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Sri Lanka’s Great Opportunity. Gotukola

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by Emme Haddon

Almost every culture from the ancient Egyptians to the native Americans possess a wealth of herbal medicinal knowledge which has been passed down from generation to generation. According to the World Health Organisation, 80% of the world’s population rely on traditional herbal medicines as their primary source of health care. 74% of the modern medicines were discovered as a result of the study of plants used in traditional medicine. The current global boom in sales of alternate herbal remedies and supplements is driven by a growing awareness for preventative healthcare methods and consumer demand for healthier and more natural products. People no longer blindly accept something as being safe just because a doctor says so.

The number of information-hungry patients has increased dramatically, around 66% of US adults go online to research their conditions, as do more than half of all Europeans. According to Nutrition Business Journal, the Covid-19 pandemic alone has fuelled an estimated 25% increase in immunity boosting supplements in 2020, up from 8.5% growth to $3.3 billion overall. The global size of the herbal remedies and supplement market was projected to reach USD 86.74 billion by 2022.

The latest reports suggest that this figure may double as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. In the face of increasing strains of microorganisms developing resistance to drugs, as patents on existing drugs expire and the promise of huge profits from potential prescription drugs and herbal supplements, both Big Pharma and Big Herba are ramping up their search of the natural world for molecules they can extract and patent as new prescription drugs or market as the next best-selling ‘superfood’ supplement. This kind of bioprospecting is by no means new. Willow bark has been used as a traditional medicine for more than 3500 years.

The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians used it as a remedy for aches and pains. Detailed references are made to it in the Vedas and later by Hippocrates for its efficacy in relieving fever and pain. However, the active agent in willow bark, salicin, which would later form the basis of the discovery of aspirin, remained unknown. It was several thousands of years later, in the late 1800s, that researchers in Europe identified salicin (after Salix, the genus of the willow tree). This led to the creation of aspirin the world’s

best-selling drug, by German chemist Felix Hoffmann. Shortly afterwards Hoffmann produced a second famous drug: diacetylmorphine, also known as heroin! Ayurveda, “the Mother of all Healing”, considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science, originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. It stems from the ancient Vedic culture and for many thousands of years was taught in an oral tradition by accomplished masters to their disciples. Some of this knowledge was later set to print in ancient Ayurvedic texts. In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “The Science of Life’ wherein the body, mind and consciousness work together in maintaining balance. Great emphasis is placed on prevention and encouraging the maintenance of good health through close attention to balance in one’s life, right thinking, diet and the treatment of illness through lifestyle practices and the use of herbal remedies.

The cause of disease is viewed as a lack of proper cellular function due to an excess or deficiency of an individual’s vata, pitta or kapha dosha and the presence of toxins. In Sri Lanka, Ayurveda, the official term used to denote collectively all the traditional medical systems, encompasses Ayurveda, the predominant system which came to the island from India with Buddhism 2,500 years ago, Siddha, Unani, and Deshiya Chikithsa. Deshiya Chikithsa is the earliest system of medicine Sri Lanka and has existed before the advent of Ayurveda. The term “traditional medicine” thus largely overlaps with the term “Ayurveda.”

Sri Lanka has a continuous written history. Stone scripts as early as 250 BCE, ancient texts together with remaining ola palm leaf texts, offer an insight into the intricacies of traditional food preparation which are based on ancient Ayurvedic principles of health. The nutritional basis of ingredients, methods of preparation, and their suitability for consumption depend on the patient’s physiological condition, as well as the environment and climate, are intricately interwoven.

For most people in Sri Lanka, a sambol or mallum, green leafy accompaniments to rich, spicy dishes, is a must have. They may not be aware of the exact nutritional value of these healthy and delicious greens but as children they will have been told to eat them up because they are good for them!

Centellia Asiatica, is a small perennial herb native to Asia and naturalized in many parts of the world including the US and Africa. It is mentioned in ‘Sushruta Samhita’, one of the earliest Ayurvedic medical texts, and for thousands of years has been famed for its Ayurvedic medicinal properties. In traditional Chinese herbal medicine, it is known as one of the “miracle elixirs of life” and in India, Centellia Asiatica is sometimes referred to as “Tiger Grass” due to the fact that wounded tigers would roll themselves in it. However, it is most often referred to by its Sinhalese name “Gotu Kola.”

In Sri Lanka gotu kola thrives in the marshy, shaded areas of the wet and intermediate zones but has established itself as an integral part of home gardens. An invaluable herb, having little taste or smell, with white or light purple-to-pink flowers and small oval fruit, it has throughout history been an integral part of traditional Sri Lankan cuisine and traditional medicine. It is commonly used as a juice, tea, or green leafy vegetable in dishes such as gotu sambol and gotu kanda, a nutritious herbal porridge based on ancient indigenous and Ayurvedic principles of well-being. Highly valued for it nutritional components of vitamins A, B2, C and iron, potassium and calcium, it is so popular that supermarket shelves now offer it in chopped, ready-to eat packets along with instant gotu kola kanda.

Long before the term “superfood” was coined, gotu kola was referred to in Ayurveda as the “herb of longevity”, standing out as having no equal in the treatment of general debility and decline. With its distinctive fan-shaped leaves, often described as being brain-like, it conforms to the “doctrine of signatures”, an ancient belief that herbs resemble the part of the body that they provide nutrients for and are used to treat.

In Ayurvedic medicine it is famed as a “medhya rasayana” with a rejuvenative effect on nerves and brain cells, that improves brain function, boosts memory and prevents cognitive deficits. It is also known as a powerful wound and skin disease healer and a blood purifier with gastroprotective qualities.

Studies continue to demonstrate the science behind gotu kola’s efficacy in traditional medicine. A nootropic which supports circulation to the brain whilst nourishing the nervous system, it is also a powerful adaptogen and antioxidant. It has also demonstrated anxiolytic, anti-convulsant, neuritogenic, antispasmodic, astringent, cardiotonic, diuretic, anti-inflammatory, analgesic and antipyretic qualities. It is easy to understand why in Ayurvedic medicine it is considered “a pharmacy in one herb”.

Its remarkable cognitive, neurotropic and neuroprotective effects highlight its potential to modulate disease processes involved in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Huntington’s disease in addition to treating conditions such as schizophrenia, epilepsy and strokes.

In today’s highly competitive society, nootropics, from the Greek nous (“mind“) and trepein (“to bend” or “turn“), literally meaning “mind turning’, often used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), have gained popularity with students seeking to improve cognitive function, boost memory, focus, creativity, and motivation. Statistics from the Alzheimer’s Association suggest that someone develops Alzheimer’s every 65 seconds. In 2019 Google searches for “nootropic” reportedly averaged 110,000 per month, reinforcing the fact that cognitive health is a cause for real concern across age demographics.

According to the current analysis of Reports and Data, the global nootropics market was valued at USD 1.96 billion in 2018 and is expected to reach USD 5.32 billion by the year 2026, at a CAGR of 13.2%

Whilst extracts of gotu kola phytochemical compounds may one day be the next miracle drug in the fight against neurodegenerative conditions, creating a new medicine is a long and rigorous process that takes 10 or more years from discovery to market at an estimated cost of around $2.6 billion. In contrast, herbal medicines and food supplements aren’t generally subjected to the same stringent testing requirements.

Alone or in combination with other nootropics, of which Sri Lanka has several, a simple decoction of fresh or dried gotu kola leaves, leaf-based juices, extracts in the form of tinctures and capsules of dried powdered leaf, offer an array of proven health benefits:

 

* boost cognitive function, enhances
memory and enhance performance

* provides protection of brain cells from toxicity and may protect the cells from forming the plaque associated with Alzheimer’s

*helps reduce anxiety and stress and helps with insomnia

*acts as an antidepressant

* supports vascular health reducing problems with fluid retention, ankle swelling and circulation

* is anti-ageing, promotes collagen production and rejuvenates skin, hair and nails

* reduces scarring and the appearance of stretch marks

* its anti-inflammatory properties may be useful in treating joint inflammation, cartilage and bone erosion

* Its antioxidant effects are immune
boosting

* suppresses the toxic side effects of drugs on liver and kidneys

Modern-day scientific research has yet to catch up with what has been known to sages and vaidyas, whose focus has been on the healing benefits of nature, for thousands of years but this is changing. Advances in science and information technology are making it easier for the pharmaceutical industry to uncover new insights into diseases, to identify and isolate specific phytochemical compounds, and to review the explosion of biological data that has already been published in peer-reviewed biomedical journals.

The World Health Organisation has recommended that medicinal plants be used more effectively in healthcare. Sri Lanka is uniquely positioned to exploit and market its own natural resources in the pursuit of global public health. There is very real global demand and there is a very real opportunity.

Emme Haddon has lived in the West Indies, France, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the UK. She has lived in Sri Lanka for 7 years. She has run various businesses and has set up a successful on-line clothing operation. She has a great interest in Sri Lanka’s plants and herbal medicines.



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THE VULNERABLE SRI LANKAN LEOPARD: One of only two island sub-species

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Sri Lanka Leopard Day today

by Rukshan Jayewardene

Today, leopards live in 26 range countries scattered across the African and Asian continents and are subdivided into nine sub-species based on their genetic divergence and distinction. Of these, the Sri Lankan leopard (Panthera pardus kotiya) is one of only two sub-species restricted to islands. The other sub-species (Panthera pardus melas) live on the Indonesian Island of Java. The Javan leopard clings precariously to existence in several protected areas and high-altitude forests. Their total number is estimated to be down to 250 adult individuals and it is considered to be critically endangered by IUCN. Java’s forest cover is also below 10% of the total land area of the island. The predicament faced by the Javan leopard should be a wake-up call for all those who wish to ensure the conservation of the Sri Lankan leopard.

Population pressure, land conversion to agriculture (loss of habitat), prey depletion and untimely death at the hands of humans are common problems faced by these two island leopards. If one were to make a geophysical comparison of these two tropical islands, Java has a land area of 128,297 sq km and 145 million people (2015) while the island of Sri Lanka has an area of 65,610 sq km and 22 million people. Therefore, Java has approximately twice the land area of Sri Lanka and six and a half times its population. When compared in this way, it is plain to see that Java’s pressure on the land for agriculture and settlements is immense. Although Sri Lanka’s equation is far better, we are still a densely populated agricultural land, with our population unevenly distributed across the island. This so called maldistribution allows for living space for wildlife away from humans, especially in the comparatively sparsely populated dry zone districts.

An irreplaceable role

Wise land use policies and practice, and the strict enforcement of the laws that govern the extensive protected area network, is a key to conservation of all but the elephant (who require separate attention). Recent reversals regarding the legal safeguards put in place to conserve forest land, as well as haphazard, non-consultative land use policies especially concerning agriculture has accelerated deforestation, wildlife habitat loss and population pressure on wilderness lands.

The leopard is an important animal in the wild, a keystone species that plays an important regulatory role in the eco-systems in which they naturally occur. Here, in Sri Lanka, it is an apex predator (at the apex of all food webs on land), plays an irreplaceable role, and its extirpation would create a void that cannot be filled by any other animal. The leopard can be characterized by three qualities; intelligence, adaptability and resilience. Its intelligence and agility makes the leopard a behaviorally interesting animal, and its beauty makes it one of the most sought after wild animals in the world.

A counter-productive ‘numbers’ game

The leopard’s tourism potential is not fully utilized and generally mismanaged by both the government and private sectors. It is a special animal that needs focused conservation attention as well as knowledgeable field guides, trackers and naturalists. Up to this point in time, the bulk of wildlife tourism is sustained by the mass market and package tours that this country courts. These tours are unwieldy for the most part and consist of “beach holiday” visitors who are only cursorily interested in this valuable and fragile resource of ours. Therefore, tourism’s stamp on the protected areas of Sri Lanka is heavy, ecologically insensitive and for the most part ignorantly so.

Leopard-centric tourism, as practiced by this country, exerts damaging pressure on a few national parks that are victims of their own popularity. If this valuable animal and its habitat are to be protected, and at the same time maximum revenue is to be earned, it is never going to be done through a tourist arrival head count. Wildlife/nature/eco-tourism as practiced in this country is a ‘numbers game’ which is counter-productive to the long-term conservation of species and habitats.

Starving a Natural Heritage

Importantly the Department of Wildlife Conservation has to be empowered with manpower, legal knowledge and capacity, as well as state-of-the-art training and other material resources to deal with the ever more sophisticated threat posed by poachers and encroachers within and outside protected areas. As long as wildlife and wilderness remain a State monopoly in the custodianship of the government, legislators must see fit to give the relevant departments adequate funds and resources as stated above to enable effective conservation.

By starving these ministries and departments of resources, a case cannot be made for privatization of the natural heritage common to all present and future Sri Lankan citizens. In Sri Lanka natural assets in private hands have always been governed by an overriding profit motive and exclusivity which is not conducive to managing natural assets for the benefit of its citizenry Alternatively Public-Private partnerships are an option that can be explored. However, regulatory mechanisms and oversight must remain in government hands at all times or else these too will not serve the nation in any meaningful fashion.

On this Sri Lankan “Leopard Day” while celebrating this unique animal, it is apposite to give thought to the management of wild leopards as much as the concerns regarding their conservation.

Pix by Rukshan Jayewardene

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Are women’s and men’s protein needs different?

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As women lose a lot of blood in their menstrual cycles, women need more iron than men in order to fight fatigue or anaemia.

Protein intake is a widely-discussed issue among those trying to achieve their fitness goals like building muscle mass or muscle loss after intensive fitness training. Since women tend to have lower quantities of lean mass and more fat mass compared to men, boosting protein can sustain the lean mass.

It has also been observed that most men are interested in hypertrophy, or a visible increase in the size of muscle cells. For women, who may not want to bulk up but rather lose visible fat and build lean muscle, nutritional requirements like protein needs can look different.

Rightly called the ‘building blocks of your body’, protein is a macronutrient which serves various anatomical functions like adequate flow of blood and oxygen through the body, digestion and regulation of hormone levels. Protein helps our muscles to repair and regrow after exercise and injury. It should also be noted that every gram of protein contains four calories, whereas that number for one gram of fat is nine calories.

Rich protein sources for both men and women include animal and plant-based sources like milk products, eggs, meat, soy, tofu, pulses, beans, black gram, and legumes, and a healthy person should consume all of these in combination to get high-quality proteins. ICMR-NIN says that protein requirements vary with age, physiological status and stress. More proteins are required by growing infants and children, pregnant women and individuals during infections and illness or stress. For people doing fitness training, protein requirements differ as well.

According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), while the recommended daily allowance for a 55-kg woman (whether doing sedentary or heavy work) is 55 grams of protein, for pregnant women and breastfeeding women, this goes up significantly. When it comes to health supplements like protein shakes, women often have to make do with products made for men, since the market is saturated with those.

Doctor’s Choice, a 2018-established health supplement brand, is launching a new range of women-centric protein supplements that also aid fat loss. DC’s Lean Pro, a high- protein meal replacement for a lean and fit body, balances weight, having zero trans-fat, sugar-free, no preservatives and is gluten free which is safe to use. Suggested by Nupur Vats, Co-Founder, Doctor’s Choice, here are things female fitness enthusiasts should keep in mind about their protein intake:

1. Try to build and maintain a high-protein diet that significantly aids weight loss and helps with fitness performance. Just increasing protein intake won’t magically give results and needs to be complemented with healthy food choices and regular workouts.

2. If you are taking protein supplements, avoid fake products that saturate the market and do more harm than good. Go for makers who swear by quality and international standards. Put health before money.

3. Most protein powders are formulated focusing on male body requirements. Women simply need smaller doses of protein to reach their macronutrient needs. While some proteins do have male-specific ingredients, like testosterone boosters. These products should not be taken by women. It’s suggested to women to consume soy-based protein more since it has agents which boost estrogen levels in women and hence it’s advised for male to consume it less.

According to the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), while the recommended daily allowance for a 55-kg woman (whether doing sedentary or heavy work) is 55 grams of protein, for pregnant women and breastfeeding women, this goes up significantly. When it comes to health supplements like protein shakes, women often have to make do with products made for men, since the market is saturated with those.

Doctor’s Choice, a 2018-established health supplement brand, is launching a new range of women-centric protein supplements that also aid fat loss. DC’s Lean Pro, a high- protein meal replacement for a lean and fit body, balances weight, having zero trans-fat, sugar-free, no preservatives and is gluten free which is safe to use. Suggested by Nupur Vats, Co-Founder, Doctor’s Choice, here are things female fitness enthusiasts should keep in mind about their protein intake:

1. Try to build and maintain a high-protein diet that significantly aids weight loss and helps with fitness performance. Just increasing protein intake won’t magically give results and needs to be complemented with healthy food choices and regular workouts.

2. If you are taking protein supplements, avoid fake products that saturate the market and do more harm than good. Go for makers who swear by quality and international standards. Put health before money.

3. Most protein powders are formulated focusing on male body requirements. Women simply need smaller doses of protein to reach their macronutrient needs. While some proteins do have male-specific ingredients, like testosterone boosters. These products should not be taken by women. It’s suggested to women to consume soy-based protein more since it has agents which boost estrogen levels in women and hence it’s advised for male to consume it less.

4. Beyond just the protein content, women’s protein powders have additional ingredients that a body needs. There are brands in the market that aim at different kinds of whey protein made just for women. Folic Acid is essential for pregnant women or are trying to be. It helps women fight the risk of strokes, heart disease, and several kinds of cancer. Vitamin B6 which helps women maintain a healthy immune system and reduce heart disease. Iron assists red blood cells in the transferring of oxygen throughout the body. As women lose a lot of blood in their menstrual cycles, women need more iron than men in order to fight fatigue or anaemia.

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Ashwagandha – “The chill-out herb”

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by Emme Haddon

The latest buzzword to hit the health food and supplement market is ‘adaptogen’. Health and beauty blogs are raving about them and the health conscious and fitness enthusiasts are taking them as supplements, in tinctures, herbal infusions and adding them to meals and smoothies.

But what exactly are they? The term “adaptogen” stems from the Latin ‘adaptare’, meaning to adjust, and was first coined in the late 1940s by the Russian toxicologist, Nickolai Lazarev, while studying the body’s resistance to stress. Workplace stress alone has risen by nearly 20% over the last 30 years. With the COVID-19 pandemic in its second year, the economic difficulties and curbs on social interaction have had a marked effect on people’s mental health.

Stress boosts cortisol production – the chronic overproduction of which is detrimental to the immune, digestive, cardiovascular, sleep, and reproductive systems. To be considered adaptogenic, herbs have to meet specific criteria: be non-toxic to the body; reduce and regulate stress by helping the body adapt to it and they must benefit overall well-being.

By restoring balance in the stress response, adaptogens aid overall adrenal health. Adrenal glands produce hormones that help regulate the metabolism, immune system, blood pressure, response to stress and other essential functions. The concept of adaptogenic herbs dates back 5,000 years to ancient Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda healing traditions – many of the “rasayana” (rejuvenating) medicinal plants referred to in ancient ayurvedic manuscripts are adaptogenic.

Ashwagandha (Latin: Withania somnifera), also known as Indian winter cherry and amukkara in Sinhala, is a highly prized adaptogenic rasayana that has been cultivated and used in Ayurvedic medicine for thousands of years. It is a small, evergreen plant with velvety leaves, and bell flowers that contain orangey-red fruits, native to India, the Middle East and North Africa.

It grows well in dry stony soil with sun to partial shade and is able to tolerate drought conditions. The Latin species name “somnifera” means “sleep-inducing” whilst the name “ashwagandha” is a combination of the Sanskrit words ‘ashva’, meaning horse, and ‘gandha’, meaning smell, reflecting the strong horse-like odour of its roots.

In Ayurveda ashwagandha is used in various formulations as a tonic to strengthen, rejuvenate and bring balance to all the body systems. The root is also used in Ayurveda to balance vata doshas and is considered a grounding and nourishing herb. Ashwagandha is a powerful reproductive tonic having aphrodisiac qualities that is used to treat erectile dysfunction, boost vitality, balance hormones and improve sperm count and semen quality.

In the Kama Sutra it is described as a natural sexual stimulant that men can use to increase their sex drive. It is also an acclaimed tonic for the brain and nervous systems, traditionally used to treat hysteria, anxiety, stress, memory loss, epilepsy, insomnia and other nervous disorders.

Ashwagandha, is one of the most studied of all adaptogenic plants. Ayurvedic tradition is enough proof for some, but there is a growing body of research lending the herb credibility among those who value science above all else. Scientific studies describe the benefits in a language of the times. Known as “the chill-out herb” it is likened to a stress vaccine that tweaks hormone production and helps our bodies manage, adapt and build resilience to external stressors.

Many of ashwagandha’s health benefits are attributed to the high concentration in its roots of withanoloids which have immunology, anti-inflammatory, neuron and brain regenerative properties and show promise in oncology. Studies have demonstrated its benefits in:

stress management and sleep support – reducing cortisol production and boosting testosterone has a positive effect on mood, libido, erectile dysfunction, energy, body fat, sleep, muscle and bone mass and overall well-being;

improving heart health by reducing cholesterol and triglyceride levels;

lowering blood sugar levels;

lowering blood pressure;

increasing the activity of natural killer cells that fight infection;

decreasing markers of inflammation, such as C-reactive protein, linked to an increased risk of heart disease;

easing the pain and joint swelling in conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis;

treating skin conditions such as ulcers, skin sores, leukoderma and scabies,

promoting the formation of reactive oxygen species which disrupts the function of cancer cells and inducing apoptosis, the programmed death of cancer cells;

slowing, halting or reversing the progression of neurodegenerative disorders including, dementia, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases and

improving cardiovascular endurance exercise in healthy athletes, with significant improvement in muscle mass and strength, testosterone levels, recovery time and tolerability and reduction in exercise-induced muscle damage and decrease in body fat.

In Sri Lanka, despite having a long ayurvedic tradition and growing body of research, the health benefits of ashwagandha are relatively unknown. Here it is referred to as “Nature’s Viagra” with little awareness of its other remarkable health benefits. Globally, however, sales of ashwagandha are enjoying huge success as it responds to key consumer needs: sleep, brain-health, anxiety and stress.

In the U.S. by the end of 2020, with the outbreak of Covid-19, ashwagandha sales saw a massive 3,995% increase as new consumers sought natural remedies to help them deal with poor sleep quality and stress. Studies that focus on improved athletic performance, overall cardiovascular health, immunity, neurodegenerative benefits and pet-care have opened up new avenues for ashwagandha root and its supplements.

With consumers interested in more novel delivery forms, ashwagandha is now available in the form of beverages, chocolate, coffee, powders, gummies, and candies. It is also formulated with complementary ingredients to promote specific health benefits

The popularity of ashwagandha has served as the gateway herb to the overall adaptogen category of herbs. Ashwagandha is poised to lead adaptogens into the mainstream in 2021. Once again, this poses the question will Sri Lanka wake up to the wonders of ashwagandha and the many other adaptogenic Ayurvedic herbs native to this biodiverse island?

(Emme Haddon has lived in the West Indies, France, Malaysia, Hong Kong and the UK. She has run various businesses and has set up a successful on-line clothing operation. For the past seven years she has lived in Sri Lanka where she has been able to pursue her passion for natural medicines. She has a great interest in Sri Lanka’s plants and herbal medicines.)

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