The operating word "mucilaginous" here can be interpreted in two ways: Those who love it call it "slick," and for those who loathe it, it's "slimy." Still, whether you like its unique texture or not, you can't deny its wide range of health benefits – especially when it comes to improving our digestive health.
Our relationship with the okra plant goes a long way back. From the time it was first cultivated by the Egyptians nearly 2,000 years ago, it has since traveled the world, reaching central Africa, the Mediterranean, India, and finally, the New World – where it has become a key ingredient in most dishes in the Gulf Coast, as well as South Carolina. These days, it's known as one of the most reliable vegetables in the tropics, making it a widely grown plant in these regions. The plant, which also goes by the names "ladies' fingers" or "bhindi," is related to both hibiscus (Hibiscus sabdariffa) and marshmallow (Althaea officinalis).
A closer inspection of the okra plant will reveal that it's mostly made up of water, carbohydrates, and protein – with a little bit of fat and some dietary fiber. It's also an excellent source of vitamin C – plus, it's also rich in essential nutrients like calcium, phosphorus, iron, beta-carotene, and B vitamins. Studies have also shown that the water-soluble mucilage, which is the source of okra's viscous, slippery texture, is linked to its ability to effectively treat gastritis and conditions that involve an inflammation of the mucous membranes. Quercetin, noted to be the main antioxidant present in okra, plays an important role in down-regulating inflammation in the body.
It's also worth noting that the debate on okra's unique texture isn't limited to our modern dinner tables. Ancient cultures, for one, have presumably taken an interest in the vegetable's mucilaginous properties and its benefits to the digestive system. In Egypt, for instance, okra was used to prevent kidney stones from developing, while traditional Asian and African medical systems use the mucilage to treat gastritis and ulcers and lubricate the gut. Folkloric practices had similar uses for the plant: People consumed fresh okra pods to treat a variety of conditions, including constipation, abnormal vaginal discharge, and even involuntary ejaculation of sperm.
In 1911, J.M. Nickell added okra as a modern medicinal agent. In his book, Botanical Ready Reference, he noted that the okra capsule (fruit) is "mucilaginous, demulcent [a substance that relieves inflammation], and edible." From there, more recent studies have uncovered even more health benefits from okra. Researchers have found that the lectin from okras can cause apoptosis in cancer cells, which can prevent the spread of breast cancer cells. Modern research has also identified the process behind okra's potent gastroprotective effects. Rhamnogalacturonan, a polysaccharide found in the vegetable, has exhibited its ability to interfere with the adhesion process of Helicobacter pylori to tissues in the stomach. H. pylori bacteria are responsible for conditions such as gastritis, peptic ulcers, and even stomach cancer, if these are left untreated.
Multiple studies have also shown that the benefits of okra aren't limited solely to improving overall digestive health. A study made by the Agricultural Research Service of the USDA indicated that okra, together with other vegetables like beets, asparagus, eggplants, and cauliflower, handled the binding of bile acids better than the reference drug cholestyramine. In addition, scientists have found that even okra peels can reduce instances of hyperlipidemia and hyperglycemia in people with diabetes. (Related: Powerful Okra: 16 Health Benefits, Nutrition Value And Anti-diabetic properties.)