In every tradition of herbal medicine around the world, herbalists learn to identify a plant’s medicine through its taste.
Different cultures describe tastes in unique ways. For example, some cultures believe the sweet taste as bland (image telling that to a kid in a candy store!). Some cultures have a more refined sense of taste than others. These cultures believe good cooking triggers a mélanges of the five primary tastes on the tongue: bitter, sweet, sour, pungent and umami.
Herbalists are not interested in the pleasure of taste. They are interested in the chemistry of taste. The plant chemicals with specific flavours translate into physiological response in the body. Take, for example, the umami taste.
The word umami comes from the Japanese language and is used to describe a meaty or savoury taste. A Japanese professor named Kikunae Ikeda in 1906 initially proposed an official classification of this particular taste. In 1985, the scientific community acknowledged umami as the imprint glutamates and nucleotides leave on the tongue.
Glutamate is an amino acid commonly present in proteins. Within the body, glutamate performs many tasks, including protein synthesis, ammonia detoxification and guiding learning processes in the brain.
Nucleotides make up DNA and are present in every cell of every living thing on this planet. It is in the DNA where the history of life on this planet is recorded.
DNA is the imprint of our ancestors. When the tongue tastes nucleotides, it is sampling the DNA present in the food. Perhaps as the tongue becomes familiar with the nucleotides contained in the umami taste, it gains knowledge about the genetic history of the food it is eating.
Although the human body, makes its own nucleotides, it also uses food sources of nucleotides to build and repair cells that are used up quickly. These include cells that make up the gut wall and the immune system.
Nettle (urticaria diaocia) is a plant with an umami taste.
Here are just a few ways that herbalist use nettle in the apothecary: to relieve pain and stiffness in joints, quiet down allergic reactions, reduce childhood eczema, rebuild of atrophied muscles, moderate blood sugars and build blood, relieve anemia, heal the gut wall, slow the bleeding from fibroids and control postpartum hemorrhage.
These actions do not include nettle’s invaluable nutritive support in pregnancy or in recovery from chronic disease.
Nettle can do all this because it provides the body with essential minerals and proteins needed to strengthen its resistance to disease, rebuild tissue, and improve the elimination of waste. Although frequently used in cleansing formulas, nettle is essentially a herb that rebuilds and restores the body’s natural vitality. Being that up to 40 per cent of its dry weight is protein, nettle has an umami taste.
Considering the fact that DNA is active in every cell of the body and nettle is a rich source of nucleotides, it is easy to understand how nettle can relieve the stress of illness on the body and free up the body’s resources to speed the healing process along.
Adequate protein is essential for vigorous health. Many estimates suggest that the diet of a healthy person should be approximately 30% protein. Protein has an important role in building the messengers the immune system uses to direct its fights against infection and other illness. Antibodies are made from protein. Hormones are made from protein and essential fatty acids. It is well known that when a woman is severely malnourished her moon cycle fades. Digestive enzymes are made with protein, and blood and muscles are built from protein.
Simply put, nettle’s high protein content supports the body in its return to health. That is not even mentioning the chlorophyll or flavonoids this healing plant offers, nor its profound effect on quieting down the histamine response when chronic inflammation causes debilitating pain in the body.
A little secret about nettles — if there is a lack of protein in the diet, there are frequently cravings for simple carbohydrates. Drink nettle tea throughout the day and the cravings will vanish. Nettle’s high protein content also helps balance blood sugars.
Next time the earthy umami taste passes over your tongue, let it linger, allowing the body to decode the deep nourishment coming down the gullet.
Herbs for Life is written by Abrah Arneson, a local clinical herbalist. It is intended for information purposes only. Readers with a specific medical problem should consult a doctor. For more information, visit www.abraherbalist.ca. Arneson can be reached www.abraherbs.com.