By Annie George
It is typical to find ulam(vegetables, fruits or herbs eaten raw) in a Malay meal, consisting of ulam raja, pucukpaku, kesum, pegaga and petai, to name a few.The herbs used in ulam are also used to make nasikerabu or nasiulam, and other dishes. Their contribution to the colour and taste of Malaysian cuisine aside, there has been recent evidence pointing to the fact that some of these herbs are high in antioxidants and possess health-promoting properties, and have been used traditionally to treat diabetes and high blood pressure.
Kesum (Persicaria minor, synPolygonum minus),used as a flavouring in laksa due to its peppery flavour, is among the herbs found to have high levels of antioxidants. Antioxidants are important in neutralising the damaging effects of free radicals by reducing oxidative stress, which can otherwise cause cell damage.Oxidative stress is one of the culprits that speed up ageingand age-related diseases such asneurodenegeration, inflammation that cause osteoarthritis, cardiovascular disease and compromised immunity.
Scientific investigation of kesumhas demonstrated the ability of the herb to protect living cells against damage from oxidative stress. It was also shown to inhibit acetylcholinesterase activity whereby the enzyme acetylcholinesterase metabolisesacetylcholine, a neurotransmitter in the brain related to learning and memory. Inhibition of acetylcholinesterase is presently the most accepted and recognised therapeutic marker for the development of memory-improving drugs. Herbal plants with acetylcholinesterase inhibitory activity will open new possibilities for improving cognition and, therefore, memory.
ProfessorSuzanaShahar of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia conducted a clinical trialon middle-aged populations, with one group taking an extract of kesum daily and the other, a placebo. The subjects were given a series of psychological and intelligence tests at the commencement of the study, after three weeks and after six weeks. The group receiving kesum extract scored higher in overall good mood, short-term memory and intelligence quotient. It was found that several parameters of cognitive function improved. This 2015 study, reported in the journal Clinical Interventions in Aging, has piqued interest in the popular herb.
Among those who have shown clear interest is ethnobotanist Chris Kilham, dubbed the “Medicine Hunter”, who was in Malaysia early this year to gain a better understanding of the herb. In a recent write-up on this experience in the American Botanical Council website, Kilham notes that kesum is also known as pygmy smartweed andhas been linked to several highly effective health-benefiting properties. Published chemical analyses and in-vitro pharmacological studies, he says, suggest that kesum leaves have antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, antiviraland cytoprotective properties. And the leaves are known to contain an array of antioxidant compounds.
In addition to meeting up with traditional healer Datin Sharifah Anisah, founder of Nona Roguy,who observes that the herb has been traditionally consumed as food for health and beauty, Kilham also spoke to staff at the Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), who shared the latest developments on kesum. He understands that FRIM is developing two kesum-based health product concepts – oneis a seasoning comprising a mixture of dried kesum leaves and sea salt, while the other is an “antioxidant digestive beverage”.
Another Malaysian plant Kilham is familiar with is Tongkat Ali (Eurycomalongifolia), which he has worked on for more than 10 years. His inclusion of Tongkat Ali in his list of “Top 10 Hot Plants”for vitality, along with herbs like ginseng and maca, has contributed to its popularity in the US and spurred international curiosity. An apparent result of this is a long list of clinical studies that have proved the root’s efficacy in boosting not only energy and strength, but also immunity. Today, interest in Tongkat Ali has well moved beyond its aphrodisiac effects.
Malaysians are subject to many viral-borne diseases and the most alarming one at the moment is dengue. It causes morbidity and mortality, and while medication is limited, robust immune systems protect the body from succumbing totally to the disease. Astudy on stressed but healthy subjects, conducted by Orthomedico Inc, Japan, demonstratednaive T-cells and lymphocytes incrementswith Tongkat Ali supplementation, thus enabling the warding off of new diseases in stressed populations typically prone to infections.
In a separate study conducted at the Tropical Infectious Disease Research and Education Centre, Department of Medical Microbiology, Faculty of Medicine, University of Malaya, the researchers haveshown that Tongkat Ali has the ability to reduce the replications of four different serotypes of the dengue virus.This finding is novel and is currently being patented for anti-viral properties.
While these are some of the latest findings onTongkat Ali, earlier research has shown it to be effective in increasing energy and improving mood,especially in stressed subjects, and also in increasing physical strength and the quality of life in ageing populations, proving that this plant is one to be reckoned with.
In 2010, scientist Dr Jay Udani of Medicus Research LLCin the US conducted a clinical study on the improvement of memory using a combination of seven herbs found in Malaysia, namely sireh (Piper betle), turmeric (Curcuma longa), pegaga (Centellaasiatica), curry leaf (Murrayakoenigii), selasih (Ocimumbasilicum), kesum (Polygonum minus) and ulam raja (Cosmos caudatus). A significant improvement in executive functioning, cognitive flexibility, reaction time and working memory in as little as four hours after ingestion was observed when subjects consumed this combination product. The herbs in the combination have neurostimulatoryas well as blood circulation and memory enhancing propertieswhich led to an improvement in a broad spectrum of cognition.
Another herb commonly used is misaikucing (Orthosiphonstamineus ), also known as Java tea. It is taken as a decoction that is able to rid one of kidney stones and has been clinically tested to reduce high blood pressure. Recently it Misaikucing contains many flavonoids and polyphenols, which protect the cells and are also known to be highly antioxidative.
Likewise, Kacip Fatimah(Labisiapumila) has been taken traditionally for women’s health, especially to regain one’s figure and energy in the post-partum period. Recent clinical studies conducted in KGK Science, Canada, and Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) by ProfessorDr Nik Hazlina Nik Hussainand Associate Professor Dr Norhayati Mohd Noor from the USMSchool of Medical Scienceshave discovered that women on Kacip Fatimah are calmer, get back into shape fasteras a result of reduced bloatedness and have an improved quality of life.
Another common traditional herb is dukung anak. (Scientifically known as Phyllanthus, ithas a number of species varieties,with Pamarus, Pniruri, Purinariaand Pdebilis among the common varietiesfound in Malaysia and other Asian countries.)It has liver protective effects and has been used in patients with hepatitis to normalise liver enzymes and liver health. It is also known to protect against alcohol toxification – alcoholic steatosis (reversible) and alcoholic steatohepatitis, both steps in the path toward alcoholic liver disease.
As herbs and medicinal plants are made up of many different compounds that may be affected by climate, soil conditions and time to reach maturity, one needs to take consideration to use natural products that are produced, to consistently contain the active compounds ie. ensure it is standardized when sold in the more commercial format of supplements. Many of these herbs are already commercially available as supplements, includingTongkatAli, KacipFatimah, misaikucing, kesum and dukunganak. The sale of herbal/traditional supplements in Malaysia has grown from RM424 million in 2010 to RM524 million in 2015 (Euromonitor, 2015). Dietary supplements registered a 7% increase in current value salesin 2015, representing the fastest growth rate of the review period as more Malaysians embraced the habit of taking supplements to improve health and wellness. Combination dietary supplementsfor example a product of Evening Primrose Oil + Fish Oil containing two types of supplements in one capsule, remained highly popular with retail value sales of RM262 million in 2015. Combination herbal/traditional dietary supplementssuch as those containing ginseng and multivitamins/minerals registered retail value sales of RM134 million.
Some clarification on the sale figures, please. Are
The performance of combination herbal/traditional dietary supplements continued to improve as Malaysians value the high degree of convenience provided by these products. The latest trends are seeing a shift of consumer preference to natural therapy for health and wellness with a high degree of convenience. With the proven benefits of its local herbs, Malaysia has much to offer the world in this market segment.
Perhaps Kilham puts it best when talking about the benefits of kesum in a February segment of Fox News’ Health Talk: “What has been ‘kitchen medicine’ … is also transitioning, thanks to pharmaceutical technology, into forms that, if you are not eating southeast Asian food, you can also enjoy as a supplement.”