With accolades dating back centuries, moringa appears to offer impressive health benefits, but does the science stack up? Registered nutritionist, Kerry Torrens, explores what we know about this interesting plant.
What is moringa oleifera?
A tree, native to South Asia and Africa, moringa oleifera has a number of colloquial names including the ‘miracle tree’ because of its alleged healing abilities, and the ‘horseradish tree’ thanks to its botanical family, the brassicas. Almost all parts of the tree can be eaten, including the leaves, bark, roots, sap and flowers, although it’s the leaf extracts which appear to offer the greatest protective, antioxidant properties.
The tree is an important source of nourishment in developing countries where poor nutrition is a major concern. In the Western world, the dried leaves are more likely to be sold as a food supplement in either a powder or capsule form.
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A 10g serving of moringa powder provides:
2.3g vitamin C
Top 5 health benefits of moringa
1. Rich source of protective antioxidants
Antioxidant compounds, including nutrients and phytochemicals, help protect cells from the damage incurred by molecules called free radicals, these are produced by the body when exposed to environmental toxins like pesticides and cigarette smoke. Moringa, and most notably its leaves, are rich in a number of beneficial compounds which provide antioxidant protection. These include vitamin C and beta-carotene as well as polyphenols, such as quercetin, rutin and chlorogenic acid.
2. May support blood sugar control
Most of the evidence supporting the use of moringa for balancing blood sugar has been based on animal studies – these suggest that compounds in the leaves may stimulate the cells of the pancreas, which are responsible for the secretion of the blood-sugar balancing hormone, insulin.
An interesting study looking at the effects of the leaf powder on postmenopausal woman showed that taking 1½ teaspoons of moringa leaf powder every day for three months reduced fasting blood glucose levels by an average of 13.5 per cent. This suggests that moringa may be helpful in addressing some of the physiological changes experienced by mid-life women.
3. May have anti-inflammatory benefits
Inflammation plays a pivotal role in the development of many chronic illnesses, from obesity and diabetes to arthritis. The root, fruit and leaves of moringa contain substances which inhibit this inflammatory process. Both animal and test tube studies support the use of moringa, although there are still relatively few studies confirming these effects in humans.
4. May protect the liver
The liver is essential for maintaining our health and processing nutrients from our diet. In animal studies, moringa’s high levels of protective compounds called polyphenols helped protect the liver and promote recovery of damaged tissue.
Very recent human trials suggest a possible role for moringa as an anti-cancer drug for liver cancer.
5. May support cognitive function
The rich antioxidant properties of moringa may support cognitive function and be useful in the fight against cognitive decline, as well as conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. In addition to this, it would appear that the plant may be useful in supporting mood, memory and neurotransmitter balance, with animal studies suggesting the leaf extract may be helpful for depression.
Studies to date in all of these areas look promising, but there’s still much for us to learn about this plant and its many reputed benefits.
Is moringa safe for everyone?
It is generally considered safe to eat the leaves and seed pods, however caution should be exercised over the bark and pulp. This is especially relevant during pregnancy because the bark contains chemicals which may promote uterine contractions and may increase the risk of miscarriage.
Those on prescribed medication including blood pressure tablets, diabetes medication and levothyroxine should check with their GP or pharmacist to ensure moringa is appropriate for their use.
If you’re on prescription medication, have a relevant medical condition or have concerns, speak to your GP for guidance.
This article was last updated on 29 September 2021.
Kerry Torrens is a Registered Nutritionist (MBANT) with a post graduate diploma in Personalised Nutrition & Nutritional Therapy. She is a member of the British Association for Nutrition and Lifestyle Medicine (BANT) and a member of the Guild of Food Writers. Over the last 15 years she has been a contributing author to a number of nutritional and cookery publications including BBC Good Food.