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Pulque in Mexico: Synthesis of Medicinal and Mythical Properties
Since the pre-Hispanic era in Mexico and until today, several species of agave have been used to extract aguamiel (honey water). Once this sweet coconut milk-like liquid is removed from the heart of the succulent and thus exposed to bacteria and yeasts in the environment, it ferments and becomes viscous. Fermented aguamiel is known as pulque. For hundreds of years, and more probably millennia, medicinal properties have been attributed to pulque, by means of myths that have been passed down through generations of indigenous populations, and more recently as a result of scientific investigations (not without contraindications concerning the latter). As one might expect, the literature is not always consistent in its factual foundations and conjectures. Nevertheless, a profane synthesis in a summary way serves to enlighten.
Pulque, for a few hundred years, was associated with an elixir of mass, a sweet intoxicant with healing powers. Driven by natural/organic and to a lesser extent slow food, it has become a trend. Middle and upper majority millennials living in Mexico’s major urban centers such as Monterrey, Puebla, Guadalajara and of course Mexico City, are flocking to pulquerías. However, most of what is served is an adulterated form of pulque known as curados. A pulque base, sometimes even canned, is combined with a selection of processed fruits, grains and/or vegetables, sugar or other sweetener, and sometimes milk/cream and/or a thickener such as corn starch. These curados couldn’t be further from the real deal, and probably by the time they hit the table, any beneficial attributes, medicinal or otherwise, have long since been lost due to its commercial handling. However, the pulque available in bars and restaurants in towns near rural areas where aguamiel is mined (i.e. Oaxaca, fields outside the city of Santiago Matatlán) is anything but 100% pure. The closer the cantina or comedor is to the field from which the aguamiel was harvested, the more likely it is that the pulque was not bastardized and retained its positive properties.
The wide diversity of microclimates in which agave species are grown suggests that the attributes of the resulting pulque must inevitably vary, sometimes significantly. And each species of plant has within itself a unique series of compounds, minerals, vitamins, etc., which are transformed in different ways. It depends on the sub-region of Mexico, as well as the then dominant bacteria and, to a lesser extent, the yeasts present in the environment. Agave species used to extract aguamiel that have been noted in the literature include salmiana, americana, deserti, mapisaga, atrovirens, ferrox, and hookeri. Different roots, including and in particular acacia (called timbre in some parts of the state of Oaxaca), have been customarily used to make pulque stronger, hotter, more intoxicating, or spicier. It also speeds up the fermentation process, especially during the colder months. Such additions further change the properties of the pulque.
The name pulque is probably derived from the Nahuatl word poliuhqui, which means spoiled. In pre-Hispanic times, in many parts of the country, it was a drink reserved for high priests, warriors and sages. It was used ceremonially as part of the celebration of the harvest, to bring rain, as a means or to honor certain gods, and during rites of passage such as marriage, birth and death. Diverging rules abound as to the proper way to imbibe, and there is a plethora of myths as to its origins. But the national thread that binds it is its medicinal value. It should come as no surprise that populations who drank pulque were generally immune to the cholera epidemic of the 19th century.
Pulque has been considered nationwide as a healthy drink, a nutritional supplement. In areas of Mexico where there is a lack of potable water due to human or animal contaminants, it is used as a thirst quencher. But its constituent elements, including but not limited to iron, carotene, thiamin, folate, riboflavin, niacin, ascorbic acid, protein, calcium, magnesium, vitamin C , fiber, bioactive compounds, phosphorus and ash, probably led to its predominant healing role. in traditional medicine and as a preventive food.
Ask just about any tlachiquero (someone who taps agave to extract aguamiel) in Santiago Matatlán, and he (or she, since at least in the state of Oaxaca producing pulque is a vocation not only reserved for men) will tell you that pulque is 100% natural in part since the only fertilizer, if any, used to stimulate the growth of agave, is the abono of cows, sheep or goats and the mulch used is bagazo (fiber from waste mezcal from distillation); and that the attributes of pulque include stimulation of white blood cell production, good action on triglycerides and diabetes control, especially if consumed early in the morning well before breakfast.
Cross-cultural literature based on studies from all over Mexico, provides a much larger story. Pulque was used:
• in the treatment of gastrointestinal disorders, including ulcers and kidney infections
• as an aid in decreasing general weakness of and in the body
• to fight against loss of appetite and anorexia
• as a diuretic
• to improve relaxation before bedtime
• as an aid to fetal development
• stimulating milk production for breastfeeding mothers
• as a way to relaunch breastfeeding in contact with the lips of newborns
• for children because of its ability to promote muscle and bone development.
Although the purported use of pulque to boost fertility and improve sexual functioning appears to have no evidence base (except perhaps to the extent that alcohol consumption may positively impact libido in some), much of the above has indeed been confirmed by scientific investigation. .
While environmental yeasts play a role in the production of pulque, including apparently contributing to its foam, the literature most often refers to the bacterium of the species Zymomonas mobilis as the main stimulant transforming aguamiel into pulque (and in to a lesser extent to bacteria of the genus Lueconostoc). Widely found in sugar-rich plant saps, Z. mobilis is extremely efficient at producing ethanol.
Several studies have demonstrated growth promoting effects in vitro due to various lactobacilli and bifidobacteria plus probiotic strains. This helps in the absorption of important minerals. Phytase is present, and no doubt very important. It is a digestive enzyme. Some believe it can bind corn and increase the bioactivity of iron and zinc through metabolization. Phytase is a bacterium found in the gut of cattle and sheep, but not usually found in humans, although there is evidence of its presence in vegans and vegetarians . Phytase breaks down into phytic acid. This has been implicated in DNA repair, clathrin-coated vesticular recycling, control of neurotransmission, and cell proliferation. Although animal nutrition research has suggested the benefit of supplementing feed with phytase as an aid in the production of calcium, phosphorus, other minerals, carbohydrates and protein, the implications for humans are still largely unknown and further study is needed.
By examining in the context of scientific research how and why indigenous people have used pulque for hundreds of years, we gain a better understanding of the actual validity and veracity of myths and beliefs regarding the healing properties of the ferment.
The scientific investigation confirms that the consumption of 850 ml of aguamiel satisfies the daily human needs for iron and zinc. Because it is an alternative source of FOS (fructooligosaccaride) prebiotic syrups, it improves calcium absorption in postmenopausal women and more generally iron absorption. Consumption has been suggested for the prevention of colon cancer. Pulque is known to contain steroidal saponins that have been studied for their medicinal uses, including their antispasmodic activity and toxicity to cancer cells. They have been described as the most important bioactive compounds in yams and several biological activities such as anti-cancer have been documented.
The melatonin content of pulque helps with relaxation in preparation for sleep. The probiotic potential of lactobacilli isolated from both aguamiel and pulque provides a low cholesterol, non-dairy source alternative for those with lactose intolerance. It is perhaps the food product with the highest dose and greatest variety of potential probiotic microorganisms. A study conducted in Valle de Solís, Mexico State, found that consuming pulque led to a lower risk of hemoglobin deficiency in pregnant women.
But just as the potential health benefits of consuming pulque have been difficult to assess and confirm for reasons some of which have been noted in this article, so have some of the contraindications. It is known that alcohol consumption can have harmful effects for pregnant women and their offspring, even with 6% pulque. But this has to be weighed against consumption in areas with generally poor dietary habits or the unavailability of the diversity of vitamins and minerals in food. The literature indicates that drinking pulque in small quantities promotes fetal development and increases milk production during lactation (helps the mother absorb calcium).
Pulque indeed has a short shelf life due to the ambient temperature and the constant contact with the yeasts present in the environment. The longer it is stored, the faster it degrades. However, once it is essentially undrinkable, in parts of Mexico like Oaxaca it is used as a base to produce a refreshing drink known as tepache. Typically, tepache is made with vinegar-like pulque, pineapple, and a derivative of sugar cane known as piloncillo or panela. It is uncertain whether this drink retains some of the positive attributes of pulque.
Another problem for some is the lack of sanitation associated with aguamiel and pulque. This may become apparent if one ever has the opportunity to participate in the extraction of aguamiel from agave and/or has consumed pulque at a village market. In my opinion, having consumed both beverages over the last quarter century, this is not a problem. Commercial preparation of pulque for canned sale is one possible solution. Chemicals are added to stop the fermentation. However, it is suggested that the benefits of pulque consumption will have long been lost by the time canned pulque is imbibed anywhere in the country, or in US states where it is available for purchase, such as California, l Arizona and New Mexico.
Further study is warranted and needed to better understand the true benefits of pulque. But for now, subject to the documented risks associated with its consumption, it is suggested that the positive attributes reported should be enough to entice the reader to drink a little pulque from time to time, and for that matter aguamiel if in an area of Mexico where it is harvested fresh from the agave.
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