The copious uses and benefits of bamboo make this woody resource seem almost too good to be true. But rest assured, bamboo’s rich bounty is for real. Good for the earth and good for the soul, this fast-growing grass also has benefits for your health. In addition to durability, sustainability and versatility, you can now add high silica content to the list of bamboo’s favorable characteristics.
Bamboo leaves contain about 70 percent silica, an essential mineral ordinarily found in quartz, sandstone and other rocks. Silica is an important trace mineral that the human body uses to build healthy skin, bones, joints, and cartilage. You can easily obtain silica from bamboo leaves by steeping them in hot water and making tea. Silica-rich bamboo tea provides a tasty and effective natural remedy for arthritis, among other conditions.
Bamboo and nutrition
The consumption of bamboo is nothing new. Asians have been eating the tender sprouts of fresh bamboo shoots for thousands of years. Before the young sprout shoots into a towering culm, it has a relatively high concentration of protein, vitamins and minerals. And in most of Asia, it’s a very easy plant to come by.
The catch, however, is that fresh bamboo shoots can be poisonous if not properly prepared. In their raw form, the shoots contain dangerous levels of cyanogenic glycosides. You can best remove these toxins by boiling the bamboo. Fermentation is another option. But with the leaves of bamboo, this is not an issue.
Something else about bamboo shoots, is that they are generally only available for a short window at the beginning of the growing season. Once the shoots start growing up and getting taller, they also get woody. They quickly become too hard and fibrous for human consumption.
Take a look at our article about Bamboo Flour.
Gathering bamboo leaves: Sourcing the silica
Bamboo leaves are an amazingly abundant resource. The vast majority of bamboo species are evergreen, meaning they have leaves all year round. In the springtime, new leaves grow from the stems, and older leaves fall to the ground. But the leaves can be gathered at any time and will quickly replenish throughout most times of year. The flavor is most concentrated when leaves are collected in the dry season, but it’s unclear whether the nutritional levels also vary.
In most cases, you can just let the leaves accumulate on the ground, as they provide a good mulch for the bamboo. The mulch builds up the topsoil, provides a growth medium for beneficial fungus, nourishes the plant, and helps the roots retain moisture. But if you want to collect some leaves from the tall grass, you can easily do this without harming the plant. Just be sure to collect the fresh bamboo leaves from the plant. You don’t want to gather the fallen leaves that have already lost their luster.
Humans can’t really eat bamboo leaves. But it’s not dangerous. Unlike bamboo shoots, the leaves don’t contain any toxins. But chewing bamboo leaves is like chewing grass. They’ve got way too much fiber, and just don’t satisfy. Our digestive systems simply aren’t cut out for it.
Bamboo tea and silica extraction
If you want to enjoy bamboo leaves, for both the earthy flavor and the high silica content, the best method is to make tea. There’s nothing complicated about this process. You don’t need a laboratory full of stainless beakers and air-tight jars. You don’t even need a high-powered mixer.
Once you’ve gathered a few handfuls or sacks full of fresh bamboo leaves, spread them out in a cool, dark place to dry out. If you have an herb drying rack, that’s perfect. In a paper bag or a cardboard box also works just fine. Allow just a couple days for the chlorophyll to metabolize. You don’t want the leaves to dry out completely and turn yellow and brown.
For the best silica extraction, place a handful of leaves in a teapot or a big jar, then boil some water and pour it over the leaves. Purified water is usually better, but that’s up to you. Distilled water is not recommended.
Now let it steep for several minutes, as you would with herbal tea. You can drink it hot, or let it cool off and make an iced tea. Feel free to add some honey or lemon for flavor.
You can also soak your leaves in cold water. It’s unclear whether this is equally effective for silica extraction, but it does make a tasty beverage. In cold water it will take longer, so you can do this overnight. You can also use fresh (undried) leaves for the cold tea.
Sun tea is always a fun option as well. Fill a jar with water and leaves, and let it sit in the full on a hot summer day. By late afternoon, you’ll have a nice pitcher of fully steeped bamboo tea.
What is silica?
Silica is not one of the most essential minerals like calcium, chloride, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, and sulfur. But it is important. The body needs trace quantities of silica to produce collagen, a crucial protein in the body’s connective tissues. Cartilage, tendons, skin, bone, teeth, hair, and blood vessels all contain collagen.
Health benefits of silica
- Silica promotes healthy hair and nail growth. Hair is made up of 40% silica, and bamboo provides other essential vitamins as well.
- Silica keeps the skin soft and supple, providing what some people think of as anti-aging properties.
- Silica is a building block of collagen, a vital structural protein that our body uses to rejuvenate connective tissues like skin and joints. For this reason, bamboo tea can provide real relief from symptoms of arthritis.
- Silica also prevents the absorption of aluminum in the digestive system. Aluminum has been linked to an increased risk of Alzheimer’s disease and other serious health conditions.
In most cases, healthy people don’t need to add silica to their diets. But those who suffer from conditions like arthritis and need to fortify their joints and cartilage can really benefit from some extra silica. One or two cups of bamboo leaf tea per day should be sufficient to increase your silica levels.
Again, there are no dangers associated with bamboo leaves or the over-consumption of silica. If you love bamboo tea, you can drink it all day. You’re not going to overdose on silica.
Other health benefits of bamboo
Bamboo leaves and shoots have long played an important role in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine. Dr. Nirmala Chongtham, Professor of Botany at Punjab University in Chandigarh, has compiled extensive records and research on the many benefits of consuming bamboo shoots and leaves.
In addition to the high silica content, studies show that bamboo also has a very high phenolic content. This makes it a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory. Bamboo has also been shown to be effective in treating diabetes and cancer. Research is limited, but Dendrocalamus asper, a tropical species from Southeast Asia, appears to have some of the highest levels of phenols.
Bamboo is also high in phytosterols, helpful in reducing cholesterol and preventing heart disease. The shoots, which are very high in fiber, confer still greater health benefits.
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