The poisonous healers of nature
What's staple food can also be toxic. In nature, dosage and usage are key
The adage goes that one man’s meat is another man’s poison. In today’s world, meat is actually considered poison, along with bread, sugar, and, until recently, even fat. But no food is entirely good or bad—it all depends on the dosage.
Something good for us can be toxic when consumed in large quantities. Even green tea, which contains caffeine, causes side effects such as sleep problems, headaches, tremors, heartburn and confusion when taken in excess. Unbeknownst to us, every food, even the healthiest, contains potent ingredients that can be considered poisons.
In fact, the problem today, as one nutritionist told me, is over-supplementation. When something works for us, we tend to overuse and abuse it.
Sometimes, however, the poison itself can be the benefit. Take neem, revered for its medicinal properties. We use it as an insecticide by placing it in trunks of old clothes. It’s because of this insecticidal quality that it has been banned for consumption in several countries. But in Ayurveda it’s used in cases of eczema and psoriasis, where it is said to help purify the blood. It has to be used with care, however. Because it has strong antimicrobial properties, it cannot be taken continuously.
Under the radar
“In India, we look at plants as a whole. So it’s not right to just separate the insecticidal quality of neem. We’ve been using it as a medicine, eating it in salads, and even cooked as a sabzi," says Salila Tiwari, a Delhi-based naturopathic doctor.
Traditionally, she explains, we have managed to incorporate medicinal foods into our daily diet. “Look at turmeric, for instance, we don’t need it for its taste, but we have known its healing properties and had incorporated it since time immemorial into our diet."
The same goes for mustard oil; according to a Times Of India report, it was banned in the US, European Union and Canada in 2012. It’s considered toxic because of high doses of erucic acid, which, in animal studies, appears to affect heart health. In Kashmir and Bengal, however, it is the staple oil. It has been consumed for years and is in fact celebrated for its many uses, including cardiac benefits.
“Ayurveda has recommended using visha or poisons in vata disorders such as paralysis and issues related to the mind and spine," says Jyotsana Makker, founder of Tanmatra Ayurveda, in Gurugram, adjacent to Delhi, and consultant to Kama Ayurveda. “What is most important is the dose, how to use it, and how it is combined with other powders." For mustard oil, she explains, the boiling point of erucic acid is 381.5 degrees Celsius, after which it breaks down. “Traditionally, we always burn mustard oil and use it." She also gives the example of ghee and honey. “In Ayurveda, if honey and ghee are consumed together in equal amounts, it’s poisonous, but separately they’re so therapeutic."
In other words, almost everything can be therapeutic, you must know how to use it correctly.
Take bitter apricot, the staple of the Hunzas, some of the longest-living people on the planet. It is said they stayed cancer-free, generation after generation, because of the amygdalin (also called laetrile or vitamin B17) in the seeds. The internet throws up many claims that consuming these seeds cures cancer, but research is inconclusive. The amygdalin contains two potent compounds, one of them cyanide, which, empirical evidence suggests, kills cancer cells. However, cyanide in large quantities can be fatal. So while amygdalin was used as a cancer treatment in the 1920s in the US, it has been banned as a treatment since the 1970s.
So whom should you believe? Modern science or traditional wisdom?
The poison factor
“We look at herbal medicine as a spectrum—at one end is food and at the other end is medicine," says Bevin Clare, clinical herbalist, nutritionist, and professor of clinical herbalism at the Maryland University of Integrative Health, US. She explains that some of the foods could be gentle and nourishing; then there are extremely health-giving vegetables that might have some toxic elements to them. “Things that profoundly affect the body, particularly alkaloids in vegetables, have medicinal benefits, but in the high dosage they can be poisonous." So it isn’t just about the poison, it is about the dose.
“Almost everything that we eat as plants has a poisonous component," says Clare. She gives the example of solanine, a glycoalkaloid poison found in potatoes, tomatoes and eggplants; cyanide, present also in apples and sour cherries; and lectins in lentils or beans. “So everything we eat has a balance of what’s good for us, and some things, in very large doses, that can be bad for us—that’s just how nature works. She says one of the reasons this happens is because these plants have to protect themselves against pests. “If they just taste delicious, they don’t protect themselves very well."
Clare doesn’t like to use the word poison—she says some plants have components that are strongly, biologically active, and those things in larger doses could be harmful. She gives the example of aromatic spices that contain a number of compounds that are potentially poisonous, though cooking with them in small doses can be therapeutic. “Many things that we may consider poison in very small doses nudge the body to react and respond."
Clare says that sometimes plants stimulate a bit of immune response by almost challenging or potentially irritating the immune system. “Then the immune system responds by up-regulating a number of immune factors, which in turn makes it at that point stronger and more vigilant and more aware of what’s happening." But it all has to do with the dose, duration and frequency.
“Before we had pharmaceutical medicines, they were actually very useful," says Clare. She explains that plants that are pure poison deaden the nervous system, which could be a consideration if you’re in excruciating pain, especially towards the end of life. “You could even make an argument of opiates (that come from opium), a very important medicine, but they’re highly addictive and very toxic for the body." These days, highly poisonous plants, are only used in pharmacy, where they can be controlled, and not in naturopathy or herbal medicine.
Two sides of a coin
“So many of our traditional healers can have toxic elements," says Munmun Ganeriwal, a Mumbai-based nutritionist and fitness consultant, at Yuktahaar, a diet, fitness and lifestyle intervention centre. She gives the example of aloe vera. “Recent research on cancer has classified it as a possible human carcinogen." But traditionally we use it to resolve digestive issues, and clear the complexion. “If you boil the pulp of aloe vera with milk, it can be taken as an energy booster, and if you mix pure turmeric with milk and aloe, it relieves painful, swollen joints." She too warns that taken beyond the prescribed dosage, it can cause diarrhoea at the very least.
Amla, another natural healer, is used traditionally to decrease heat in the body characterized by burning eyes and feet, premature greying and a general burning sensation. “But because of its cooling properties, it shouldn’t be used in cough, cold, by those who have dry skin or painful joints." Then there’s mulethi (licorice, or yashti madhu)—great for colds, coughs, muscle spasms and endurance, but it contains GZA, or glycyrrhizic acid, that can be toxic. “The key word again is dosage—if consumed in more than the right dosage (2mg per kilogram of body weight), it could cause health complications, including high blood pressure or hypokalemia, where the potassium levels are dangerously low."
“I wouldn’t even consider sugar as poison—it is being vilified just the way we disreputed fats for 40 years, and now everyone is talking about them being healthy," says Ganeriwal.
It’s up to you to create the balance.
Choose unrefined or sulphur-less sugar at the very least; if you drink milk, buy it from a sustainable farm; find out about the correct dosage of herbs, ask the right questions from naturopaths and doctors. Make an effort to know more about what is best for you, eat seasonal and local, and don’t OD on the superfoods