Tuesday, August 14, 2012

A Pro-Inflammatory Food that's Good for You

Now for something a little different, an article on a pro-inflammatory food from Tibet that's actually good for you. Not to mention delicious.

Like so many other things Tibetan, Tibetan foods are good for you, but in counterintuitive ways. Take what I am told is one of the most common street foods in Tibet, for example, mung bean noodles. These are the "cellophane" noodles you can also find in a lot of Chinese and Korean dishes, such as the jop jae pictured to the left.

Tibetan mung bean noodles tend to be thicker and a little chewier, but the health benefits of mung bean noodles are the same all over the world. Mung bean noodles are pro-inflammatory.

Most natural health experts practically make "inflammatory" a four-letter word, so it's probably helpful to point out that inflammation is a good thing in the right context. Our immune systems are activated by and fight infectious microorganisms by inflammation. When we cut ourselves or we suffer a burn or a body blow, the healing process is initiated by inflammation. Our bodies have to clear out injured tissues to rebuild healthy tissues.

And while inflammation causes retention of fluid in belly fat, stress hormones activated by inflammation also liquify the solid fat inside fat cells so that they can release fatty acids into the bloodstream to be burned in the muscles. It is not the case that inflammation is good and fighting inflammation is bad.

The problem for most people in the industrialized world is that we get about 20 times as many pro-inflammatory fats as anti-inflammatory fats in our diets, due to our consumption of highly processed foods. If you milk the yak every morning and then churn your own yak butter to add to your tea, chances are that the pro-inflammatory arachidonic acid in your chosen energy source really isn't going to do you any harm.

And if you want the vegan alternative to yak butter, at least in terms of your body's balance of inflammatory and anti-inflammatory hormones, go for mung beans.

Mung beans don't just provide essential compounds for regulating inflammation. They also provide the skin with a way to deal with bright sun, fierce wind, and high altitude.

A research team of Chinese scientists has confirmed that mung beans, more than any other plant food, provide a chemical known as an anti-tyrosinase. If you happen to have been endowed with either Asian or African skin types, anti-tyrosinases can be a big deal. Many people of either sub-Saharan African or East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Vietnamese, Laotian, Thai, or Indonesian) descent inherit genes that modify chemical pathways through which the skin uses the amino acid tyrosinase.

 Long explanation made short, an enzyme called tyrosinase kinase activates the production of pigment in the skin. If you have either an Asian or African skin type, your skin tends to concentrate pigments and make spots. Most people who have gold or deep brown pigments in their skins have far more problems with sun spots (the kind that appear on your skin) or age spots than they ever have with acne or wrinkling. And some of the products that are intended to get rid of spots, such as hydroquinone, sometimes activate another set of chemical reactions that dye the skin purple. These pigments tend to concentrate on the ridges of the ears and the tip of the nose.

Asian skin care gets a little complicated. But all those mung beans in Asian cuisine contain an anti-tyrosinase. The anti-enzyme stops the production of "clumps" of melanin in the skin that cause the spots after exposure to sun or inflammatory chemicals.

If you pay attention to photos taken of people in Tibet, you might see a lot of evidence of a difficult life, but at least you don't usually see evidence of sun damaged skin, despite the fact that no people on earth are exposed to harsher skin. I think mung beans are part of the Tibetan skin care equation. The challenge in using them is making them tasty. The video here gives you a far better recipe for a mung bean salad than my own.

 Photo Credit: Junho Jung (Wikicommons)

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