Recently, my son came down with a nasty fever and cough. I tried my usual arsenal of herbal remedies and supplements, some of which undoubtedly helped in the interim, but ultimately, if I backed off, the cough returned with a vengeance. Frustrated, and admittedly a little scared by the possibility of H1N1 (something I think is in the back of all our minds now), I resorted to more traditional remedies. Again, these helped some but did little to relieve the actual cause, and the fever and cough continued. Then, during a conversation with my sister, I relayed my frustrations with the fact the school year had hardly begun and the casualties were already mounting to which she simply replied, "onions". Not quite sure I heard her or that she was even listening to my obvious diatribe about how being back at school also meant the inevitable sharing of every germ, virus and bacteria, known to man, I responded in kind "onions?"
"Yup", she said. "Onions and brown sugar". After she said it, that little light bulb immediately went off in my head and I thought "of course".
Onions are a member of the allium family, the same as garlic, leeks, shallots and scallions. These smelly, but powerful veggies contain literally dozens of chemical compounds (25 to be exact) that have been used for centuries for their amazing healing properties. The Chinese, East Indians, Ancient Greeks, Romans and even Egyptians revered the onion, believing it to help with infections, digestion as well as issues with the eyes and joints among other things. Today, we know the plant has potent diuretic, antibiotic and even anti-inflammatory properties. Studies also show it to be an effective expectorant, which makes it very useful in cases of infections like colds, flu and persistent coughs.
Onions and others in the allium family are high in flavonoids, powerful antioxidants known to prevent disease by attacking harmful free radicals within the body. In particular, onion is very rich in the flavonoid quercetin, a compound shown in studies to help prevent heart disease by not only preventing cholesterol from attaching to arterial walls, but also by preventing blood platelets from sticking together and forming clots. In fact, one 2006 study published in the British Journal of Nutrition , shows people who consume the most quercetin-containing foods (onion soup in this study) have a reduced risk of thrombosis and cardiovascular disease. Quercetin is also shown to stop the progression of tumors, one reason this compound is often used for cancer prevention. Researchers at the University of Utah have further found that quercetin may in fact help to reduce blood pressure.
Onions are also an effective and natural way to raise good (HDL) cholesterol according to the American Heart Association. Researchers at Massachusetts' Tufts University have shown eating yellow or white onions can actually raise HDL cholesterol by as much as 30 percent over time.
Onions contain sulfur compounds that are not only responsible for its pungent smell but also the reason your eyes water when you cut them. Onion and other allium vegetables are rich in thiosulfinates, sulfides, sulfoxides and other odoriferous sulfur compounds. While cysteine sulfoxides primarily give onion its distinct flavor and eye-irritating properties, research shows thiosulfinates have powerful antimicrobial properties that are effective against numerous bacteria including bacillus subtilis, salmonella and even E. coli. All these organosulfur compounds are also proving to be a significant factor in both cancer and cardiovascular prevention. Interestingly, in central Georgia where the popular Vidalia onions are grown, statistics show the death rate from stomach cancer is almost 50 percent lower than in the rest of the United States. As well, sulfur in onions is shown to help in cases of asthma by inhibiting the allergic, inflammatory response typical in acute attacks.
Onions are also very rich in fructo-oligosaccharides, compounds shown to stimulate the growth of healthy bifidobacteria and suppress the growth of potentially harmful bacteria in the colon, which may account in part for onion's role in colon cancer prevention.
Unfortunately, the beneficial effects from onions are mostly lost when cooked according to some studies, so you should try to eat onion raw whenever possible. Some researchers suggest the best way to get the maximum benefit from onions is to juice them and then mix the juice with honey, taking two-to three teaspoons daily for about three weeks when fighting a virus. According to research, the Western Yellow, New York Bold and Northern Red onion contains the highest concentration of flavonoids and antioxidant value of the 10 onions tested (the milder tasting Western White and Vidalia onions having the lowest antioxidant content). So, when buying onions a good rule of thumb, according to this study, is essentially the smellier and stronger the onion variety the better.
Other medicinal uses for onion :
- A compress applied to the skin for acne, arthritis and congestion
- A natural wormer (although studies show onions are toxic to dogs and cats so never feed them onions)
- A natural diuretic
- Intestinal disorders. O nions stimulate peristalsis (contraction and expansion) of the intestines and help remove intestinal putrefaction and excess gas.
- Toothache and prevention of dental decay
- Stimulating hair growth
My sister's simple yet highly effective cough syrup recipe:
Choose one of the more potent onion varieties. Slice 2-3 medium size onions. Place one layer of onion in a glass bowl and cover with brown sugar. Layer with more onion and then cover again with brown sugar. Continue until all onion is layered. For a more powerful remedy, add approximately 3 tbsp of Manuka honey to the mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and place on the kitchen counter for 24 hours, stirring occasionally to ensure all onion is covered. After 24 hours, drain the juice from the mixture and place in a glass jar. Take 2 tablespoons as necessary for cough and respiratory congestion. Refrigerate and keep for up to seven days.
Cynthia McMurray is a professional natural health writer and publisher. She founded and published a national natural health magazine and has written numerous books for leading health professionals. Cynthia was also the author of a weekly health and lifestyle column before she started Three Dogs Press. Cynthia currently works as a publishing and editorial consultant and teaches writing courses as she continues to write about relevant natural health issues that affect us on a daily basis.