By Nita Sharma Das, PhD, Doctor of Naturopathy
The Health Benefits of Moringa Oleifera
Moringa oleifera, from the family Moringacae is growing in popularity thanks to its immense health benefits.
The various parts of Moringa oleifera (MO), including leaves, seed, pods, flowers and fruits are edible and it’s easily cultivated. In addition to these parts of the plant, the roots and bark are also used for their therapeutic value.
Moringa oleifera has several local names, but due to its healing power and lifesaving quality, it’s often considered a gift from God and referred to as a “miracle tree”. Native to northwestern India and drought-resistant, it can retain its electrolyte balance and stay hydrated internally (1). Thus the miracle of Moringa is experienced even in the driest seasons and for that reason it’s named Moringa oleifera meaning ‘Never Die’, its name being derived from the Tamil and Telegu words munakkai/murungai/muringa. (1)
Moringa oleifera is known as a ‘superfood’, for its combination of macro and micro nutritional factors. These factors can promote immunity and help prevent the development of different life-threating disorders including cancer and HIV (2, 3). Its huge antioxidant property and the rare combination of phytochemicals in MO give it great value as a folk medicine.
Recent research allows us to learn more about the possible mechanisms of action of the different active constituents obtained from MO, but there is still much to be discovered. Moringa is a miracle tree and Ayurvedic medicinal history reports moringa able to fight 300 different types of clinical conditions. (1, 2)
Our modern diets are not always sufficient to maintain a healthy calorie intake and nutritional balance, as we see from the increasing rate of disease progression. Many diseases result from inadequate nutritional supply, one of the major reasons for immunity impairment.
Moringa can be the answer to this as it contains 46 anti-oxidants and 36 natural anti-inflammatory agents (1, 2). The great nutritional value of Moringa, with its presence of different macro and micro-nutrients, can be compared with other foods as shown in the graphic below: (1, 2)
Moringa is a great source of protein which is not only responsible for preserving physiological functioning, but also helps with building different body tissues including cellular structure, bones and muscles.
Protein is made with a sequence of amino acids. Almost 18-20 amino acids are present in MO that are required for building essential protenieous structures. Almost 10 -12 amino acids are prepared inside the human body, but another eight essential amino acids can be supplied through a proper diet. Surprisingly, moringa contains all these eight essential amino acids, so adding moringa to your diet is a way to avoid a deficiency of these essential amino acids. (2)
Most of the nutrients in Moringa are present in its leaves and seeds which alone can provide the maximum required daily allowance (RDA) of some essential nutrients such as 2 grams of protein, 19% of the RDA of vitamin B6, 11% of the RDA of vitamin B2 (riboflavin), 12% of the RDA of Vitamin C, 9% of the RDA of vitamin A, 11% of the RDA of iron; and 8% of the RDA of magnesium can be fulfilled with 21 gm of fresh Moringa leaves, as set out below.
Pods of moringa also provide a very good source of vitamin C and almost 100 grams of fresh pods can provide 157% of the RDA of vitamin C, though the other vitamins, minerals and proteins occur in lower quantities in the pods compared to leaves.
Almost every essential vital nutrient can be supplied by the ingestion of Moringa leaves and seeds.
Nutritional Value Chart of Moringa:
The Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Centre has collated a number of in vitro (laboratory) and animal studies conducted with Moringa derivatives (9) indicating that the leaf, seed and root extracts of MO have various anticancer, hypoglycemic, anti-inflammatory, hepato-protective, antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal and anti-sickling effects.
According to Sloan Kettering’s website, it may also protect against Alzheimer’s disease and stomach ulcers, help lower cholesterol levels and promote wound healing. Moringa Oleifera extract has also shown antifertility effects. Fewer studies have been conducted in humans, and these were not robustly designed and/or were small in number. One of these studies suggested MO exhibited a positive but small effect on lipid profiles. MO inhibits CYP450 enzymes and may interact with prescription drugs. The therapeutic benefits of moringa are discussed below for different disease profiles and physical conditions.
Evidence suggests MO can treat and prevent the growth of cancer (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 11, 13). The exact mechanism of action is not yet clearly understood, due to the insufficient number of studies (8, 9). Yet results obtained from a number of research studies suggest that MO acts against cancer growth and prevents the development of cancer. Mostly pre-clinical trials in a lab or using animal studies, results reported include the following:
- MO leaf extract is a potent anti-proliferative agent and promotes apoptotic events by conduction of morphological changes and DNA fragmentation. (4, 14)
- Polyphenols like ellagic acid, gallate, methylgallate, catechol, kaempferol quercetin and their derivatives are present in MO and act as prostate cancer chemopreventive compounds (i.e. compounds that reduce cancer risk or interfere with a disease process). (4, 15, 36)
- The chemopreventive efficacy of the extract of drumsticks of Moringa oliefera Lam can significantly increase hepatic enzymes which promotes anti-oxidant enzymes, glutathione content and a decrease in lipid peroxidation. Thus provide chemo-preventive action. (4, 16)
- In skin papillomagenesis, it creates a significant decrease of papillomas which inhibit tumor multiplicity. (16)
- Antioxidants within MO help to deactivate the devastating effect of free radicals, thereby helping to defend us from cancer and other progressive diseases such as macular degeneration and cystic fibrosis. (5)
- MO extract is a potent inhibitor of phorbol ester (TPA)-induced Epstein-Barr virus early antigen activation in lymphoblastoid (Burkitt’s lymphoma) cells and thus MO is used for tumor therapy and can prevent the development of cancer. (8)
- Moringa oleifera exhibits anticancer effects via apoptosis in ovarian cancer cells through inhibition of NF-kappaB (9)
- Pre-clinical data provides evidence that MO extract helps to prevent chemical-induced tumor formation by increasing glutathione activity. (9)
Doctors traditionally used MO to treat diabetes as it has anti-diabetic properties. (1, 2, 4, 9, 13). The mechanism of MO against diabetes is explained in three stages:
- Diabetes is characterized by increased blood glucose levels. Different pre-clinical and small scale clinical studies provide evidences that MO can help to lower blood glucose level up to 21% by lowering the fasting blood glucose level by 13.5% (3, 7), lowering harmful malondialdehyde and increasing levels of the important antioxidant glutathione (7).
- Leaves and pods are mainly responsible for providing hypoglycemic action. (8). Laboratory investigation has revealed that MO leaf extract can inhibit alpha-glucosidase and pancreatic alpha-amylase. Both of these enzymes help to increase the blood glucose level, thus MO can help to reduce it. MO also has a specific inhibitory action in intestinal sucrase and intestinal maltase, both of which help in glucose formation within the body. (4, 17)
- MO acts specifically to lower blood glucose levels within 2 hours in a hyperglycemic patient, so this can provide immediate risk reduction of hyperglycemia. However, this effect is not seen in healthy (non-hyperglycemic) humans. ( 4, 18)
- MO has an improving effect for glucose intolerance, and the effect might be facilitated by quercetin-3-glucoside and fiber contents in MO leaf powder.(4, 19)
- Fasting blood glucose (FBG), post prandial glucose levels and glucose intolerance are significantly reduced by aqueous extract of MO leaves for severe hyperglycemia in comparison to mild and normal blood glucose level. So the effectivity of MO against hyperglycemia is increased with an increase in hyperglycemia. (4, 20)
- Benzylamine is found in Moringa oleifera, a plant used to treat diabetes in traditional medicine. Benzylamine can improve glucose tolerance. (22)
Cardiac Benefits: Lowering Blood Cholesterol and Blood Pressure
- The leaf of MO has cardio tonic property. Leaves and pods have hypotensive effects and also lower cholesterol levels. (8)
- Hypercholestomia and hypertension are both factors contributing to progression of chronic cardiac disorder. Moringa has a significant effect on lowering or balancing cholesterol and blood pressure (2, 5, 7, 13)
- The presence of beta-sitosterol in Moringa oleifera helps to inhibit cholesterol synthesis inside the body. (1)
- MO promotes lecithin production for lowering cholesterol levels, with the help of the amino acid methionine. Lysine and trytohyan, amino acids present in MO, work to reduce blood cholesterol levels. (2)
- Leaf extract of Moringa oleifera can inhibit cholesterol micellization, pancreatic lipase, and cholesterol esterase activity, thus assisting in prevention and treatment of hyperlipidaemia (i.e. raised blood serum levels of cholesterol). (17)
- The leaves of MO have definite hypocholesterolemic activity, as Moringa oleifera, taken alongside a high-fat diet, decreased the high-fat diet-induced increases in serum, liver, and kidney cholesterol levels by 14.35% (115–103.2 mg /100 ml of serum), 6.40% (9.4–8.8 mg/g wet weight) and 11.09% (1.09–0.97 mg/g wet weight) respectively. (12)
- The anti-oxidative property of Moringa helps to improve cardiac health, as MO has hypo-lipidemic and anti-artherosclerotic properties. (9)
- MO has vasodilation properties also, which helps to lower blood pressure (30)
- The Moringa plant provides a rich and rare combination of zeatin, quercetin, beta-sitosterol, caffeoylquinic acid and kaempferol. These all provide good anti-oxidant properties. (13)
- MO leaf significantly increases the effectiveness of superoxide dismutase and catalase; and reduces glutathione, thus providing antioxidant property. This also reduces the lipid peroxidation significantly and decreases the synthesis of free radicals. (31) Furthermore, , MO is effective at scavenging against 2, 2-diphenyl-2-picryl hydrazyl (DPPH) free radical, superoxide, and nitric oxide radical. This also provides evidence that MO is a potent antioxidant which prevents the enhancement of oxidative stress in the cell. This action is due to the presence of higher concentrations of total flavonoids, flavonols, phenolics and then proanthocyanidins. (32,33)
- As MO possesses antioxidant properties, it can help to prevent several degenerative diseases that result from increased oxidative stress producing free radicals. (3)
MO can reduce inflammation, as it has anti-inflammatory properties (1, 2, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 13). Due to its anti-inflammatory property, MO extract can be applied in the case of mild injury to reduce inflammation (2).
- Beta-sitosterol and caffeoylquinic acid are phytochemicals present in MO that impart powerful anti-inflammatory action. (1)
- The presence of isothiocyanates in MO is also responsible for its anti-inflammatory property. (3)
- The anti-inflammatory property is mainly due to phenolic glycosides present in the fruits and can inhibit nitric oxide to reduce inflammation.
- The MO root extract is beneficial for arthritis, as dipeptide and urea derivatives present in MO have anti-inflammatory and antinociceptive (pain-relieving) effects. (6, 9)
- For asthma, bronchial inflammation can be reduced by MO. The ethanolic seed extract of MO has immunosuppressive effects, as it inhibits leukocyte and splenocyte. This can also reduce the sensitivity of mast cells by stabilizing them. (6, 9)
- Pre-clinical data provides evidence that 750 mg/kg Moringa extract significantly reduces edema and that its efficacy is similar to that of the (NSAID) indomethacin. The onset of action is within one hour, and its effect lasts for 5 hours. It is expected that data would be similar for humans also. (6)
MO has a direct impact on the immune system due to its anti-microbial properties. MO is a potent antibacterial, antifungal and antiviral agent (1, 9, 13). Traditionally, MO is used for the common cold, fever, and sexually transmitted infections like syphilis. The fungal and viral infections for which MO has shown benefit also include herpes and HIV. (8)
- The seed of MO is considered a natural antibiotic. The bacteria aureus, V. cholerae and E. coli are susceptible to treatment with MO. (34)
- MO leaf juice is effective against human pathogenic bacteria (35). By maintain calcium levels in the body, lysine amino acid present in MO helps to maintain collagen levels, and also provides protection by producing natural antibodies that strengthen our immune system. These effects combine to inhibit viral growth. (2)
- MO has the power to detoxify the blood and helps to purify the blood. This will aid with preventing systemic toxicity and support our immune system.(2)
- 4-(a-L-rhamnopyranosyloxy) benzyl glucosinolates and its cognate isothiocyanate are present in MO and have a wide range of anti-microbial effects, specifically act against bacteria and fungi. (8)
- pylori is a common bacteria affecting human gastric cells and causing gastric ulcer. Through a pilot study, evidence showed that H.pylori has sensitivity against isothiocyanate (present in MO). Therefore, MO is expected to show strong antibacterial property. (8)
Benefits for Liver & Kidney Health
MO acts as hepato-protective agent (1, 4, 8, 9, 13).
- MO provides protection to the liver from acetaminophen (paracetamol) toxicity by maintaining glutathione levels. (9)
- MO seed extracts detoxify arsenic-induced hepatotoxicity by its anti-oxidative property. (21)
- Benzylamine is a phytochemical found in MO that promotes circulating lipid profile without increasing oxidative stress. This remarkable effect is achieved through a reduction in the free-radical process of lipid peroxidation, obtained after regular administration of MO. (22)
- Pre-clinical data provides evidence that the aqueous-ethanolic extract of MO leaf acts as a scavenger of free radicals and provides nephro-protective action. (4, 23)
- The root-wood of MO is useful for prevention of urolithiasis (urinary stones), as it can reduce elevated urinary oxalate levels. (24, 9)
- Overall renal health is improved as moringa is a potent anti-inflammatory agent. It also reduces the chance of of kidney stones forming by flushing out excess amounts of calcium and phosphates via the kidneys. (2)
- As used traditionally by natural health practitioners, moringa leaves also have therapeutic benefits against urinary tract infection due to their anti-microbial qualities. (8)
- Moringa acts as a diuretic. (13)
Nervous System & Brain Health
- Different research shows that MO is effective against nervous disorders including epilepsy, hysteria and headache. It also acts as an anti-spasmodic. (8)
- Sufficient intake of MO helps to maintain the level of phenylalanine amino acid, essential for synthesis of the neurotransmitters that help to transmit signals from nerve cells to the brain. Phenylalanine is also beneficial for improving memory power. (2)
- Alzheimer’s disease is one of the more serious brain health impairments in which Moringa may offer benefit, as MO was able to alter the level of monoamines in brain cells. (9, 38)
- MO leaf and fruit extract is helpful in stress reduction, as both are potent free radical scavengers and have antioxidant properties. (4, 25)
- MO is considered to be beneficial for treating insomnia, anxiety, depression and migraine symptoms as it contains the amino acid tryptophan (converted into serotonin). (2)
- To rejuvenate skin cells and provide nourishment to the skin, sufficient protein is important. MO leaf contains a chain of essential amino acids which are beneficial for skin nourishment as well as new skin development. (5)
- Moringa leaves contain almost 30 antioxidants which prevent skin aging and development of wrinkles. (2)
- MO has deep cleansing properties which help to protect skin from pollution, as it inhibits the absorption of smog through skin. (2)
- MO helps to maintain the skin’s firmness and softness by producing keratin and elastin. Both of these are protenieous in nature and help to maintain the skin’s elasticity and rigidity. (2)
- By balancing pigmentation levels, MO helps with skin tone. It can help to maintain pigment balance, decreasing hyperpigmentation (dark skin tone), which can naturally improve the skin tone. (2)
- MO is increasingly used in cosmetics for its benefits mentioned above, in the form of leaf powder or oil extracted from MO. (5)
- MO leaves are also beneficial for skin disorders including dermatological pyogenic and vesicant infections – i.e. those that develop pus and cause blister formation on the skin. Here. MO also acts as an antiseptic, astringent and rubefacient (dilating capillaries and increasing blood circulation). (8)
- Methionine is the amino acid present in MO which supplies sulphur, helping to prevent skin, hair and nail problems such as fragile nails and/or dry skin. (2)
- Sufficient amounts of vitamin A, B6, biotin, and Vitamins C and E, along with different beneficial minerals like zinc, iron, calcium, copper, potassium, magnesium, manganese, selenium are all helpful in preventing hair loss, split hairs, dandruff and other hair-related problems. Combined, these elements all protect against drying of the hair and thickening of the scalp. Zinc is helpful for preventing DNA damage. Specifically, vitamin E improves blood circulation and reduces oxidative stress. All these mechanisms provides healthy hair growth. (2)
- The oil extracted from MO seeds is used in perfume production and also in aromatherapy, because of its nice fragrance. (2, 8)
Water Purification And Moringa’s Use In The Food Industry
- After extracting oil from the MO seed, the remaining seed cake is used for water purification. Dimeric cationic proteins present in MO seeds can neutralize the colloidal charge in turbid (cloudy) water. The colloidal charge of the particles suspended in the water causes them to clump together… Thus Moringa seeds are able to filter the water efficiently by removing most of the impurities. (10)
- Arsenic toxicity can be detoxified with MO, and so MO can help to prevent several disorders resulting from arsenic exposure via water or food. (3)
- Moringa leaf extract is also used for meat preservation, as it prevents oxidative changes. (3)
- Research has indicated that MO root is effective in treating ovarian cancer. (2)
- MO enhances breast milk secretion, so is beneficial for nursing mothers. (2)
- Anemia is one of the common female problems which can be rectified by MO, as it contains sufficient folic acid, iron and vitamin B6. (4, 8)
Effectiveness Against Gastric Ulcer
- Leaf, seed and root extracts of MO are able to protect against gastric ulcer and also help with healing the ulcer. (1, 2, 4, 8, 9, 13, 28)
- The protective action against stomach ulcers is achieved as the extract of MO leaf is able to modulate the 5HT3 receptor (9, 26) and reduce secretion of gastric acid, due to the leaf extract’s anti-secretary effect(28).
- The root extract of MO has efficacy against ulcerative colitis (27), and the leaf extract of MO has preventive action for duodenal ulcer. (28)
- Both the anti-secretory and ulcer healing effects are due to the reduction of superoxide dismutase, catalase and lipid peroxidation in gastric mucosa brought about by MO leaf extract. (29)
In addition to these above mentioned benefits, some adverse reactions (9) have also been reported in some research papers, including:
- Hypotension and decreased heart rate (bradycardia), due to presence of alkaloids in MO.
- Uterine contractions in pregnancy can cause abortion due to ingestion of MO bark extract.
- Roasted seed of MO contains Phenylacetonitrile which has mutagenic effect on cells in animal studies
- Antifertility properties of MO extract can cause impotency.
- Preclinical data from animal studies provides evidence that chronic administration of MO leaves can cause hepatic and renal impairment.
The adverse effects listed occur mainly due to improper dosing. Accurate dosing for human is very important to prevent adverse reactions.
Most of the research available has been conducted on animals or in a laboratory setting through in-vitro, in-vivo processes. Those human clinical trials that have been conducted are very small in quantity and the number of subjects low. Therefore the results for a large population of humans is currently unknown.
There are encouraging indications that MO may be beneficial in the prevention and treatment of different life-threatening conditions including cancer. Thus there is much scope for further investigation into the different therapeutic aspects of MO in the human population and for the safe use of MO with an appropriate dose.
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