Vernonia amygdalina or Bitter leaf or Chusa-doki, Shuwaka (Hausa) or Onugbo (Igbo) or Ewuro (Yoruba) or Ironweed
Shuwaka is popular in most of West Africa countries including Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon and Congo Democratic Republic. It was named after an English Botanist William Vernon. It is also referred to as iron-weed, a name coined from the intensely purple flowers which later take on a rusty hue. It is able to grow in a variety of climates unlike other plants which are often native to certain areas. The leaves have a sweet and bitter taste.
Although most popularly used for food, It has also traditionally been used for its medicinal properties now proven by medical research. With around a thousand varieties, the plant’s uses range from antimicrobial to decorative. Several species of this plant (Vernonia) includes V. calvoana, V. amygdalina and V. Colorata. They are eaten as leaf vegetables. These leaves are exported from several African countries to other parts of the world. Bitter leaf is a highly appreciated vegetable in East, West and Central Africa. It can be eaten in various dishes.
The leaves, roots and bark of the plant have ethno-medicinal value used for treating various diseases like fever, diarrhea, diabetes, stomach discomfort etc. From the dietary view point, Bitter leaf is used in most parts of Nigeria to prepare soup after it has been parboiled. In Cameroon, the processed leaves are cooked with meat or prawns mixed with ground peanuts to make dish. Alternatively, while the leaves are cooked together with cassava or yam tubers, the leaves can also be dried and ground to powder for use in soup. In East Africa, especially in Tanzania, the fresh leaves are used for preparing soup and stew. From the medicinal point of view, shuwaka is used for treatment of jaundice, diarrhea, Hepatitis B and C, cancer; diabetes and tuberculosis with the development of bitter leaf based dietary supplements have shown great promise in chemical studies.
Poly-herbal preparations with bitter leaf as the active ingredients have been shown to strengthen the immune system through many cytokines and chemokines regulations. Cytokines and chemokines are substances released by the immune system to help fight infections and prevent diseases. However, some of them, when produced in large amounts can cause inflammation. Traditionally, herb has been demonstrated not only to lower the body sugar level sufficiently, but to play a role in the repair of pancreas.
The leaf extracts generally has both hypoglycemic (lowering blood sugar level) and hypolipidemic (decreasing the level of cholesterol and triglycerides) qualities and hence can be used in treatment of diabetes. In fact, some herbalists in Africa believe that if 10 handfuls of fresh leaves are squeezed in 10 liters of water and consumed two glasses thrice a day for a month, diabetes maybe cured. At this point, I will like to point out, that anybody, who wants to use shuwaka as a complementary and alternative medicine should first discuss it with his/her physician. The leaf extracts are placed on wounds as a substitute for iodine in Nigeria. In Zimbabwe, the leaf and root infusions are used in treating sexually transmitted diseases like syphilis and gonorrhea. Chewing the tender stem and swallowing the juices is a well-known remedy for stomach aches.
An infusion from the roots can also be taken orally for curing stomach discomfort caused by trematodes (worms). Alternatively, pound the fresh leaves in a mortar to extract the juice. Add a pinch of salt to three tablespoons of the undiluted juice and drink. Bitter leaf is also used for skin infections such as ringworm, itching, rashes and eczema. The pure, undiluted extract of the leaf is excellent. The extracts from the leaves when mixed with warm water for bathing can also be used to treat spots on the skin like scabies and rashes.
Bitter leaf extract has been shown to work magic for some people unable to get restful sleep. It is believed that by simply taking two glasses of the solution every night one can experience great calm and well-being. To make it palatable, one may add a little honey. The roots of shuwaka can be employed by sufferers of gingivitis (inflammation of the gum) and toothache due to antimicrobial properties which prevent the growth of bacteria on the gum and teeth. Adding bitter leaf to your healthy diet may reduce the risk of chronic diseases like breast cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Bitter leaf an abundant source of antioxidants. The antioxidant properties of bitter leaf make a healthy disease fighting addition to human health. Staying physically active, eating a low fat diet and maintaining a healthy weight can reduce risk of breast cancer in women. Additionally, eating bitter leaf may combat breast cancer cell growth. The leaves are relatively inexpensive and rich in several nutrients especially β-carotene and vitamin C which are essential for human health. It is also rich in minerals like iron, phosphorus, calcium and potassium. Bitter leaf is also rich in carotene, proteins, vitamin C, iron and folates. Carotenoids normalize the synthesis of female sex hormones, allowing women to stay young and healthy for long.
These are the thoughts of:
Sa’eed Halilu Bawa
Senior Lecturer (Associate Professor) at University of the West Indies, St. Augustine Campus, Trinidad.
Studied Food and Nutrition Sciences, Dietetics at Kaduna Polytechnic, Nigeria; Warsaw University of Life Sciences, Poland.