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Therapeutic Uses and Benefits of Onion

The use of onion as a medicine is worldwide and the health problems

it is claimed to treat are numerous. According to the World Health
Organization the health problems for which onion is used as a folk
remedy include: bruises, colic, ear-ache, bronchitis, colds, fevers,
intestinal parasites, high blood pressure, jaundice, sores,
and impotence.

Add to this list of conditions a number of others documented by the

botanist James Duke in his long career in ethnobotanical research:
cataracts, heart disease, burns, scabies, tuberculosis, insect
stings, high cholesterol, and even varicose veins.

In addition to these uses documented in traditional medicine, this herb

has also been investigated as a possible modern medicine for
the treatment of diabetes, HIV and cancers.

Can the humble onion really treat all of these health problems? Some
sense can be made of this voluminous list of medical conditions if they
are grouped into categories corresponding to several general modes
of action of medicines.

In the case of onion these are:

anti-microbial: bacteria, viruses, fungi

regulation of blood sugar
anti-oxidant and/or anti-inflammatory
other cell signal inducers or inhibitors (e.g., hormone blockers)

The fact that onion demonstrates several different modes of action is

largely due to the fact that onion contains several flavonoids, notably
quercetin, which has multiple biochemical properties: antibiotic and
antiviral, anti-inflammatory, and cell signaling.

In addition to the flavonoids, it contains numerous organosulfur

compounds and these also have medical properties.

Onions use as an antibiotic has been confirmed in laboratory studies

showing action against some of the most common and potentially
dangerous bacterial infections, including E. coli, and strains of
Streptococus and Salmonella.
The antibacterial agents in the onion are believed to be natural
organo-sulfur compounds, especially thiosulphate. Essential oils from
onion are also active against a variety of fungal infections,
including Candida. Overgrowth of this naturally occurring yeast
results in problematic infections of the skin and urinary and digestive

Both onion and garlic compared well with synthetic anti-fungal

medicines in combating twelve different strains of Candida. However,
these studies are in vitro and not clinical trials, i.e., tests on humans.

Onion extract is a known as a blood anticoagulant. The anti-clotting

effect of onions and other alliums (such as garlic) is linked to their
high content of organo-sulfurs. This makes it a good herbal remedy to
help treat some cardiovascular conditions.

Interestingly, it appears that the anticoagulant properties do not exist

in raw onion but are there in processed onion such as powders and
soups. Some chemical changes might take place in drying or cooking
the onion bring out the anticoagulants.

Onions ability to regulate blood sugar is supported by clinical

evidence since the 1970s. In an Indian study of early-stage diabetic
patients, those who ate more raw onion required less antidiabetic
medication to manage diabetes.

What is interesting about the onion diet is that there is a beneficial

lowering of blood glucose without any loss of essential blood lipids.
The base of the flower (callus) rather than the bulb may, in fact, have
more anti-diabetic compounds and in higher concentrations.

The field of anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory medicine is expanding

rapidly as it becomes more apparent how many diseases have
inflammation signaling as their root cause. At the same time, more
medicinal plants are being examined for their anti-inflammatory action.

Medicinal plants with high concentrations of anti-inflammatories, such

as onion, can therefore be expected to have an effect on health
problems as varied as asthma, arthritis, bronchitis, and simple
allergies and rashes.

In onion, the anti-inflammatory agents identified to date are the

flavonoids, specifically quercetin and kaempferol, which inhibit several
inflammation-signaling enzymes and histamine. Skin allergies, as well
as bronchitis brought on by allergens, have in fact been successfully
treated with ethanol onion extract.

Building from earlier studies on the anti-inflammatory properties of

onion compounds, cancer researchers are now looking closer at the
flavonoids as well as the natural sulfur compounds in onion, and
testing these for their potential to kill cancer cells.

The research focus currently is on stomach and colon cancers.

Biochemists believe that the anticancer activity of onions and other
alliums may be due to the chemicals that arise from the breaking
down (through chopping, cooking, or dissolution) of the organosulfur
compounds in the raw bulb. In particular, S-alk(en)yl cysteine
sulfoxide, a free radical scavenger, is inhibiting mutation of DNA.

The antimutagenic effect of this herb is not restricted to special

preparations in the lab.

A simple meal of fried onions and cherry tomatoes or fried onions

alone was shown to reduce the number of damaging DNA breakages
in the lymphocyte cells of healthy young women.

The precise chemical mechanism is unknown but is probably related

to the antioxidant behavior of the flavonoids in onion.