Vernonia amygdalina, commonly known as bitter leaf, is a large shrub or small tree which reaches between 1 to 6 metres in height and has elliptical leaves that can reach 20cm in length. The shrub with its dark leaves and rough bark is native to Tropical Africa and has been domesticated in many parts of West Africa.
Known for its bitter taste (hence bitter leaf), Vernonia amygdalina is a perennial plant belonging to the Asteraceae family and is renown by the indigenous as having high medicinal value. It is known as:
Eto Ewuro (Yoruba) in South West Nigeria
Etidot (Ibibio) in South East Nigeria
Onugbu, Onugbo (Igbo) in South East Nigeria
Oriwo (Edo state) in South Central Nigeria.
Extracts of the plant have been used by folks as a remedy or prevention for:
Menstruation or period pains
Prostate cancer prevention
The leaf has also been shown to possess antibacterial and antifungal properties and contains high levels of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals, such as flavonoids.
Vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients in bitter leaves
Vitamin C - plays a vital role in the body, including the maintenance of bones and teeth. Vitamin C also boost your sleep, reduce sleep disturbances, relieve movement disorders, and decrease the dangerous effects of sleep apnoea.
Vitamin K - helps the body maintain healthy bones and prevents the weakening of bone tissue, also known as osteoporosis.
Vitamin B1 - also known as thiamine, plays an important role in the metabolism of lipids, amino acids and glucose in the human body. Thiamine is an important dietary supplement occurring naturally in bitter leaves; it helps to oxidize fatty acids to produce the synthesis of lipids, which is one of the body’s essential processes.
Vitamin E - an antioxidant that fights against free radicals which have harmful effects on the body’s system.
Na –Sodium - helps maintain the balance of water in and around your cells that is needed for proper muscle and nerve function.
K – Potassium - an essential mineral that is needed by all tissues in the body. It is sometimes referred to as an electrolyte because it carries a small electrical charge that activates various cell and nerve functions.
Ca – Calcium – a mineral most often associated with healthy bones and teeth, although it also plays an important role in blood clotting, helping muscles to contract, and regulating normal heart rhythms and nerve functions.
Mg – Magnesium - plays an important role in assisting more than 300 enzymes to carry out various chemical reactions in the body such as building proteins and strong bones, and regulating blood sugar, blood pressure, and muscle and nerve functions. Magnesium also acts as an electrical conductor that contracts muscles and enables the hear to beat steadily.
Zn – Zinc - is a major player in the creation of DNA, growth of cells, building proteins, healing damaged tissue, and supporting a healthy immune system.
Fe – Iron - an important mineral that helps maintain healthy blood.
Oxalate - can bind to calcium and prevent it from being absorbed
Tannins - can decrease iron absorption
Saponins - can interfere with normal nutrient absorption
Flavonoids - a very large group of phytonutrients, flavonoids are powerful antioxidant agents. Antioxidants help the body fight off potentially harmful molecules that can be introduced to the body.
Alkaloids – provide the taste bitter in bitter leaf
Phenol – an antioxidant.
What are electrolytes, antioxidants and anti-nutrients?
Electrolytes are chemicals that conduct electricity when mixed with water. They regulate nerve and muscle function, hydrate the body, balance blood acidity and pressure, and help rebuild damaged tissue.
The muscles and neurons are sometimes referred to as the “electric tissues” of the body. They rely on the movement of electrolytes through the fluid inside, outside, or between cells.
The electrolytes in human bodies include:
Free radicals are molecules that may attack important cells in the body, resulting in damage, or oxidative stress. The damage caused by oxidative stress may eventually result in conditions, such as:
Antioxidants are molecules and vitamins that protect cells from the damage caused by free radicals. They do this by reacting with the free radicals, which prevents the free radicals from reacting with other beneficial molecules and cells.
Whereas nutrients are substances that nourish plants and animals to grow and live, anti-nutrients earn their title because they can block the absorption of nutrients. Anti-nutrients are naturally found in animals and many plant-based foods. In plants, they are compounds designed to protect the plants from bacterial infections and being eaten by insects.
Several compounds in the foods we eat are classified as anti-nutrients. These are:
Glucosinolates in cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage) can prevent the absorption of iodine, which may then interfere with thyroid function and cause goitre. Those already with an iodine deficiency or a condition called hypothyroidism are most susceptible.
Lectins can be found in legumes (beans, peanuts, soybeans) and whole grains.
Oxalates can be found in green leafy vegetables and tea.
Phytates (phytic acid) can be found in whole grains, seeds, legumes and some nuts.
Saponins can be found in legumes and whole grains.
Tannins can be found in tea, coffee and legumes.
Many anti-nutrients like phytates, lectins, and glucosinolates can be removed or deactivated by soaking, sprouting, or boiling the food before eating.