My curiosity regarding the healing benefits of betel leaf (commonly called paan ka patta) arose when it miraculously subsided a deep painful injury almost overnight. The rapidity with which it reduced inflammation compelled me to further research on this green, heart-shaped leaf’s health effects.
It appears that our forefathers were acutely aware of its wide-ranging health benefits, but sadly, modern urban people are not only unaware of its uses but also discourage eating paan citing alleged risk of oral cancer.
In India, the tradition of eating paan with soaked lime, areca nut (supari) with or without tobacco is age-old. Betel is also used in religious rituals and prayers as it is considered auspicious.
It appears that our paan ka patta actually contains many curative and healing benefits. The leaves are rich in vitamins like vitamin C, thiamine, niacin, riboflavin and carotene and are a great source of calcium. Since the amount of betel leaf one actually consumes is very small, it can hardly contribute as a rich source of these nutrients.
However, the real medicinal benefits arise from other non-nutrient components. These include its powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds like phytochemicals, including phenolic compounds, flavonoids, tannins, alkaloids, steroids and quinones. Owing to these, betel leaf has anti-microbial, anti-cancer and anti-diabetic properties. Its role in prevention of cardio-vascular disease, high cholesterol and high blood pressure have been documented in Ayurvedic texts and in a few scientific studies. Its benefits in treating wounds, inflammation and asthma too have been reported in traditional medicine. Other known benefits in traditional medicine include treating oral cavity disorders, digestive disturbances and depression .
The concerns regarding oral cancer are real. Several studies support the increase cancer risk to lip, mouth, tongue and pharynx among consumers of betel products. However, it is more an effect of tobacco and other ingredients which cause this. Betel leaf independently has not been found to cause such detrimental effects.
Different recommendations exist for consuming betel leaf in Ayurvedic texts for specific conditions.
Till more scientific studies are conducted, it is surely a good idea to introduce this immensely beneficial leaf for your overall well-being — without the other harmful ingredients. Its heart shape may not be a coincidence and may symbolise its special role in heart health, diabetes and inflammation.
Author is a clinical nutritionist and founder of http://www.theweightmonitor.com and Whole Foods India