Betel Leaf: The Botanical Treasure House of India
History of Betel Leaf
Betel leaf, scientifically known as Piper betel is the nature’s golden heart bestowed with a tremendous potential to prove itself as “Green medicine”. The use of this evergreen perennial plant has been referred to in ancient texts like Astanga Hradayam, Charaka and Sushruta Samhita (Ayurvedic text books written by Vagbhata). This leaf has acquired an esteemed position in the human society since the dawn of human civilizations. The presence of traces of betel leaves in the spirit caves in Northwest Thailand dating back to 5500-7000BC, are an evidence in support to the statement. The reference of this wonderful leaf has been made in the most ancient historical book of Sri Lanka “Mahawamsa” written in palli and in the great epic of India, Shrimad Bhagavatam, where it is mentioned that Lord Krishna had chewed “paan” a combination of betel leaves along with areca nut. This leaf is believed to have originated in central and eastern Malaysia but has gradually spread throughout tropical Asia and later to Madagascar and East Africa.
Significance of Betel Leaves in Indian Culture
Study of ancient literature, particularly the Indian scriptures, shows that Betel leaves have been closely associated with human day-to-day life in the past. Even today, betel leaves are an inseparable part of Indian culture. They form a part and parcel of all the traditional ceremonies conducted by Hindus.
- Betel leaves along with areca nuts are offered to guests after food as a courtesy.
- A combination of betel leaves, areca nut, calcium hydroxide and catechu, called "Kattha" in Hindi is known as “Betel quid” or Paan and is routinely served in social, cultural and religious functions like marriages, religious festivals, etc. The basic reason behind its use in these ceremonies is that, apart from acting as an excellent mouth freshener, it has mild vitalizer properties also. Generally, a large number of varieties of dishes are relished in ceremonies and betel quid helps in the digestion and keeps us active after food.
- Amongst the various ingredients of Betel quid, lime allows the active ingredients to remain in the alkaline form and enables their entrance into the blood stream through sublingual absorption. The areca nut contains an alkaloid, arecoline, which acts as a stimulant and promotes salivation.
- Betel leaves along with areca nuts are also offered to our Indian deities during pujas (religious prayers), as we believe that even gods require this after accepting our offerings in the form of eatables.
- While offering money or items to a “Pandit” (priest), Hindus prefer to give it along with Betel leaves and areca nuts. This is considered to be a sign of respect.
- Betel leaves and areca nuts are considered to be an ideal combination symbolizing a married couple bonded to each other by love.
Use of Betel Leaves as an Ingredient in Betel Quid
Betel leaves are folded in different ways depending upon the country using it. But basically, these leaves are smeared with lime (calcium hydroxide) and served along with slices of dry areca nut, with or without tobacco. Of course in India, to prepare Meetha paan (sweet paan), people add various sweet condiments, grated coconut, various spices, fruit preserves, gulkand (rose petal preserves), cardamom, cinnamon, cherries and many other things. The taste of the paan is different in different areas.
Culinary Uses of Betel Leaves
- Betel leaves with a fresh peppery taste are a well known spice in Southeast Asian countries. These leaves are used both in the raw and cooked form. Traditionally, spiced minced meat or beef is wrapped in betel leaves during cooking. As a result, the nice aroma of these leaves gets passed on to the meat. This method of cooking is more common in Vietnam. However, other food morsels can also be wrapped in these leaves during cooking.
- Betel leaves are used for decoration to make the appearance of food attractive. They are used as a base for decorating platters, similar to banana leaves, with food arranged on top of them.
- The ripe fruits of this plants are sweet to taste and can be eaten raw.
- Chopped betel leaves can be combined with gramflour, spices and water and deep fried to prepare delicious afternoon snacks.
- Salads are prepared using betel leaves and shredded carrot.
Medicinal Uses of Betel Leaves
Nutritionally, betel leaves are rich in fibre, vitamins like A, B and C and minerals like calcium, iodine, iron and potassium. Phenol and terpene-like bodies are responsible for the strong pungent aromatic flavor of the leaves. Phenolic content serves as the index of the quality of leaf. The quality is better when the phenolic content is more.
Phytochemicals like Tannins and alkaloids and enzymes like diastase and catalase, make this leaf medicinally very important. Below are some of the traditional therapeutic uses of betel leaves:
- Betel leaves have excellent wound healing properties. The juice extracted from a few betel leaves can be applied on the wounds and bandaged with betel leaves. The wound gets healed in just two days.
- These leaves improve the digestion of food due to their digestive and pancreatic lipase stimulant activities.
- Betel leaves can cure constipation in small children. The stalk of the betel leaf can be dipped in castor oil and used as a suppository by introducing into the rectum. This gives an instant relief from constipation, and as it involves an external application, people generally do not have any fears about using it.
- Fresh juice extracted from betel leaves is very useful in pulmonary afflictions like bronchitis and dyspnea. Fresh juice of this leaves is given along with honey to children to relieve them from coughs, dyspnea, deranged phlegm, etc. This leaf can also be dipped in mustard oil, warmed and applied to the chest for relief from accumulated phlegm in the lungs. This makes the breathing easy.
- The analgesic and cooling properties of betel leaves make it effective reliever of headaches.
- The leaves can be applied locally to get relieved from sore throat. Many singers chew it to improve their voice. So this is a singer’s secret!
- The diuretic properties of this leaf promote the urination in people suffering from obstructed urination. When this juice is taken along with diluted milk and mild sweeteners, it eases the passage of urine.
- Juice of betel leaves along with honey is recommended for the improvement of the health of nerves and cures nervous disorders.
- It can effectively cure boils, pus wounds, etc. The leaf is softened by gentle warming and coated with a layer of castor oil. This softened portion smeared with oil is spread over the boil and left for some time. This process is repeated again after some time. The best way is to leave the oiled leaf on the boil overnight and remove in the morning. The boil ultimately gets ruptured after a few such applications and releases the pus or purulent matter.
- A combination of Betel leaves and black pepper is effective in treating obesity within a short duration of two months.
- Betel leaves smeared with oil are applied on breasts of lactating women to enhance the secretion of milk.
- People suffering from arthritis and rheumatic pains can apply betel leaves locally to get relieved from the pain.
These are some of the effective home remedies of betel leaves which can be tried instead of relying on medications for every problem.
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Current Research on Betel Leaves
Currently, scientists are interested in analyzing the effects of various components of betel leaves. However, the study is still limited to animals only and requires widespread research and clinical trials to prove its efficacy on human beings.
Some of these potential health benefits experimented on animals include:
- Anti-diabetic activity
- Anti-microbial activity
- Gastroprotective activity
- Anti-oxidant activity
- Radio protective activity
The Negative Side of Betel Leaves
Nature has provided us wonderful gifts to get benefited by them, but a lot depends on how people utilize these gifts. For example, salt is one of the primary ingredients in our food and adds taste to it. But excess of consumption of salt has been linked to the increased rate of autoimmune disorders and many other problems like elevated blood pressure.
Similarly, the medicinal properties of betel leaves are well appreciated, but excessive chewing of leaves is harmful to our body. Studies have shown that the harmful affects are mainly due to the additional ingredients added in a betel squid which make it attractive, making the chewing of betel squid a habitual action. Excessive chewing for long periods of time can lead to problems like dental caries, recession of gums, oral sepsis, deposition of black tartar, etc. Especially, chewing of tobacco along with betel leaf is considered to be the primary reason behind the increase in the rate of oral cancers in Asian countries.
Even though phytochemical studies have shown the presence of Safrole in betel leaves, which is a carcinogen, scientists claim that it gets quickly metabolized into dihydroxychavicol and eugenol in the human body. These end products get flushed out from the body in the form of urine and hence, are not dangerous to the human body. On the contrary, betel leaf show anticarcinogenic property and protects us from various carcinogens, especially tobacco carcionogens. The compounds like hydroxychavicol and chlorogenic acid present in betel leaves kills the cancerous cells without affecting the normal cells.
It is truly justified to name this plant as “green gold” as it has the potential to develop into a cancer fighting drug and antimicrobial drug which can overcome the drug resistance in the microbes. However, a lot depends on how we use it.
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My source of information
Pradhan, D., et al. (2013). Golden Heart of the Nature: Piper betle L. Journal of Pharmacognosy and Phytochemistry, 1(6).
Palaniappan, B., et al. (2012). Betel leaf: the green gold of India. Facts For You.
Guha, P. (2006). Betel Leaf: The Neglected Green Gold of India. J. Hum. Ecol, 19(2), 87-93.
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