Whether you’ve had the pleasure of visiting Jamaica or not, you’re probably familiar with the vibrancy of our food, from our beloved staple that is jerk—traditionally made by incorporating scallions, scotch bonnet peppers, sea salt, black pepper, allspice, and thyme, just to name a few ingredients. We’re also known for introducing yellow curries, native to South Asia, to the Caribbean and other countries within the diaspora. My culture is rich in heritage and the lessons I’ve had the pleasure of learning that've been passed down within my lineage are immeasurable. Something else that my family always made it clear to me that “prevention is key,” so regularly incorporating nature’s best herbs, plants or “bush,” as we call it in Jamaica ensures we keep inflammation at bay which in turn promotes balance and total-body health.
What is inflammation, exactly? Well, it’s the body's protective response to infection and/or injury. Generally, It helps your natural healing processes; however, the major dilemma begins when your body is chronically inflamed which could be influenced by many modern stressors, such as environmental pollution, poor sleeping habits, obesity, and food sensitivities, according to research. My Grandma Ina, the matriarch of the family, grew up along the countryside of the island and kept six specific Caribbean cultural foods to combat inflammation in rotation at all times. This ritual was passed down to my mother, then gratefully to me which I vow to pass down to my daughter.
1. Aloe vera
The holy grail of holy grails. This plant is heavily used in Jamaica and is often used to reduce inflammation internally as well as externally. It’s also referred to as “single bible” in Jamaica as it’s full of enlightenment and healing wisdom for the body. “Aloe vera contains a variety of anti-inflammatory chemical compounds including anthraquinones and vitamins A, C and E,” explains Sydney Axelrod, RD, CDN, a dietitian and founder of Axelrod Nutrition. “Aloe vera acts as an antioxidant by fighting against free radicals, one of the main causes of inflammation due to oxidative damage.”
2. Jamaican sarsaparilla
An earthy root native to Central and South America, sarsaparilla is rich in saponins, which are compounds that bind to endotoxins and remove free radicals from the body, says Axelrod. It was traditionally used by Native Americans to treat skin ailments, clear stuffy noses/colds/flus and natural detoxification. It’s also lovely at treating itchy skin and kills bacteria associated with psoriasis. I commonly use sarsaparilla in powder form and add it to my favorite tea.
Also known as “bitter melon,” cerasee is used to treat inflammation associated with colds/flus, as well as stomach ailments such as menstrual cramps. “Cerasee contains a compound called gallic acid which is a polyphenol antioxidant that carries a lot of anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties” says Axelrod. It’s also used to rid the body of parasitic worms in traditional South Asian, Chinese, and African healing practices. Its bitter taste is used in tea form and sweetened if desired.
A staple in Jamaica that’s used in cooking, as well as added to hot teas and cool beverages. “The health-promoting perspective of ginger is attributed to its rich phytochemistry,” Axelrod explains. “Gingerol is the main bioactive compound in ginger; it has powerful anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, which may help reduce oxidative stress and inhibit synthesis of pro-inflammatory cytokines.”
One of the most-popular foods on the island that comes fresh and sweet or in leaf form. My grandmother had jars full of soursop leaves at all times and made tea with them almost daily. It’s a super fruit that’s been found to treat skin inflammatory ailments such as eczema, rheumatic diseases, diabetes, and aids in supporting your immune system. “Soursop contains about 200 chemical compounds, one being alkaloids which can help reduce inflammation,” Axelrod says.
6. Red sorrel
Red sorrel is from the hibiscus family, and is also known as “ roselle.” It’s known in Caribbean culture to lower blood pressure, cholesterol, reduce body weight, insulin resistance, and inflammation. “Sorrel is another naturally occuring an anti-inflammatory—it contains a lot of antioxidants and polyphenols, which can help control cortisol levels and lower inflammation” says Axelrod. It’s quite popular as a cold beverage, but can also be enjoyed warm as well. In the Caribbean, fresh and dried leaves of the plant are used to make the traditional Christmastime drink called sorrel juice.
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