More than a sip: Himalayas, High-Altitude Sicknesses and Therapeutic Ethnic Fermented Drinks

More than a sip: Himalayas, High-Altitude Sicknesses and Therapeutic Ethnic Fermented Drinks
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BioMed Central
BioMed Central BioMed Central

In vitro bioactivities and gastrointestinal simulation validate ethnomedicinal efficacy of five fermented kodo-based Himalayan traditional drinks and bioaccessibility of bioactive components - Food Production, Processing and Nutrition

Tongba, chhyang, nigar and raksi are popular traditional drinks served in Nepal, northern and north eastern part of India and Tibetan plateau which are claimed as medicinal and considered as elements of high altitude ethnopharmacology. In this research, kodo (finger millet) based traditional beverages such as tongba, chhyang, nigar and raksi samples, collected from Singalila ridge of the Himalayas, were analysed through various qualitative and quantitative biochemical parameters. Total phenolic content (gallic acid equivalent) was estimated in a varied range from 936.26 ± 6.87 µg/mL (nigar) to 96.36 ± 1.22 µg/mL (chimphing raksi) while highest free fatty acid was measured in khokim raksi (2.11%). Antioxidant activity was evaluated using in vitro assays (DPPH assay, iodometric assay and in vitro anti-lipid peroxidation assay); antibacterial assay was conducted using well diffusion method. Tongba was found to be the most potential sample in antioxidant assays with a DPPH scavenging value of 85.31 ± 1.54% while nigar was the sample with most promising antibacterial activity. Furthermore, special emphasis was given on GC-MS based metabolite profiling and metabolomic elucidation. Responsible candidates detected by GC-MS analysis were discussed to correlate results of preliminary biochemical screenings and in vitro bioactivities. In vitro gastrointestinal digestion was carried out to figure out bioaccessibility of the bioactive groups of compounds in simulated human GI tract where DPPH assay, total phenol content and lipid composition (acid value) were considered as parameters. Most of the bioavailable bioactive antioxidants and phenolics were estimated to be decreased in the gastric phase reflecting the highest rate of digestion in the stomach while breakdown of lipid composition was dominated by the intestinal phase. Overall results suggest that antioxidative phenolics and fatty acids from these beverages possess bioactivities in their bioavailable form which may be associated to their ethnomedicinal properties. Graphical Abstract

The Background

The Himalayas are an exclusive, untapped resource in more ways than one. The culinary and ethnomedicinal traditions of indigenous tribes inhabiting the Singalila Ridge and other high-altitude regions of Darjeeling, Sikkim, and Nepal have long been integral to their cultural heritage. Related practices have been upheld and passed down through generations, fostering a profound sense of connection between the community and its natural environment. An extensive array of traditional healing techniques using local flora or herbs have been trusted and revered, sometimes even over modern medicine, as not only remedies but spiritual practices. Traditional foods and beverages, guided by ancestral wisdom, have been significant in maintaining health and general well-being. Furthermore, culinary traditions have helped these communities adapt to the stress of drastic seasonal shifts and harsh environmental conditions of the high altitude.

Survey during sample collection by  Majumder et al. 2024
The study area Singalila Ridge (Google Earth)  and our researchers (SA, SS, AG, and SM) in Sandakphu 

The Research

Locally sourced and endorsed beverages like tongba, chhyang, nigar, and raksi have been studied to harness the potential of important bioactive compounds upon consumption that are produced as metabolites during traditional brewing or fermentation. These compounds feature activities related to moisture retention, hepatoprotection, antioxidant property as well as proficiency as antibacterials against high-altitude specific infections and various other high-altitude sicknesses. The samples were analyzed through various qualitative and quantitative biochemical parameters. Overall results suggest that antioxidative phenolics and fatty acids from these beverages possess bioactivities in their bioavailable form which may be associated to their ethnomedicinal properties.

Societal Impact

Fermented foods and beverages developed due to remoteness and therefore lack of accessibility to mass produced goods, form an integral part of the lives of indigenous populations. Many are exclusive to certain regions and curated to serve the well-being of these people under the unyielding conditions of montane life. It has allowed for the retention of this vast and unique repository of knowledge unknown to most. The studied traditional alcoholic beverages not only offer a refreshing experience but also play a vital role in the social and cultural fabric of the tribal communities residing in Darjeeling, Sikkim, Nepal, and other high-altitude regions of the Eastern Himalayas. Due to the remoteness of these locations from large-scale markets, the indigenous populations rely heavily on locally produced and packaged beverages to tolerate the trials of a colder climate. Tourists also often indulge in these beverages to quench their thirst and benefit from their medicinal properties, which can help them to alleviate high-altitude sickness. However, it is noteworthy that the region lacks a large-scale production unit or industry dedicated to local alcoholic beverages. By embracing advanced food biotechnology or fermentation technology, the region can unlock the potential for large-scale production of these culturally significant beverages. This initiative aims to satisfy the needs of both local residents and tourists while simultaneously fostering economic growth. As the world becomes more connected, these practices are becoming open to exploration by scientific research. The benefits are advertised to visitors and are catching the attention of scientists worldwide. Local tribes also emphasize sustainable practices, ensuring the responsible harvesting of medicinal plants as they believe in maintaining a harmonious relationship with the natural world. The study of these cultural practices can provide valuable insights into alternative healthcare approaches, promoting a balanced integration of traditional wisdom, spirituality, and sustainable living practices.

Looking Back – and Ahead

Our research team from the Department of Tea Science at the University of North Bengal under the guidance of Dr. Malay Bhattacharya has focused its research on such topics exploring the wealth of cultural knowledge held by local communities of these high-altitude regions. The endeavor has been welcomed and supported by these communities, eager to share their wisdom. With the indispensable assistance of locals like Sandakphu trekking guide- Mr. Thendup Tamang who has guided the acquisition of samples and information, the Molecular Biology and Tissue Culture Laboratory of the Department of Tea Science, NBU has been able to gain an understanding of the potential pharmacological value of traditional fermented food technology of these areas. Many little-explored and remote trek routes have been traversed by my team (led by Soumya Majumder)  since 2020 to collect essential samples that have served this research. Since then we have conducted regular surveys in different settlements of this Indo-Nepal ridge. It has culminated in the discovery of various important bioactive compounds thereby validating the beneficial properties inherent in many local fermented foods and beverages and this paper is a part of the findings. The research team has actively organized several seminars and other social outreach programs to highlight and promote this traditional knowledge. Further studies into the ethnomedicinal properties of such food products are needed and that promises the discovery of significant compounds that may then be mass produced for the betterment of people worldwide. Apart from this area of study, the team has also focused on research on terrestrial environmental microbiology and chemistry which are available as published literature.

Invited lecture from Dr. Malay Bhattacharya and a glimpse of soil sample collection

Dr. Malay Bhattacharya and his research scholars (in 2019-20)
Photographs captured and edited by: Nilanjan Karmakar

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