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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Cucumber: Medicine from the Garden

Common throughout the world, cucumbers are consumed raw, cooked, and pickled, or in other ways. Westerners like them raw in salads and rarely eat them cooked, but peoples in the Far East, especially the Chinese, usually eat them cooked. When I was a child my family only occasionally ate cucumber raw, and always after it had been meticulously washed, because of an age-old Chinese tradition of avoiding raw foods for hygienic reasons.

Known scientifically as Cucumis sativus of the gourd family, the cucmber plant is an annual herb that grows by trailing along the ground or by climbing a support. It is believed to be native to Asia, probably the Middle East. According to Chinese records, cucumber was introduced to China around 100 B.C. (during the Han Dynasty) from countries to the west by way of what later became known as the Silk Route, later taken by Marco Polo. For six to seven hundred years, cucumber bore the name hu gua, meaning "foreign melon", but a later name, huang gua, meaning "yellow melon" is now more commonly used.

Numerous varieties of the plant produce fruits (cucumbers) of different sizes, shapes, colors, and flavors. They are easy to grow and, depending on the variety, range in shape from nearly round (rare) to elongate (common), and in taste from nonbitter to quite bitter, especially at the stem tips. Some cucumbers of the elongate type can reach 1 m. (3 ft) in length, but most are between 10 cm (4 in.) and 30 cm (1 ft.) long.

Like most vegetables and fruits, raw cucumbers contain large amounts of water (95%). The rest is made up of about 1% protein, 3% carbohydrates, minor amounts of fats (0.1%), minerals and vitamins (e.g., A, Bs, and C), none in unusually high concentration. Cucumbers also contain minor amounts of numerous other biologically active constituents. Their bitter taste is due to compounds known as cucurbitacins, one of which has been found to have antitumor effects on experimental animals.

In Western folk medicine, cucumber is considered a diuretic and a laxative. Externally the juice is said to be good for soothing skin inflamations, burns, and irritations, and for treating freckles and wrinkles.

The first recorded medicinal use of the cucumber was in the 7th century. In Chinese medicine, cucumber is considered to have heat-dissipating, diuretic, laxative, and detoxifying effects. Its major uses include the treatment of excessive thirst, sore throat, laryngitis, acute conjuctivitis, and burns. In most Chinese homes, however, whether eaten raw or cooked as a soup, cucumber is used only for keeping cool in summer, when it is in season, or in early autumn to soothe dry lips and throat.

The leaves, roots and stems are also used in Chinese medicine: the leaves and roots for diarrhea and dysentery; the stems for dysentery, urinary disorders and sores. Both fresh and dried forms are used. The leaves and roots are collected in the summer or fall and are sun-dried. The stems are collected in early summer before or at the time of flowering and are dried in the shade.

While the medicinal uses of cucumber stems are of relatively recent origin (18th century), the first recorded uses of cucumber leaves and cucumber roots date back to the 8th and 16th centuries, respectively. They are used both internally (as a decoction) and externally (as a mash), with internal doses for roots and stems of 28 to 56 g. (1-2 oz.) daily. The traditional dose for the leaves is one leaf for a one-year-old child. (Presumably more for older children or adults - but this is not stated.)

Cucumber stems have recently been used clinically in China for treating high blood pressure. Their effectiveness is described in a report of 1973 in which 53 of 64 patients with hypertension responded when treated with tablets of dried cucumber stems. The treatment consisted of taking 12.5 g. (0.04 oz.) of tablets three times daily for one to two months. Side effects were minimal. Only five of the patients experienced a burning sensation in the stomach after taking the tablets; this was reduced or disappeared when the patients took the tablets after meals.

In a report of 1972, decoctions or extracts of cucumber seedlings (with roots and leaves removed) were also effective in treating high blood pressure. Of 62 patients thus treated, 54 responded, half with their blood pressure down in the normal range.

One of the more popular home remedies for treating dryness of lips and throat and preventing laryngitis or sore throat in late summer and early fall is to use a soup prepared from old, well-ripened cucumbers. The soup is prepared just like a regular vegetable soup and drunk often during this period.

In a traditional remedy for treating painful acute conjunctivitis, a well-ripened cucumber is used. A hole is made at one end and the seeds and pulp are removed. It is then filled with Glauber's salt (sodium sulfate). After the hole is sealed, the filled cucumber is hung in the shade for some weeks until white crystals accumulate on the surface. The crystals are then scraped off and used to prepare a solution for eye drops.

Cucumbers are sold at groceries and in supermarkets. The leaves, roots, and stems of the cucumber plant can be obtained from home gardens.

This information is excerpted from Dr. Albert Leung’s book, Chinese Healing Foods and Herbs. This publication includes further information and home remedies using cucumber as well as over 45 other herbs.

Learn more about cucumber and read further about Dr. Leung and his writings! Visit www.earthpower.com.

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