Ervas aromáticas

ALECRIM

Uma erva – Uma história

Quando se fala de doenças autoimunes ficamos com a ideia que o nosso sistema imunitário por qualquer razão ‘avariou’ e, tal como um vírus de computador, começa a atacar o próprio corpo causando lesões irreparáveis.

Se temos o azar de contrair uma destas doenças, para evitar que se agravem os sintomas, a única coisa a fazer é seguir uma dieta adequada à situação: dependendo dos casos aconselham-nos a evitar gorduras, fritos, comidas picantes, lacticínios, carne…, enfim, temos de seguir à risca um role de sugestões que muitas vezes também incluem o uso de protetores solares, para evitar a exposição aos raios ultravioletas, e mesmo assim, por descargo de consciência, o melhor é mesmo andar sempre na sombra.

Já na Idade Média quando na Europa assolava a peste negra, não havia nada a fazer senão rezar e esperar ser um dos sobreviventes desta doença fatal que dizimou aldeias inteiras, não poupando ricos nem pobres. Assim que se ouvia um espirro,  espalhava-se o pânico e, à pressa, encomendava-se aquela alma a Deus. A expressão “santinho!”, ainda hoje usada, tem origem nesta época conturbada da nossa história.

No entanto, há sempre quem não se conforme e tente dar a volta à situação, nem que seja por simples oportunismo. Nesta época, um grupo de quatro ladrões, levados pela cobiça aos bens alheios, não hesitou em saquear as casas dos moribundos sem  serem importunados pelos proprietários das habitações que, quando confrontados com quatro figuras vestidas de preto e de cara tapada, pensavam tratar-se da morte que os vinha buscar. Porém, também eles, corriam o risco de serem infetados. Contra todas as probabilidades, o facto é que ganharam imunidade a esta praga e continuaram a roubar impunemente até um dia, numa emboscada, serem capturados. Determinados a descobrir o segredo dos ladrões contra a peste negra as autoridades locais não hesitaram em torturá-los até conseguirem desvendar o mistério. Os ladrões,  usavam um óleo aromatizado com ervas  que aplicavam nas narinas, e no tecido com que tapavam a boca, conseguindo assim evitar o contágio. 

 

IMG_20190219_151831O óleo dos quatro ladrões

Hoje em dia encontram-se várias receitas de óleos dos ‘quatro ladrões’, como forma de prevenir e reduzir infeções. Estas receitas variam muito na sua composição, pois não se sabe ao certo qual a combinação de ervas usadas pelos ladrões. Uma delas, no entanto, é comum a todas as receitas – o ALECRIM. Não é por acaso que ainda hoje, na ilha da Madeira, esta erva é considerada uma planta protetora e com esse propósito encontra-se no jardim de muitos madeirenses.O alecrim produz os ácidos rosmarinico, ursólico e carnósico, componentes com grande poder bactericida, que atuam sobretudo como prevenção inibindo o crescimento e disseminação de bactérias. Como a peste bubónica é causada por uma bactéria, a Yersinia pestis, transmitida pelas pulgas dos ratos, é provável que o alecrim tenha tido uma ação importante na prevenção desta doença. 

Tendo em consideração o sucesso destes quatro ladrões em superar uma maleita que dizimou uma boa parte da população europeia na época, porque não seguir-lhes o exemplo e enfrentarmos problemas de saúde, que hoje são ainda crónicos até que alguém consiga ultrapassar a barreira da imunodeficiência?

No mundo infinito das ervas aromáticas encontra-se com certeza a solução para muitos destes problemas tendo em consideração que as ervas aromáticas e especiarias são sobretudo auxiliares do nosso sistema imunitário, fortalecendo-o.

 
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Herbs

Madeira traditional medicine Fighting Helicobacter pylori

I am of the opinion that in the traditional medicine of Madeira the most relevant knowledge is the one people share among their friends and acquaintances, as a result of their personal experiences in fighting diseases. They share herbal formulas to deal with all sorts of illnesses, from a mild flu to more serious challenges such as asthma, bronchitis, hypertension or even cancer. In a casual conversation about health, people are very willing to tell how they recovered from a disease using herbal treatments, especially when prescribed medicine failed.

This sharing was what helped me deal with a chronic gastritis that troubled me for years. Many times I had symptoms of vomiting, diarrhoea, weakness and fainting, that forced me to stay in bed for several days. The antacids, prescribed by the doctor, and the diet I was told to follow, didn’t prevent these symptoms from recurring from time to time.

As these symptoms recurred, my father advised me to try an herbal tea, made with dried oregano leaves. He had a friend who cured a similar problem with this herb. At first I didn’t believe it could help me, and I paid no attention to his advice. He insisted many times, but I was determined to ignore his suggestion, until one day, in the evening, when the pain in my stomach started to bother me again. I knew, immediately, the inflammation was back.

So this time, I decided to try the herbal tea my father recommended. It certainly wouldn’t do any harm! I prepared a herbal tea with dried oregano and drank it, without any expectations. To my surprise, it took no longer than 15 minutes to feel relief from the pain. One hour later, I was pain free. From then on, the first thing I did as soon as I felt the first symptoms of a stomach pain, was to drink a cup of oregano tea, and never again I had to stay in bed, struggling with the crippling symptoms I used to feel before.

This experience opened my eyes to the world of herbal medicine, with special focus in culinary herbs and spices. Curiosity made me search for information about the medicinal properties of oregano. Luckily, the internet provides us with so much up-to-date information on the scientific research of medicinal herbs. The oil that gives oregano the characteristic sweet peppery warm flavour is carvacrol, the main chemical component of this herb, with analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties. These properties are especially effective against inflammations caused by bacteria such as H. pilory a bacteria that colonizes the stomach.

Carvacrol is also the main oil found in many other plants not related to wild oregano (Origanum vulgare): Mexican oregano (Lippia graveolens) and Cuban oregano (Plectranthus amboinicus) are herbs used in South America for both cooking and the same medicinal uses as wild oregano.

This experience made me realize that using the right seasoning could be an important tool to relieve symptoms of a health condition and, why not, to achieve complete recovery. The more I studied herbs and spices, and how they interfere with the metabolization of food, the more convinced I got that by using the right seasonings we could cure a disease.

Having that in mind a few years later, after learning that capsaicin, the substance that gives heat to chillies, could kill the bacteria H. Pylori, I decided to give it a try. Capsaicin mimics the action of stomach acid, a necessary factor to induce the production of mucins, a mucus-like substance that protects the stomach wall from the acid and damage of bacteria. In addition, capsaicin exposes the bacteria to the immune system by inhibiting catalase, an enzyme H. pylori uses to escape the action of the immune system.  Rocoto was the chilli I chose, for I had found out that in South America this chilli is used to cure stomach ulcers.

By using chilli as a seasoning in small amounts, it didn’t take long until I could digest food more easily and chilli, definitely, makes food more flavourful and stimulating. After a period of one month, I made exams for H. pylori antibodies that clearly showed that the immune system was succeeding in killing the bacteria.

Many years have passed and never again I had to deal with inflammation in my stomach. But chilli is still one of the spices I enjoy the most in my meals.

 

References:

Herbs

The multiple uses of Chilli Pepper

chilli 10
Capsicum frutescens

Piri-piri pepper brings memories from my childhood. This chilli was the most popular in Madeira in older times; besides being a favourite seasoning for roasted chicken, chillies had another use: parents rubbed it on the fingernails of their children to dissuade them from biting their nails. Today a special varnish with a bitter taste is used instead.

Thank God I escaped this punishment. I never had that compulsion!

IMG_1279 (2)
Bishop’s crown

There are five domesticated chilli species, which gave origin to the many varieties and cultivars we find today in the market.

Capsicum frutescens – Includes Malagueta, Tabasco and Piri-piri.

Capsicum baccatum – Includes Bishop’s crown, Aji amarillo (Lemon drop)

Capsicum pubescens – Includes my favourite chilli, Rocoto.

Capsicum annuum – Includes the mildest and most moderated of all chillies such as bell pepper, jalapeno and cayenne.

Capsicum chinense – Is the species with the hottest peppers – Habanero, Scotch bonnet and Naga

capsicum annuum bolivian rainbow 6
Chinese five colours

It is mostly their diversity in colours, shapes and heat intensity that seduces me.

What use is a herb garden without these magnific plants? Their flashy, red, yellow, brown, purple or orange colours, threaten anyone who dares to take a bite of their ‘flesh’.

Depending on the species, the heat intensity varies, from sweet to mild, to intensively hot. Bishop’s crown is the mildest of all, here the heat intensity is not the main goal, instead its fleshy succulent pulp is full of flavour and is a good choice for beginners who want to start exploring the world of spicy food.

Chillies produce capsaicin, the chemical that makes them hot. This compound protects plants from their enemies, namely herbivorous animals. Capsaicin causes a sensation that imitates pain from burning, as a protection. Any herbivorous will avoid repeating such an experience. Birds, however, don’t feel the heat from chillies and these fruits are even one of their preferred foods. Although it looks like a failure, this is actually very clever. Birds are the ones that spread chilli seeds to far away places. This strategy allows chillies to colonize new places in the world.

As a gardener it’s not uncommon to get bitten by insects. The very first thing I do when that happens is to pick up a chilli pepper and rub its inside on the bite. It is a fact that we can’t feel itching and pain at the same time: we either feel one or the other. Capsaicin in chillies is a first aid remedy to treat the infection. It reduces the swelling and stops the itching, thus  the  annoying and continuous scratching of the skin is prevented.

Eating chillies can become addictive and some people are always searching for the hottest chilli that would ‘blow their heads off’. The hotter the better!  There are chilli-eating contests with the sole goal of  finding who can endure the hottest pepper. The reason why these people enjoy eating chillies so much is because capsaicin, in chillies, triggers the release of the pain killer endorphins from the brain, giving a sensation of satisfaction, excitement, happiness and euphoria.

rocoto4
Stuffed Rocoto chilli

In some tropical countries, where sometimes food is scarce, chilli is a favourite spice, for it reduces hunger spikes and gives a faster feeling of satiety. The preference for chillies as a condiment in these countries also serves another purpose: it has a thermogenic activity, cooling the body in the days of more intense heat.

As a condiment, chilli has the ability to change the intensity of flavours in food: With sweets, chilli reduces the perception of sweetness and food seems to have less sugar.  On the other hand, sugar reduces the heat intensity of chilli. We get first a sensation of burning that dissipates very fast.  A good way to combine these two sensations is by blending apple jelly with chilly, a recipe I have been perfecting over the years, and always a guaranteed success.  To prepare this recipe simply add chopped fresh chilli to a recipe of apple jelly. The sweet-spicy combination offers an unparalleled experience to the palate.

By contrast, when used with salt, chilli has an opposite effect: it intensifies saltiness to such a point that the amount of salt must be reduced. Using chilli as seasoning is a clever way to reduce the intake of salt.

rocoto
ROCOTO – Capsicum pubescens

Capsaicin in chillies is useful to reduce pain to treat injured muscles. Rubbing a lotion of capsaicin before doing exercises, intensifies exercise endurance, reduces fatigue and helps to heal from muscle injury much faster, without pain.

This  property helped me recover from a frozen shoulder (Adhesive capsulitis) – the most painful experience I have had in  my whole life. I prepared my own lotion by macerating a chopped rocotto chilli in alcohol. Every time I made the exercises my physiotherapist recommended, I rubbed the chilli lotion on my back.

In spite of all the benefits of chilli, we must be aware that capsain, in high concentrations, causes burning of the skin.  To be on the safe side, it is important to know how to eliminate it from the skin. The very first mistake people make is to rinse the skin with water, but that will only make things worse: water is a vehicle that helps to spread capsaicin even more. I learned from experience that a mixture of milk and sugar is the quickest and most effective way to remove capsaicin from the skin. Capsaicin spreads through the skin in several layers, that is why it is important to wash  the skin multiple times, until all layers are removed. Casein (a protein in milk) binds to capsaicin and removes it from the skin. Sugar reduces the perception of heat intensity. 

The euphoric feeling from eating chilli peppers is well described in the next poem. 

 

I Ate a Spicy Pepper
(author unknown)

I ate a spicy pepper
From my brother on a dare.
The pepper caught my head on fire
And burned off all my hair.

My mouth erupted lava
And my tongue began to melt.
My ears were shooting jets of steam.
At least that’s how they felt.

I ricocheted around the room.
I ran across the ceiling.
I dove right in the freezer
To relieve the burning feeling.

I drank a thousand soda pops
And chewed a ton of ice
To try to stop the scorching
Of that spicy pepper’s spice.

At last, the flames extinguished,
I admitted to my brother,
“That pepper was the best one yet.
May I please have another?”

References:

http://europepmc.org/articles/PMC3292293

 

Herbs, Uncategorized

MACELA – The Madeiran favourite chamomile

 

If you go for a stroll around the streets of Funchal, something very peculiar will catch your attention: in the streets near the market a few women, sitting on a doorstep, sell herbs in a basket to local people, usually for medicinal purposes. Chamomile, locally known as macela or marcela, is probably the most requested herb. The  question tourists  have most frequently asked me is: “What are those little yellow button-like flowers women are selling in the streets?”

camomila 5

MACELA or MARCELA

As far I can remember macela has been used in Madeira for nervousness, digestive complaints, and to lower high blood pressure. The tea is prepared by infusion of the flower heads and, according to tradition, the number of flower buds for a cup of tea must always be in odd numbers. Three flower buds are usually enough. A decoction of the flowers is also used as a hair rinse, by blonde girls, to make their hair lighter and shinier. The decoction has anti-inflammatory properties, very effective against bacteria. Without knowing the scientific facts, by intuition, local people have chosen macela to wash their eyes to clear inflammation.

In spite of being so popular in Madeira, macela is not so commonly known in the rest of the world, as are other chamomile plants. The species used in Madeira is a perennial plant with a specific characteristic that distinguishes it from the other chamomiles – its flower heads have no petals, they look like little yellow buttons.

 A quick search on the internet is enough to find information about chamomile, but  the variety we call macela is more difficult to find. In books about the flora of Madeira, macela is usually identified as Chamaemelum nobile, the botanical name for Roman Chamomile. However, Roman Chamomile has petals and is propagated by seeds, while macela has no petals and, as far as I know, its seeds are sterile. I only succeeded in propagating the plant from cuttings! This fact has been puzzling me for a few years – I wonder whether it is a different species.

I have found a similar species to macela – Golden Chamomile (Matricaria aurea),  native to Saudi Arabia, where it is known as ‘Babunaj’. It is one of the Arabian medicinal plants often used to treat digestive complaints, especially when the inflammation is caused by bacteria.

It is a fact that we have had a strong influence of the Arabian culture in Madeira, which is still noticeable in our cooking and folklore, and there is even a street called Rua da Mouraria (the Muslims street). Many Muslims came from North Africa  to Madeira to work on sugar cane plantations, an industry that made Madeira so prosperous in the past.  Our local medicine was most likely also influenced by Arabian medicine. In my opinion, our petal-less chamomile is probably an hybrid between Matricaria aurea and Chamaemelum nobile. This would certainly justify macela being a sterile plant.

The name macela refers to the apple like scent of the flower heads, since the Portuguese name for apple is ‘maçã’.

 Sometimes, instead of the popular macela flowers, another plant – English Mace (Achillea ageratum) is used for the same purposes. This plant produces similar but smaller flower heads, hence its name ‘dwarf macela’.

Matricaria chamomillas syn Matricaria recutita - german chamomile 23

Matricaria recutita

I believe our macela shares the same chemical components of the other two most important species – Matricaria recutita (German chamomile) and Chamaemelum nobile  (Roman Chamomile). Among the many chemical components of chamomile the flavonoid apigenin stands out. This chemical is one of the main reasons why chamomile is such a powerful medicinal plant.

Apigenin lowers the inflammation that precedes hypertension and affects the kidneys both as a diuretic and by making them work more efficiently. In addition, apigenin reduces pain and calms nervousness. This explains why macela is a favourite for local people in Madeira as a home medicine cure-all plant.

Other herbs  such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium), parsley (Petroselinum sativum) and celery (Apium graveolens) are also good sources of apigenin. Some people say they find immediate relief from kidney complaints by drinking a tea prepared with these other herbs.

Nevertheless, when using herbs rich in apigenin, we must take into consideration that this component inhibits the liver enzymes that detoxify certain medicines such as warfarin. Therefore, people taking blood thinner medication should lower the use of apigenin rich herbs.

The oil extracted from chamomile has a bluish colour due to chamazulene, a chemical compound used in massages to soothe skin inflammation. The oil penetrates deep into the skin, exerting its anti-inflammatory effect. The same oil is also extracted from other plants such as yarrow (Achillea millefolium) and tansy (Tanacetum anuum).

If you are in the process of choosing plants for your garden, don’t forget Chamomile! It is both a beautiful ornamental plant and a powerful medicinal herb. In addition it brings fragrance to your garden and is beneficial to the neighboring plants.

References:

 https://ntp.niehs.nih.gov/ntp/htdocs/chem_background/exsumpdf/apigenin_508.pdf

Herbs

HERBS AND TOBACCO ADDITION

My grandmother, on my father’s side, was a God-fearing woman. She had a prayer for every occasion, in the expectation God would save her a place in heaven. I still keep a notebook in which I wrote her daily prayers. An image that I’ve kept in my memory is of her digging out of her skirt pocket a little box, filled with rapé, the Portuguese word for snuff. Rapé comes from the French word ‘râper’, meaning scraped tobacco. She placed a pinch of snuff first in one nostril and then the other and inhaled it in one sitting. In her other hand she held a tissue she used to wipe her nose afterwards.

Today some people use snuffs as a means to gradually quit smoking, or to minimize secondhand smoke exposure.

Smoking never lured me. The first and only time I smoked a cigarette made me feel very uncomfortable. It irritated my throat, made me cough and the taste was very aggressive. That was an experience I certainly will never try again. On top of that, secondhand smoking always bothered me.

Mentha x piperitaNowadays, getting addicted to nicotine is much faster than before. Teenagers, when trying their first cigarette, will get addicted much quicker if the cigarette has menthol. Coughing is the main obstacle to discourage people from smoking. Menthol in cigarettes soothes the throat and relieves soreness making the act of smoking more appealing and satisfying. In addition, the fresh sensation of menthol makes people breath more deeply which further helps nicotine getting into the lungs, and for a longer period of time.

Menthol increases the harm of smoking cigarettes and enhances the cravings for nicotine.

The ‘buzzing’ effect in the brain is what smokers seek. If nicotine is eliminated quickly from the blood, smokers crave more and more cigarettes until they feel the pleasing ‘buzz’ once more. Prolonging the time nicotine stays in the blood is a means to getting more pleasure. Menthol slows the enzymes in the liver that break down nicotine which then stays in the blood longer. Here, again, menthol in cigarettes makes people enjoy smoking with a higher intensity.

People who get addicted to nicotine usually have many difficulties when  deciding to quit. The withdraw symptoms being their main obstacle. The rewarding effect that compels smokers to crave for cigarettes is due to the action of nicotine in the brain activating Mu opioid receptors (MORs). They feel a sensation of well being and their anxiety levels drop.

Some herbs and foods help reduce the withdraw symptoms.

 - Phyllanthus niruri 3Quebra-pedra – Phyllanthus niruri – is a herb much used in traditional Madeira medicine to treat several health conditions, in particular to eliminate kidney stones and prevent fatty liver. In Ayurveda medicine this is the herb of choice when treating hepatitis B. Ellagic acid and phyllanthin are the two main components in this plant.

As a substitute for nicotine, ellagic acid also activates MORs receptors in the brain with an anxiolytic effect. Scientific studies show that ellagic acid reduces the withdrawl symptoms and  helps people quit smoking. Besides quebra-pedra, ellagic acid is also found in fruits such as raspberries, walnuts, cranberries, strawberries and peaches.

When you decide to quit smoking don’t be surprised if your cravings for strawberries, walnuts or peaches heighten.

Bibliographic references

https://thelifesquare.com/how-long-does-nicotine-stay-in-your-system-guide-8574593/

https://www.uaeh.edu.mx/investigacion/producto.php?producto=5628