It’s the most wonderful time of the year!  Well, it is for me.  And while many people aren’t so keen on this time of year, there are still some wonderful things about fall that shouldn’t be overlooked.  One of those is pumpkins.  Most of us will be carving pumpkins for Halloween or indulging in several slices of pumpkin pie over the next couple of months.  But there is much more to this festive orange gourd and I’m going to fill you in on all it has to offer.

Pumpkins are in the Cucurbitaceae family of squashes. They are a herbaceous annual vine, harvested and dried in the summer and fall when the squash is ripe.  Pumpkins are native to North America and are now cultivated worldwide in temperate regions.

Pumpkins have been cultivated in Mexico and North America since at least 14,000 B.C. Typically the seeds are used medicinally, but the pulp is a highly nutritional food as well and is often baked or used in stews and soups.  A type of winter squash, the word pumpkin originates from the Greek word for “large melon” which is “pepon”.  Commonly viewed as a vegetable, they are actually a fruit, as they contain seeds, though their nutritional profile more closely resembles that of vegetables.

Native Americans prized pumpkins as a nutritious food and medicine. They used dried pieces of the squash to weave into mats. Most Native American nations have their own traditional methods for preparing pumpkins. Grown alongside corn and beans, pumpkins are one of the mythological “Three Sisters” of  Native American agriculture. Ancient pumpkin containers have been found in Mexico dating back as far as 7,000 B.C. Some tribes dried and ground the seeds into flour to mix with cornmeal to make bread.

Pumpkins have long been associated with magic and the Pagan holiday of Samhain (pronounced sow-in), which is the official end of summer and the harvest season. The ancient Celts believed that the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead were extremely thin at this time of year, allowing the dead to cross over into the world of the living. The dead could be seen as ghosts or black cats. With the arrival of Christianity to Ireland this holiday was incorporated into All Souls Day (November 1).

It is the Irish that are credited with carving pumpkins to celebrate All Souls Day, also called Halloween. As the Irish immigrants came to America and discovered pumpkins, it was an easy transition from the much smaller squashes they had traditionally used to represent the Jack-O-Lantern.  Previously, they had used rutabagas or turnips, which were much smaller. Carving pumpkins into Jack-O-Lanterns went with their tale of Stingy Jack who played a trick on the devil that backfired and left him to wander the earth forevermore, stuck between heaven and hell.  As time went by the tradition became a symbol of Halloween, with pumpkins being carved every year as a fun part of the holiday decorations.

In China, the pumpkin is a symbol of prosperity and fruitfulness. Enjoyed during the Chinese New Year celebrations it is a symbol of health, happiness and prosperity.  In East Asian Medicine (EAM), the raw seeds are used medicinally to kill parasites, benefit pregnant women, prevent prostate disease and protect the gums. The Chinese will mix walnuts, peanuts and pumpkin seeds to help heal malnutrition.

Pumpkins (nan gua in Chinese) correspond to the Earth element in EAM, which represents the digestive system. They’re the perfect food to eat as the weather changes and upper respiratory infections become more prominent.  Pumpkin is considered warming and deeply nourishing to the body.  When pumpkin is cooked into soups or stews with warming spices like ginger, garlic, cinnamon or cloves, the effect is even stronger.

Here are some other ways that pumpkin can help improve your health:
1. Load up on Antioxidants – Antioxidants help protect the cells in your body from damage, either due to the natural aging process or due to smoking, pollution or exposure to chemicals. They help lower the risk of developing cancer and other chronic diseases. Pumpkins are not alone in providing these antioxidants. Other orange vegetables such as carrots, butternut squash and sweet potatoes are packed with antioxidants and are equally delicious.

2. Improved Eyesight – You may have heard that eating carrots strengthens your vision and there is some truth to this statement.  It’s the high level in carotenoids found in orange colored veggies that is responsible for this health benefit.  Carotenoids are converted into Vitamin A which is essential for optimal vision particularly night vision.  One cup of pumpkin contains 200% of the daily recommended intake of Vitamin A.  Pumpkin is also unusually high in lutein and zeaxanthin, two compounds that are linked to reducing the risk of age-related cataracts and macular degeneration.

3. Improved Immunity – Pumpkins are considered good at strengthening the mucous membranes of the  body, especially the lungs and nasal passages.  In EAM, the lungs, immune system and the gut are all connected.  And because pumpkin strengthens our digestive system, it also has a beneficial effect on the lungs and can offer an immunity boost.

4. Weight Management – Pumpkin has less than 50 calories per cup and 3 grams of fiber. The fiber helps you feel full, normalizes the bowel movements and helps to control blood glucose levels.  All of which, are beneficial for losing or maintaining weight.

5. Mood Enhancement – Don’t throw out the pumpkin seeds, also known as nan gua pi.  Pumpkin seeds are rich in the amino acid tryptophan.  Tryptophan plays an important role in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates mood.  Bottom line, pumpkin seeds can make you feel happier and improve your quality of sleep.

6. Lower Cholesterol – Pumpkin seeds have a powerful cholesterol lowering effect. The seeds are rich in a plant based chemical called phytosterol which can lower LDL or “bad” cholesterol levels. They do this by blocking the absorption of cholesterol from your diet. It’s best to eat them raw for maximum benefit.

7. Improved Sexual Health – As already mentioned, the seeds contain phytosterols.  And this chemical can help improve testosterone production, which increases sperm count, motility and fertility. The fatty acids in the seeds also improve blood circulation and increase semen volume. They are very high in zinc and other compounds that support fertility in men and women.  Studies have shown the benefits of complex carbohydrates, fiber, omega-3 and zinc on fertility.  These and other compounds found in pumpkin and pumpkin seeds help stimulate blood flow to the genitalia.  Also high in water content, pumpkin also ensures fluid supply to follicles for proper egg maturity.

8. Expels Parasites – Pumpkin seeds are used to drive away worms and other parasites that reside in the human body, especially in the large intestine. Grinding the seeds makes them more effective when being used to treat a parasitic infection.

There are so many ways to add pumpkin and pumpkin seeds into your diet and this time of year is the ideal time to get started.  The smaller pumpkins tend to be sweeter and easier to slice.  And one of the most important things to remember is that carving pumpkins should not be ingested because the carving can expose them to harmful bacteria and mold.  Now that you have more info, get out to the pumpkin patch and start picking!

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