaria.
  • the juice of the tamarind flowers is used to treat piles
  • tamarind pulp relieves many digestive complaints especially flatulence, indigestion and vomiting. The bark is also used to relieve abdominal pain due to flatulence
  • tamarind water used as a gargle is effective in relieving sore throats
  • tamarind pulp prevents sunstroke
  • the polysaccharides of the tamarind increases resistance to infection by stimulating and boosting the immune systen
  • a paste made from the seeds and applied as a poultice at the site of a scorpion bite extracts the poison and is an effective anti-venom
  • the juice of the tamarind can be used as an antidote to intoxications from drugs such as opium or alcohol
  • effective in fluorosis (fluoride poisoning) by removing fluoride ions from the body
The culinary uses of tamarind are just as many ranging from flavouring soups, broths and curries (especially fish and lentil dishes), it is a key ingredient of worcestershire and HP sauce. Of course, it is widely used in numerous other condiments (jams, pickes, sauces, relishes, pickles) and beverages.

Asafoetida (Ferula asafoetida)
This plant is a perennial herb also known as devil’s dung, giant fennel, stinking gum or hing. Its name is a mixture of its Persian and Latin meanings: aza (Persian) meaning resin and foetidus (Latin) meaning stinking. True to its name asafoetida has a very strong and pungent smell. It is the dried gum in powdered form, obtained from the tap root of various species of Ferula that is sold and used. Despite its powerful aroma, upon cooking, asafoetida adds a subtle flavour to dishes (a bit like the flavour of onions) when cooked with other spices. It is native to the middle east and it is not harvested until it is 4 years old. It is a widespread herb/spice in Indian cuisine added in minute quantities directly to cooking oil or the cooking liquid.
The health benefts of asafoetida is attributed to its numerous medicinal properties which include it  being a carminative, possessing antimicrobial, anti-inflammatory, laxative, expectorant, antispasmodic properties as well as being an antioxidant. Its many uses include the following:
  • digestive disorders: such as abdominal bloating and indigestion due to flatulence, colic, stomach spasms, excess acidity and poor digestion
  • respiratory disorders: asthma, bronchitis and whooping cough
  • anti-inflammatory and antioxidant: various stomach-related disorders and cholera
  • antimicrobial: intestinal worms, flu, colds and in combination with lemon juice, can be useful in alleviating the pain of toothache by reducing inflammation.
  • hysteria: physical and emotional symtoms associated with mood swings and depression. Calms hysteria and epilepsy (thought to be due to its smell which resembles that of sulphur)
  • reproductive symtoms in women: such as menstrual cramps and pain
Other health benefits has included it being an antidote to opium and therefore considered in cases of opium addiction. It is also thought to have sedative properties and therefore considered useful in hypertension (as it will lower blood pressure). However, there is no empirical evidence to confirm these uses.

Recipe for Rasam
The word rasam originates from the Sanskrit word 'rasa’ meaning juice or one that is traditionally made with tamarind or tomato juice. It is eaten with rice or separately as a soup, however, given its abundance in Indian cuisine, there are many versions and variations for its use. I personally use it as a remedy for the common cold and it is easy to see why it is so effective given the number of additional herbs and spices that are used in its preparation - it can be made into a mighty powerful concoction and a great remedy for this common ailment at this time of year.

coriander seeds - 4 heaped TBLSs
black peppercorns - 1 tsp (or 1.5 tsp)
cumin seeds (1 tsp)
garlic - 4 large cloves
ginger (1 in piece)
green chilli (1 green)
onion - small piece about a ¼ of a whole onion
asafoetida - ½ tsp
tamarind - 1 dessertspoon of the compressed block
lemon juice - juice of ¼ lemon
salt - to taste

  1. crush the following: coriander (not fully), pepper, cumin (gently), garlic & ginger (do not pulp!), onion (tap gently)
  2. slit the chilli
  3. soak the tamarind in a little water and add to the crushed spices & chilli
  4. add 3-4 pints of water and bring to the boil
  5. add salt and boil for 1-2 mins
  6. add asafoetida and 1 cup of water
  7. close the fire, and let the mixture cool for a few minutes
  8. add the lemon juice and leave to marinade
How to serve:
This rasam mixture can be drunk on its own (dilute with a little water if it is too powerful to be taken neat!). It is best to take it hot when you have a cold - it can be a soothing remedy. Alternatively, it can be added to spicy curries and rice dishes as an additional flavouring or simply taken with plain boiled rice as a comfort food if tired and debilitated as it will provide starch as energy and along with the powerful effects of the spices to combat any infection/illness.

As with all homemade remedies, consider possible interactions with current medication and always seek the advice of a qualified and registered medical herbalist before self-medicating. If in doubt about your conventional treatments and herbal remedies, consult your doctor. Always consider the correct quantities and dosages of homemade remedies and never exceed the recommended dosages as taking more does not translate to better as often this leads to side effects and/or adverse effects.

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