Many dishes can't exist without this vegetable and no curry will taste the same without it. It is well known that onions can provide the right balance to countless dishes. However, a lesser-known fact, about these pungent bulbs, is that they contain healing powers that can act as a blood thinner and relieve sore throats. Onions belong to the Allium plant family together with garlic and leek. The ones we eat, which are cultivated garden onions, are known as the Allium cepa. The onion is believed to have originated in Asia, though it is likely that onions may have been growing wild on every continent.
Traces of onion remains have been found in Bronze Age settlements dating back to 5000 BC. Our ancestors must have recognized the vegetable's durability and began growing onions for food in Egypt around 3500 BC, the same time that leeks and garlic were being cultivated. Other ancient civilizations in China, India, Greece and Rome also used and consumed onions. By The Middle Ages, onions, cabbages and beans were some of the staples of the European diet. Onions were historically used as a preventative medicine during epidemics of cholera and the plague. It has been mentioned, that the Roman Emperor, Nero, as a cure for colds, ate them. Its reputation has made onions a popular component in the diets of many countries.
Onions not only provide flavour, they provide health-promoting phytochemicals as well as nutrients. They are a good source of vitamin C, B6, potassium, dietary fibre and folic acid. They also contain calcium, iron and have a relatively high protein quality. Onions are also surprisingly high in beneficial polyphenols, which play an important role in preventing and reducing the progression of diabetes, cancer, and neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases. Polyphenols play an important role as a prebiotic, increasing the ratio of beneficial bacteria in your gut, prevents gastric ulcers and the growth of the ulcer-forming microorganism, such as Heliobacter Pylori.
Of all the healthy compounds contained in onions, there are two that stand out from the rest: quercetin and sulphide compounds. Both of these compounds have strong antioxidant properties, where they each have been shown to help neutralize the free radicals in the body, and protect the membranes of the body’s cells from damage. White onions contain very little quercetin, so it’s better to stick with the yellow and red varieties. Most health professionals recommend eating raw onions for maximum benefit, but the onion breath it leaves behind makes you think twice about indulging on them in their raw state. Cooking onions actually eliminates the pungent smell from the breath, makes them more versatile and doesn’t significantly reduce their potency. In fact, unlike sulphur compounds, quercetin can withstand the heat of cooking as long as it is a low heat. If you do enjoy eating raw onions here are ways to eliminate onion breath:
- Rinse mouth with equal parts of lemon juice and water;
- Chew a citrus peel to sweeten the breath;
- Eat a sprig or two of parsley, a natural breath sweetener.
Onions contain compounds such as alliin (an amino acid) as well as quercetin that appear to inhibit the growth of cancerous cells. It appears to have more of an effect on cancers of the breast, colon, ovarian, gastric, lung and bladder. Onions have also shown to lower the risk of several cancers, even when they are consumed in only moderate amounts. "Moderate" generally means 1-2 times per week, even though in some studies it has been used to mean up to 5-6 times per week. Colorectal cancer, laryngeal cancer, and ovarian cancer are the cancer types for which risk is reduced along with moderate amounts of onion. For other cancer types, however, moderate intake of onion has not been enough to show significant risk reduction. For these cancer types, including oesophageal cancer and cancers of the mouth, daily intake of onion is required before research results show significant risk reduction.
Onions contain phytochemicals known as disulfides, trisulphides, cepaene, and vinyl dithiins. These compounds have a variety of health-functional properties, including anticancer as well as antimicrobial activities and lowering blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also contains a unique sulphur molecule in onion, known as Onionin A; this is found in the bulb portion of the plant. This particular sulphur molecule has been shown to inhibit the activity of macrophages, specialized white blood cells that play a key role in our body's immune defence system, and one of their defence activities involves the triggering of large-scale inflammatory responses. While macrophage activity is typically a good thing, inhibition of their activity can sometimes be critical in getting chronic unwanted inflammation under control. Onion's antioxidants, including quercetin, also provide us with anti-inflammatory benefits. These antioxidants help prevent the oxidation of fatty acids in our body. When we have lower levels of oxidized fatty acids, our body produces fewer pro-inflammatory messaging molecules, and our level of inflammation is kept in check.
The strong smell of the onion and its relatives contain thioallyl compounds (an alliin). When cut or crushed, the alliin within the onion is converted by an enzymatic reaction into allicin, this reaction breaks down into sulphide compounds. Sulphide compounds are aromatic and this is what gives the onion, and all the plants in the onion family, their distinctive smell. The chopping action also causes the onion to release a volatile gas, which it does so as a defence mechanism for having its cells damaged. This stimulates nerves in the eye creating a stinging sensation. This stinging sensation provokes the tear glands to produce tears, which helps to dilute and flush out the volatile irritant.
Researchers have found that the more pungent onions exhibit strong anti-platelet activity. Platelet aggregation is associated with atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, heart attack and stroke. A study at the University of Wisconsin is determining the extent to which onion consumption and specific onion compounds affect the aggregation of blood platelets in people.
Alliums are antibacterial and anti-fungal, so they can help ward off colds and treat colds with sinus congestion that shifts from side to side in the head. Onions will relieve coughs that cause a ripping or tearing pain in the throat or a cough that is merely an irritating dry tickle. The watery and inflamed eyes due to sinus congestion and hay fever will be greatly relieved with onion. Onions will also relieve headaches, which are centred behind the forehead; and earache in children and adults; congestion in the nose; toothache, especially in the molar area; hoarseness and the early stages of laryngitis; abdominal colic in babies.
Human studies have shown that onion can help increase our bone density and may be of special benefit to women of menopausal age who are experiencing loss of bone density. In addition, there is evidence that women who have passed the age of menopause may be able to lower their risk of hip fracture through daily consumption of onions.
The chromium in onions assists in regulating blood sugar. The sulphur in onions helps lower blood sugar by triggering an increase in insulin production. One 2010 study in the journal Environmental Health Insights revealed that this might be especially helpful to people with diabetes. People with Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes who ate red onions showed lower glucose levels for up to four hours.
It appears that this common household vegetable seems to hold many hidden remedies for a whole host of conditions. Not only is this great in our salads but it also deserves its own place in our medicine cabinets. One thing is for sure, we all have an onion in our pantries, and if we are ever struck with an earache or a cough we can whip up a quick remedy to nip it straight in the bud. This would be one of the only times where you would be happy to shed a tear or two of relief.
Recipes for Health
- This onion cough syrup is prepared by chopping several large onions into a double boiler.
- Cover the onions with honey.
- Boil the water beneath the double boiler.
- Once the honey has begun to liquefy add about 2 tbsp of horehound herb, liquorice root or cherry bark or any combination of these herbs if available. These herbs will magnify the expectorant properties of the cough syrup.
- Cover and let this concoction simmer in the double boiler for 4 to 5 hours.
- Strain the liquid syrup from the herb; bottle, label and refrigerate.
- The cough syrup will last several weeks in the refrigerator.
Earaches and Ear Infections
- Take a medium sized onion and slice it in half.
- Bake the onion halves in the oven until it has become translucent.
- Cool the onion until the warmth of it can be tolerated on the sensitive area of the ear. (It is advisable to rub some olive oil on the ear and around the ear to prevent any skin reactions).
- Place the warm onions on both ears (when treating ears, always treat both at the same time) and wrap them onto the ear with a layer of plastic wrap, a bandage and secure this on the head with a nightcap.
- Garlic oil may also be placed in the ears before the onions are applied to fight infection.
- Slice onions and lightly sauté in olive oil until just translucent.
- Lay it out on the chest, cover with a plastic wrap with a bandage or cover with a towel.
- Keep warm with a hot water bottle. This will allow the expectoration action to relieve congestion of the lungs and bronchial tract.