Monday, November 15, 2010

Rooibos Protects Against Gamma Rays

This post is inspired by a post on lahikmajoedrinks tea, titled rub this on your skin and turn back time.

A number of tea companies and cosmetic companies are guilty of exaggerating the health benefits of various types of tea and herbs, attempting to capitalize on people's obsession with health and their lack of scientific rigor. Sometimes the claims being made are so outrageous that they become comical. But at times, there are health properties of certain plants that may seem so bizarre that they are easily dismissed or ignored. This post is about one such property, one that sounds so crazy that I've never seen it advertised by any company. But in this case there is actually some scientific evidence behind the claim. I'm sharing this mainly to convince people of the sheer power that plants have to offer. Hopefully this post can inspire some awe and wonder of the miracles that nature has in store for us.

Rooibos Protects Against Gamma Rays:

Just what is a gamma ray anyway? Gamma rays are a type of high-frequency (short wavelength) electromagnetic (EM) radiation, part of the same spectrum that contains radio waves (at low frequencies) and visible light (intermediate frequencies). Gamma rays fall solidly into the ionizing radiation part of the EM spectrum, which means that they carry enough electricity to separate electrons from atoms or molecules. What this means is that a gamma ray can break apart molecules, and thus, in the human body, cause cellular damage. Pictured below is a diagram of the EM spectrum:

Gamma rays are particularly dangerous to humans not only because they can cause damage to our cells, but because they are able to penetrate clothing and skin, and thus cause diffuse damage throughout the body. Whereas lower-frequency radiation is less penetrating, and thus tends to cause localized burns to the skin, gamma rays instead cause radiation sickness and cancer, making them a particularly sinister threat. Gamma rays occur in nature, and the sun gives off some degree of them, but when concentrated, they are dangerous and highly destructive. Gamma rays are responsible for the devastation of radiation sickness and cancer caused by atomic bombs, nuclear meltdowns, nuclear fallout. These rays are notoriously difficult to protect against; they are the rays that require a thick lead shield, or an even thicker concrete shield, in order to block them out.

How can rooibos protect against gamma rays?

In an article titled Radioprotective effect of antioxidative flavonoids in γ-ray irradiated mice, researchers summarized results from studies on mice that establish that, at least in mice, rooibos, drunk in the form of an herbal tea, can actually provide some modest protection against the damage from gamma rays. Rooibos, like tea, contains antioxidants, including ones that act as radical scavengers. Although it's not fully known exactly what's going on, the basic idea is that when a gamma ray breaks apart a molecule, a free radical is formed. A free radical is an unstable molecule that can react with, and thus cause damage to DNA, fat, or protein in a cell, if it happens to collide with such an organic molecule at a vulnerable point. Radical scavengers react with free radicals before they are able to damage part of the living cell, thus "sacrificing themselves" for the good of the cell.

In good news for us humans, the doses used were similar to the dose obtained by drinking a typical cup of rooibos. So, if you're ever caught near a nuclear bomb blast or nuclear meltdown, quickly brew yourself some rooibos!

Why would rooibos contain chemicals with this property? Think briefly about what the rooibos plant, Aspalathus linearis, does all day long. Endemic to a semi-arid region of South Africa, growing in exposed locations in shrubby habitats, the rooibos plant has a need for such chemicals to protect itself from the barrage of UV radiation that it is subjected to as it basks in the African sun. It makes sense that this plant would manufacture such protective chemicals.

Is it just rooibos?

Absolutely not. The authors of the study cited above also noted that the largest effects seemed to be due to the flavonoid luteolin, which is actually found in a number of plants, including chamomile, carrots, peppermint, rosemary, oregano, and many others. However, rooibos, besides being very tasty, may have a number of other positive health effects as well, at least according to the results of some preliminary research studies. You can read more about this on RateTea's page on rooibos.

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