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Written by Nicole Crane, B.S, NTP
For years, health professionals have been advising others to “eat the rainbow,” a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. For many, getting those 5-9 servings of fruits and vegetables is a struggle. How does one get the antioxidant, immune boosting, vitality-supportive benefits of a rainbow of foods? While there is no replacement for eating fruits and vegetables, by including black-hued superfoods, you can support your body with antioxidants powerful enough to make a difference.
Black pigmented foods are among the strongest antioxidants that exist, as measured by the ORAC scale (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity), which measures how effectively a food or nutrient neutralizes free radicals; the higher the number, the stronger the antioxidant. There is certainly something very special about black pigments as potent protectors of our body at the cellular level, where oxidative damage occurs. Oxidative damage is like rusting and leads to immune dysfunction, interruption in cellular communication, inflammation, accelerating aging and a host of other issues that keep wellness out of reach. Antioxidants act like martyrs, breaking down to protect our body from physical and biochemical damage, like a shield. A diet rich in antioxidants forms a substantially bigger and much more protective shield than a diet lacking them.
These special black-hued superfoods are especially nourishing for immunity and help to support normal inflammatory responses. Hailing from the Middle East, black seed (Nigella sativa) has been identified as an inflammation regulator, immune tonic, analgesic (pain fighter) and natural antimicrobial. Black seed also has been shown to reduce muscle spasms, support muscle function, balance blood sugar and nourish the optimal function of organ systems, especially the brain and neurons, heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and intestines.Iii The ability of black seed to support so many body systems and functions is why it has been such a revered herb to the many cultures who value natural remedies.
Another black pigmented superfood, the shiitake mushroom (Lentinula Edodes) hails from East Asia and has been used for thousands of years as both food and medicine. This powerful mushroom, especially in extract form, has wonderful health benefits, specifically immune and cardiovascular function. This spectacular mushroom is rich in vitamins and minerals, with just a half a cup serving providing 72% of the daily need of copper, half the daily need for vitamin B6, and 33% of selenium needs. Shiitake mushroom also contains a good amount of zinc, other B vitamins and even small amounts of Vitamin D. What is most impressive about shiitake (and most medicinal mushrooms in general) is the ability to keep the immune system in balance, strengthening the aspects that are weak and under functioning while calming the overactive or autoimmune aspects that lead to a different type of dysfunction. Shiitake is rich in polysaccharides, complex sugar molecules that nourish the immune system and other body systems in a unique way.
While many mushrooms and fungi contain polysaccharides, shiitake seems to contain the highest concentration and greatest diversity of polysaccharides, including the glucose- based polysaccharide glucans. Research on shiitake shows that these special mushrooms contain several types of both alpha and beta glucans, plus laminarin, and lentinan, as well as non-glucan polysaccharides, like galactomannins and fucoidans.xviii These special mushrooms bring beautiful balance to the immune system by aiding in immune communication and by helping to activate a type of immune cells called macrophages. Macrophages are white blood cells that are part of the body's first line of defense, identifying and removing worn out, damaged or dysfunctional cells from the body. Research shows that shiitake helps macrophages yield higher levels of protective interleukin 1-beta and TNF-alpha (tumor necrosis factor alpha), and a lower level of interleukin 10, which can inhibit other immune cells that destroy dysfunctional cells.xix By helping macrophages and other immune cells reach their full activated potential, shiitake mushrooms keep the body and the immune system functioning well at the cellular level. Removing bad cells is an important part of the daily fight the body executes against autoimmunity, infection, allergies and even cancer.xx This fantastic mushroom also has natural antiviral, antimicrobial and antifungal properties that also support both day-to-day and long-term immunity.
Shiitake supports the cardiovascular system and other organ systems. An extract of shiitake called lentinacin (also called d-Eritadine or DEA) has been shown to lower cholesterol levels. As an immune-related vascular benefit, shiitake prevents immune cells from attaching to the lining of blood vessel walls which can lead to the development of atherosclerosis (a buildup of fatty calcified plaque) and other cardiovascular disorders. Several components of this super fungus block specific protein molecules called adhesion molecules, which prevent too many white blood cells from adhering to the blood vessel lining, keeping the veins and arteries clear and supporting the healthy flow of blood throughout the body. As a liver protector, shiitake can be quite powerful. A 2006 study showed that an extract of shiitake shielded the liver from a toxin called D-galactosamine, which kills liver cells. An injection of shiitake extract after exposure to this cytotoxic element resulted in far lower levels of AST and ALT (both chemical blood markers of liver cell injury).xxi As an antioxidant and inflammation regulator, shiitake supports the entire body from oxidative damage and inflammatory conditions. Mushrooms are among the healthiest foods on the planet, it is no wonder it ranks high among the most important medicinal foods in China and Japan. In fact, this mushroom is so valued that the man who history credits with the first cultivation of shiitake, Wu San Kwung, has a temple build in his honor in nearly every village in China.xxii
Here in the Americas, we have our own black superfood; Black beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) are loaded with antioxidants, protein, fiber and a number of essential vitamins and minerals, especially nutrients many of us do not get enough of. Black beans provide an impressive 120 mg (30% DV) of magnesium per cup (80% of Americans are magnesium deficient), 275% of manganese needs, 64% of the folate needed for the day, along with good amounts of zinc, copper and iron. The hard black shell of black beans comes from high antioxidant pigments called anthocyanins, while other flavonoids like kaempferol and quercetin are found inside the bean. This dark hued bean packs a punch for a healthy heart and a well-functioning intestinal tract.xxiii
While some people find that beans can cause gas, these effects stem from a type of carbohydrate in beans called oligosaccharide, which the stomach and small intestines cannot digest. In the large intestine, different types of probiotic break them down, leading to the release of gases like methane, hydrogen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. If beans make you gassy, chances are you are missing an enzyme called Alpha-Galactosidase that breaks down oligosaccharide, thus preventing the gas. These same starches that can lead to embarrassment for some are the same carbohydrates that make black beans a superfood for intestinal wellness.xxiv With a cup of beans providing 30% of the fiber needed in a day, this alone supports digestive function. Some of these fibers contain indigestible fractions, which are starches that nourish the good bacteria in the intestines. This allows probiotic bacteria (the internal microbiome) to produce a short chain fatty acid known as butyric acid. Butyric acid is an excellent source of fuel for intestinal cells and aids substantially in their structure and function. Black beans have one of the highest amounts of indigestible fractions, greater than garbanzo beans or lentils.xxv
Rich in resistant starches, which also nourish and support the health of good probiotic bacteria, black beans are highly beneficial for digestion and GI tract wellness. Because of their fiber, starch content, antioxidants and nutrients, black beans have been shown to ward off constipation, irritable bowel syndrome and even colon cancer.xxvi The fiber, protein and nutrients are also very satiating and can help to stabilize blood sugar levels and cut down on overeating. Black beans are also good for your heart. These dark hued beans help to combat inflammation, reduce cholesterol and support healthy blood pressure levels.xxvii The fiber content of these beans, plus the nutrient profile containing magnesium, potassium and other minerals, aids in these heart healthy mechanisms. Black beans also contain B vitamins like folate and B6 that help to recycle homocysteine, a marker of heart dysfunction when levels are high. Black beans also contain quercetin, an antioxidant bioflavonoid that supports healthy circulation and vascular health, reduces inflammation and helps to combat atherosclerosis, which is a hardening of the arteries due to a buildup of fatty calcified plaque.xxviii Black beans are nutrient dense, low calorie and fat free. Considering their numerous benefits for digestion, intestinal health and so many essential aspects of cardiovascular function, this mighty black bean should be a part of everyone's diet.
Black-hued foods are among the most valuable, most nutrient dense, supremely versatile foods, and every culture seems to have their own black superfood. These dark colored edibles are as medicinal as they are delicious and will nourish your immune system, help you kick inflammation to the curb and give you a whole body antioxidant shield to fight aging. Every single body system will reap the benefits of these black pigments, which compress a rainbow of benefits into these amazing superfoods.
iii Ahmad, Aftab, et al. "A review on therapeutic potential of Nigella sativa: A miracle herb." Asian Pacific journal of tropical biomedicine 3.5 (2013): 337-352.
iv Al-Jassir MS. Chemical composition and microflora of black cumin (Nigella sativa L.) seeds growing in Saudi Arabia. Food Chem 1992; 45: 239-242
vi Atta-Ur-Rahman. Nigellidine-a new indazole alkaloid from the seed of Nigella sativa. Tetrahedron Lett 1995; 36(12): 1993-1994
vii Salama RH. Hypoglycemic effect of lipoic acid, carnitine and Nigella sativa in diabetic rat model. Int J Health Sci (Qassim) 2011; 5(2): 126-134
viii Nemmar A, Al-Salam S, Zia S, Marzouqi F, Al-Dhaheri A, Subramaniyan D, et al. Contrasting actions of diesel exhaust particles on the pulmonary and cardiovascular systems and the effects of thymoquinone. Br J Pharmacol 2011; 164(7): 1871-1882
ix Tayman C, Cekmez F, Kafa IM, Canpolat FE, Cetinkaya M, Uysal S, et al. Beneficial effects of Nigella sativa oil on intestinal damage in necrotizing enterocolitis. J Invest Surg 2012; 25(5): 286- 294.
x Ulu R, Dogukan A, Tuzcu M, Gencoglu H, Ulas M, Ilhan N, et al. Regulation of renal organic anion and cation transporters by thymoquinone in cisplatin induced kidney injury. Food Chem Toxicol 2012; 50(5): 1675-1679.
xi Zafeer MF, Waseem M, Chaudhary S, Parvez S. Cadmium-induced hepatotoxicity and its abrogation by thymoquinone. J Biochem Mol Toxicol 2012; 26(5): 199-205
xii Gilhotra N, Dhingra D. Thymoquinone produced antianxietylike effects in mice through modulation of GABA and NO levels. Pharmacol Rep 2011; 63(3): 660-669
xiii Boskabady MH, Mohsenpoor N, Takaloo L. Antiasthmatic effect of Nigella sativa in airways of asthmatic patients. Phytomedicine 2010; 17(10): 707-713.
xiv Morsi NM. Antimicrobial effect of crude extracts of Nigella sativa on multiple antibiotics-resistant bacteria. Acta Microbiol Pol 2000; 49(1): 63-74
xv Morsi NM. Antimicrobial effect of crude extracts of Nigella sativa on multiple antibiotics-resistant bacteria. Acta Microbiol Pol 2000; 49(1): 63-74
xvi Mahmoud SS, Torchilin VP. Hormetic/cytotoxic effects of Nigella sativa seed alcoholic and aqueous extracts on MCF-7 breast cancer cells alone or in combination with doxorubicin. Cell Biochem Biophys 2012; 25(7): 1392-1398
xix Lee HH, Lee JS, Cho JY, Kim YE, Hong EK; Study on immunostimulating activity of macrophage treated with purified polysaccharides from liquid culture and fruiting body of Lentinus edodes.. J Microbiol Biotechnol. 2009
xx Bisen, P. S., et al. "Lentinus edodes: a macrofungus with pharmacological activities."Current Medicinal Chemistry 17.22 (2010): 2419-2430
xxi Watanabe A et al; Protection against D-galactosamine-induced acute liver injury by oral administration of extracts from Lentinus edodes mycelia., Biol Pharm Bull. 2006 Aug;29(8):1651-4
xxvi Załęski, Andrzej, Aleksandra Banaszkiewicz, and Jarosław Walkowiak. "Butyric acid in irritable bowel syndrome." Przeglad gastroenterologiczny8.6 (2013): 350.
xxvii Rosa, C. O., et al. "[The cholesterol-lowering effect of black, carioquinha and red beans (Phaseolus vulgaris, L.) in hypercholesterolemic rats]." Archivos latinoamericanos de nutricion 48.4 (1998): 306-310.
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