Studies identify medicinal benefits from common herbs and spices

Researchers found that that adding two tablespoons of culinary spices to a high fat meal reduced blood levels of fat (triglycerides) in overweight men who ate them by 30 per cent. Photo / Supplied
Researchers found that that adding two tablespoons of culinary spices to a high fat meal reduced blood levels of fat (triglycerides) in overweight men who ate them by 30 per cent. Photo / Supplied

We're not suggesting you swap the medicine chest for the spice rack just yet, but researchers have been finding new medicinal possibilities in some common food enhancers.

The trend is hardly surprising. A recent report by scientists at the National University of Singapore found that worldwide, eight of the 20 top selling drugs are derived from molecules made by bacteria, fungi, snails and plants, and another six of the top 20 are mimics of natural products.

The drugs treat everything from pain and inflammation to asthma, diabetes and hypertension. The report also pointed out that not every line of plant or microbe is a candidate to make a viable drug.

Writing in the July Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers led by Chen Yu Zong showed that drug-producing species are an elite group.

Of 886 nature-derived drugs discovered between 1961 and 2010, 783 were from known drug-producing families, and 41 were from neighbours of known productive families.

Cancer is the target of many of the natural disease fighters.

A September report in the journal Hepatology cited rat studies that suggest saffron has a significant effect against liver cancer, both inhibiting proliferation of cancer cells and stimulating the death of liver tumour cells.

Ohio State University researchers discovered in mice studies that indirubin, a compound derived from the Indigo plant, can act to block the migration of brain tumour cells to different parts of the brain.

Their work, published online in July in Cancer Research, is important because glioblastomas are so hard for doctors to track and kill.

While doctors have pretty good weapons for slowing growth of the tumours in the brain, they've been stymied because the tumours spread so easily. The compound, which has long been used against leukemia in a Chinese herbal remedy called Dang Gui Long Hui Wan, both prevents spread of the cells and blocks the growth of blood vessels that supply tumours.

Another September report by scientists at UCLA found that curcumin, the main component of the anti-inflammatory spice turmeric, suppresses a cell-signalling pathway that drives the growth of head and neck cancer.

Tests involved human volunteers eating curcumin tablets and showed that the compound reduced levels of inflammation-causing substances in their saliva.

Curcumin also starred in a non-human study done by scientists at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center that was released at a conference in February. They found that a compound derived from the spice increased the speed of repair to cells damaged by stroke through several different pathways.

Turmeric, along with cinnamon and other spices that contain a lot of antioxidants have been shown to help alleviate the impact of a high-fat diet.

Researchers at Penn State reported in the August issue of The Journal of Nutrition that adding two tablespoons of culinary spices to a high fat meal reduced blood levels of fat (triglycerides) in overweight men who ate them by 30 per cent, compared to when they ate the same meal with no spices added.

The mix included rosemary, oregano, cinnamon, turmeric, black pepper, cloves, garlic powder and paprika. The scientists also found that with the spicy meal, antioxidant activity in the blood increased by an average of 13 per cent, and insulin response fell by about 20 per cent.

Another recent study of cinnamon extracts, led by scientists at the US Department of Agriculture, found that among a small study group of obese patients with blood glucose levels considered pre-diabetic, those who took 250 milligrams of a dried extract twice a day had sharply reduced markers of the illness after 12 weeks.

Taking the extract improved antioxidant function and other factors by 13 to 23 per cent compared to a control group that received a placebo rather than the active supplement.

- AAP

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