Did you know that a plant indigenous to Belize and Central America Chaya (Cnidoscolus aconitifolius, but also known as Cnidoscolus Chayamansa) has anti-diabetic properties?
Recent scientific studies confirmed what Belizean natural healers and Maya shaman have known for centuries – eating a small amount of Chaya after or as part of a meal will lower blood glucose levels.
A study conducted by the Mexican National Institute of Nutrition concludes that Chaya will not only combat diabetes but is also effective in treating arthritis. Another study conducted by Texas A&M University confirmed the anti-diabetic properties of Chaya. “Following the oral administration of chaya tea, the blood glucose levels of the diabetic rabbits were gradually lowered from a high of 118 (baseline at 0.0 h) to 87 six hours after administration. The blood glucose level of 87 is similar to blood glucose levels of normoglycemic rabbits on drinking water.”
Chaya was used by the Maya in their healing practices and to this day it is common to observe Chaya trees growing around Mayan temples in Belize. Diabetes is common in Belize and among native American populations in the U.S.A. and even among those who do not consider themselves native American but have native American markers in their DNA. Research has shown that indigenous Americans have adopted modern American style diets with high fat, carbohydrates and sugar content and their bodies simply cannot handle this diet.
Chaya Grows Wild In Belize
Chaya is native to Belize but many Belizeans are not familiar with these plants. Chaya is a hardy plant that bears numerous deep green leaves and some say resembles spinach. But is has far more nutritional value compared to spinach. The young shoots and tender leaves of chaya are cooked and eaten like spinach. They comprise part of the staple diet and are the main dietary source of leafy vegetable for the indigenous people of Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and Kekchi people of Alta Verapaz in Guatemala (Harris and Munsell 1950; Booth et al. 1992).
Chaya traditionally has been recommended for a number of ailments including diabetes, obesity, kidney stones, hemorrhoids, acne, and eye problems (Diaz-Bolio 1975). Chaya shoots and leaves have been taken as a laxative, diuretic, circulation stimulant, to improve digestion, to stimulate lactation, and to harden the fingernails (Rowe 1994). Like most food plants such as lima beans, cassava, and many leafy vegetables, the leaves contain hydrocyanic glycosides, a toxic compound easily destroyed by cooking. Even though some people tend to eat raw chaya leaves, it is unwise to do so. Most folks lightly boil the Chaya and drink the resulting “tea”.
Incorporate Chaya Into Your Diet
Here is how to make Chaya Tea: Chaya tea – five large chaya leaves (more if smaller). Cut up into small pieces and oiled lightly in one liter water for 20 minutes. Cool. Add pinch of salt and squeeze of lime. Drink about three cups throughout the day. Chaya tea is a natural diuretic keeps the lines clean. Lower blood sugar for diabetics Reputedly keeps the liver ‘clean’.
Others use Chaya as part of the meal, chop it up and mix it with sausage or longanisa and scrambled eggs. Others lightly boil the leaves and use it as spinach in a salad. Other has more creative and tasty recipe on how to incorporate this into Belize Cuisine.
One of our Belize.com contributors Peter Singfield also known as the Snakeman for his work in researching traditional Maya healing practices in northern Belize, shared how he gets he incorporates Chaya into his diet.
Chaya and Corn Tortillas Recipe
Ingredients: Chaya leaf – a good size bunch. (Note handling advice)
Natural pig lard One or two onions. Fresh Corn tortillas Optional: Fresh Habanero Pepper Optional: Two eggs
Method: You pick a number of nice fat healthy dark green chaya leaves. Careful though — the edges of a Chaya leaf are full of tiny spines – that cause bad rash once in your skin!!
You then take your leaf and wash it. I then roll it up like a fat cigar and chop it with a sharp knife to “pieces” I usually also chop up one or two onions – plus a Habanaro pepper or two — and add that to the mix as well. Then take a good fry pan — lay down about 1/4 in fresh natural pig lard on the bottom. That too is a super food for your body. Salt well – or to taste.
Now — put over fire. Now the real “secret” – As soon as the pan warms up even a little bit – -stir the mix into the fat – then add sufficient rain water — say 1/2 inch level in that fry pan. Turn up the heat till it steams well – then put on big cover — and turn down heat so it but simmers. Leave it that way for 1/2 hour or more – raising cover and stirring about once every 10 minutes or so. When finished – there should be no water – or very little left – but do not let get fry hot in the fat — as that kills all the vitamins. Drain off excess water and fat — put in serving bowl — ready.
Now – take fresh tortilla – home made if you can get them. Fold it in the palm of your hand – fill with a fair amount of chaya leaf mix – – fold and roll gently and enjoy. You can also add eggs and / or some chopped up chicharrón to the mix – but do that only in the last 5 minutes of pan cooking – stirring it in.
Chaya Nutritional Composition
The nutritional analysis of chaya (C. chayamansa) leaves and spinach (Spinacia oleracea L.) are presented for comparison.
Chaya leaves were found to contain substantially greater amounts of nutrients than the spinach leaves. The chaya leaf is especially high in protein (5.7%), crude fiber (1.9%), calcium (199.4 mg/100 g), potassium (217.2 mg/100 g), iron (11.4 mg/100 g), vitamin C (164.7 mg/100 g), and carotene (0.085 mg/100 g). The levels of chaya leaf nutrients, in this study, agree with published reports (Martin and Ruberte 1978; Munsell et al. 1949; Booth et al. 1992) and are two to threefold greater than most edible leafy green vegetables. In terms of the average nutritive value, chaya leaves [14.9] is by far superior to other leafy green vegetables such as spinach [6.4], amaranth [11.3], Chinese cabbage [7.0], and lettuce [5.4] (Grubben 1978). While some edible leafy green vegetables are usually good sources of mineral macronutrients (Levander 1990).
Chaya leaf furnishes appreciable quantities of several of the essential mineral macronutrients necessary for human health maintenance. For example, potassium has been shown to be an important mineral nutrient in the control of hypertension and in the reduction of risks of stroke (NRC 1989), calcium is important for ossification and iron is necessary for normal hematopoiesis (Hodges et al. 1978).
Brise and Hallberg (1962) reported that vegetables, such as chaya, with high vitamin C content may enhance absorption of nonheme iron. Analysis of raw and cooked samples of chaya leaves revealed that cooking may increase the relative composition of carbohydrate and fat and decrease relative composition of crude fiber and protein (Fig. 2).
On the other hand, cooked samples of chaya leaves were considerably higher in calcium, phosphorus and iron while the potassium content was relatively lower than in the raw samples. The increase in some of the mineral nutrients may be due to the cooking process, which allows extraction of the nutrients from the tissues, therefore increasing the percentage of mineral elements while decreasing moisture content (Booth et al. 1992).
Chaya Anti-diabetic Effect
Following the oral administration of chaya tea, the blood glucose levels of the diabetic rabbits were gradually lowered from a high of 118 (baseline at 0.0 h) to 87 six hours after administration. The blood glucose level of 87 is similar to blood glucose levels of normoglycemic rabbits on drinking water. The blood glucose levels of non-diabetic control rabbits that were given chaya tea showed a slight increase (i.e. hyperglycemia) above the baseline 85 at 1 to 2 h after administration, but rapidly stabilized thereafter.
The reason for this transient hyperglycemia is unknown and needs to be investigated. The results obtained in this study suggest that in STZ-induced diabetic rabbits, aqueous leaf extracts of C. chayamansa may be effective for treatment of non-insulin dependent diabetes mellitus (NIDDM) symptomatology. This is a first report on hypoglycemic effect of chaya plants. The present report is preliminary in nature and additional studies will be needed to properly characterize the antidiabetic potential of chaya in diabetic animals. Also further studies will be necessary to determine the effective dosage, mechanism of the hypoglycemic activity and the active hypoglycemic principle present in the leaves of C. chayamansa.
Compiled with assistance from Peter Singfield.
Peter is an Electrical Engineer who emigrated from his native Canada and now makes his home in Corozal, Northern Belize. Mr. Singfield has done extensive research and study of Mayan culture, especially their diet and ancient healing practices. He is considered a shaman and natural healer and lives in a tightly knit Mayan community in the suburbs of Corozal Town. Update 2020 Peter passed in 2019 at the ripe age of 82. His son Chase may soon take in his place.