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Winter 2006/7, issue #11

Know your onions: as food and medicine
by Cornelis van Dalen

Allium cepa, commonly known as the onion, is of the lily family of plants. It needs no description, as Culpeper would say, for everyone knows of its flavour and its tearful preparation for culinary events. Cooked slowly it has a wonderful sweetness and is a perfect partner to the pungent friend of the same family, garlic.

There is something more mysterious about onions. It is a nourishing food; it heals as a medicament; it has prophylactic properties; and it wards off spectres and ghouls! Onions come in a bewildering array of varieties and are one of the earliest propagated food plants. It is told that the ancient Persians under the direction of Zarathustra were encouraged to breed the food plants. The rose and lily are the archetype plants from which all fruit and cereal plants emerge.

‘Tradition links lilies to the goddess Isis and the so-called Madonna lily is a Christian version of the same. Lilies are the plant of wisdom.’ Hauschka tells us that where the lily has been bred into the onion, leek, garlic, chives and others, their effects on humans are linked to the nervous system. ‘In its shape and substance too we see clear indications of the descent of heavenly forces through the entire plant…. lends itself to the role of digestive quickener….stimulates excretion while at the same time helping soul and spirit to incarnate fully….aid to the proper functioning of brain and regeneration.’ [1] The functioning concerns the forces related to the moon; hence perhaps the connection with spectres and ghouls in folk tales and superstition!
‘Country people have hung up a string of Onions as a protection against an infectious disease, and it has constantly been observed that the Onions will take the disease while the inmates remain immune. For this reason it is important to examine onions before they are cooked, and to discard any which are imperfect.’ [2]

There are many stories along this line from traditional cultures. Onions are a valuable disinfectant. At the risk of offending the sensitive, cutting onions in half and setting them on window sills, with the window slightly open, will ensure the air inside the house is cleansed and purified. It has been known this has saved whole households from falling ill to various flu epidemics of the past and no doubt rendered them immune from earlier plagues and pestilences.

The Chinese and Onion energetics in healing
‘All members of the onion family share certain key qualities: they are pungent and influence the lungs (the pungent flavour ‘enters’ the lungs); and promote warmth and this moves energy in the body, resolves blood stagnancies, reduces clotting, and expels coldness. They are perhaps the richest foods in sulphur, a warming element that purifies the body, helps remove heavy metals and parasites, and facilitates protein/amino acid metabolism. Thus those on a high protein diet can benefit from the onion family. These plants also clean the arteries and retard the growth of viruses, yeasts, ferments, and other pathogenic organisms often proliferating in those eating unbalanced diets. In spite of their medicinal virtue, these plants are thought to foster excessive emotional desire and therefore are not recommended in the major Oriental traditions for those seeking mental and spiritual refinement.’ [3] In India, Hing or asafoetida is used instead of garlic and onions. [4]

The medicinal virtues also include:
•    Reduces blood pressure and cholesterol;
•    Decreases catarrh (phlegm and inflammation of the nose and throat);
•    Treats dysentery;
•    Inhibits allergic reactions;
•    Induces sweating;
•    Is a cure for the common cold. ‘The juice of Onions snuffed up into the nose, purgeth the head and draweth forth raw flegmaticke humors.’ See note 4
•    Juice compresses or raw onion packs are also used externally on insect bites to draw out swelling and pain.
•    Onion packs on the chest are a remedy for bronchial inflammation and other chest congestions. 
•    Onion tea calms the brain and acts as a general sedative.

A traditional cough remedy consists of onions simmered in water until soft with a little honey added; one onion is eaten every four hours.

‘Although onions are healthy and can be used for seasoning in many ways, they do not agree with everyone, especially people whose digestion is not good and who tend to suffer from intestinal fermentation and flatulence. Such problems are exacerbated when onions are eaten,’ says the Swiss Nature Doctor, Alfred Vogel. [5]

And since there have been a few cases of colic in last month, here is another tip: “For colic and wind in the umbilical region, and for infants and small children who have bladder cramps along with reddish smarting urine, Allium cepa is a harmless and reliable remedy. If you do not have extract of Allium cepa in your medicine chest, cut a thin slice of onion, dip it into a glass of warm water for a few seconds then remove it and take a sip of the water every hour. You will be astonished at the prompt relief this will bring.” [6]

This is also Vogel’s tip for streaming colds (use homoeopathically when symptoms are similar to cutting onions). Dip a slice of freshly cut onion into a glass of hot water. Remove the onion after only one or two seconds, allow to cool and sip this throughout the day. If in addition you place half an onion on your bedside table, you will inhale its odour while sleeping, thus reducing your tendency to catarrh and so alleviating your cold. 

Now is the Winter…
The recent seasonal epidemic affliction was catarrhal in nature. ‘Bunged up’ head with ear pain, sore throat worsened to the ears and head and not so much a lung condition, though that depended on susceptibility. The cure necessitated the use of onions and several patients were offered the following recipe and used to good effects.

Homemade onion syrup is the best remedy for catarrh and chesty coughs. In this recipe one has the healing effects of honey and the properties of onion. It is of course always best to use organic ingredients if available. Otherwise proceed with what is in hand – this is the secret of kitchen medicine. 

Onion syrup
Slice a peeled onion into thin slices. Lay some slices in the bottom of a bowl and drizzle some organic honey (or better still Manuka honey) over the slices, then repeat the procedure until you have used up all the onion slices. Cover the bowl and leave it at room temperature, preferably overnight. The resulting liquid can be strained off and bottled. Give one teaspoon three times a day. The taste is not unpleasant but you might want to have a sweet handy, in case your child dislikes it! Do not give more than the suggested dose, or you might find it causes diarrhoea. Keep the syrup in the refrigerator and make some fresh every three days. Within a week you should see a difference in your child's degree of catarrh. The source of this natural remedy is unknown.

Onion soup
It is well known that French onion soup is very fortifying in times of illness too. Butter, onions and beef stock (homemade preferably and simply) is all that is needed.

Melt a slab of butter (45g); add 1 tbsp of oil, and gently sauté 4-5 onions, sliced, for 20-30 minutes. Stir occasionally; do not burn. Add beef stock 6-8 cups and season to taste, simmer further for 30 minutes. Measurements will vary, no need to be precise. This is a healing recipe that works wonders to strengthen the weak and warm up the body. Consult a cookbook for the genuine French Onion Soup recipe. 

© Cornelis van Dalen 2007

1. Rudolf Hauschka, Nutrition - A holistic Approach, Sophia Books, UK, 2002. P. 87
2. Mrs M. Grieve A Modern Herbal, Tiger Books International, UK, 1998 edition. Editor’s footnote p.600
3. Paul Pitchford, Healing with Whole Foods, North Atlantic Books, USA, 1993. P.505
4. The Elizabethan herbalist John Gerard Of the Historie of Plants, says of the ‘Hurts’ of onions ‘being eaten, yea though it be boiled, causeth headaches, hurteth the eyes, and maketh a man dim sighted, dulleth the sences, and provokes overmuch sleep, especially being eaten raw.
5. Alfred Vogel, The Nature Doctor, Verlag A Vogel, Switzerland, UK edition, 2003. P. 412
6. ditto, 412

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