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Rhubarb: Health Benefits and Medicinal Uses

Is Rhubarb Healthy?

Chinese rhubarb, or da huang, is one of the oldest healing plants used in Chinese medicine. In China and Korea, rhubarb extracts have been used traditionally to prevent and treat conditions like ulcers, cancer, fever, headaches, toothaches and certain liver problems. In Europe, the edible species of the Rheum or rhubarb genus have been used by practitioners of traditional medicine to treat everything from constipation, diarrhea and bloating to kidney stones, gout and liver diseases. In recent years, rhubarb has also been garnering some attention from scientists. Below, we look into some of the most compelling studies carried out on the potential health benefits of rhubarb.

Rhubarb – A Cancer-Fighting Superfood...or Not?

In February 2012, a bunch of British newspapers threw out bold headlines touting the cancer fighting properties of baked rhubarb. The Daily Telegraph even went as far as to suggest that rhubarb crumble might be the new cancer-busting superfood. These claims have their roots in the findings of a British study published in the March 2010 issue of the journal Food Chemistry. However, this study only assessed how different cooking methods affect polyphenols, such as anthocyanins, in Crimson Crown rhubarb (Rheum rhaponticum), a variety that is known for its slender stems and ruby red color. This study did not directly look at how eating rhubarb might affect cancer risk.

Now, that does not mean that the newspapers were necessarily wrong in their claims about the benefits of rhubarb. In fact, in previous studies, anthocyanins and other polyphenols have been shown to possess anti-cancer properties. There is also preliminary scientific evidence suggesting that anthraquinones – organic compounds abundant in rhubarb roots and, to a lesser extent, rhubarb stalks – have antiproliferative effects against human pancreatic cancer cell lines, possibly due to their ability to induce apoptosis (self-destruction) of pancreatic cancer cells. This means that while it is still too early to make definitive claims about the anti-cancer properties of rhubarb, this tangy garden vegetable does present an interesting subject for future studies designed to assess its potential anti-cancer activities in humans.

Both Rhubarb Root and Stalks Contain Compounds with Constipation Relieving Properties

Da huang, or rhubarb root, has been used for centuries by practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine to treat chronic constipation, and the cathartic effects of rhubarb root have also been proven by research. These bowel-cleansing and laxative effects have been linked to the presence of anthraquinone glycosides in rhubarb root. But guess what, also the juicy stalks of the rhubarb plant contain these cathartic compounds! In addition, rhubarb stalks are a good source of insoluble fiber which may help further prevent constipation and associated problems, such as hemorrhoids, by adding bulk to your stool.

For homemade constipation-relieving jelly or jam, mix cooked rhubarb stalks with filtered water, sugar and constipation-fighting chia seeds (preferably pre-soaked) in a high-powered blender such as a Vitamix or Nutribullet. Serve it immediately with your favorite breakfast cereal.

The Fiber in Rhubarb Stalks Lowers Cholesterol Levels, Study Shows

Still not impressed by the health benefits of rhubarb? Then, consider this: the insoluble fiber in rhubarb stalks may also help fight elevated cholesterol levels, one of the pre-cursors to coronary heart disease. In a study published in the December 1997 issue of the Journal of the American College of Nutrition ten men with high blood cholesterol levels were given 27 grams of rhubarb stalk fiber per day for 4 weeks. At the end of the trial period, the study participants had 9% lower total cholesterol levels and 8% lower levels of LDL-cholesterol, the so-called bad cholesterol. When the fiber supplementation was withdrawn for one month, the men's cholesterol levels returned to the baseline values.

Side Effects and Safety Considerations

Although rhubarb stalks and roots do not contain as much oxalates as rhubarb leaves, they are still among the most concentrated sources of oxalates (oxalic acid). While consumption of cooked rhubarb stalks in normal food amounts is unlikely to cause serious side effects or health problems in healthy individuals, people who are susceptible to forming calcium-oxalate kidney stones may be advised by their doctor to avoid rhubarb and other foods that are high in oxalates. Furthermore, some experts believe that diets that are extremely high in oxalates but low in calcium may lead to problems associated with calcium deficiency, as oxalates can hinder the body's ability to absorb calcium.

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