In Japan, the slightly bitter leaves of the Ashitaba plant have long been considered healthy, and a new study has found the traditional belief may have good scientific grounds.
A natural substance in the plant appears to induce a key process that helps remove the “cellular garbage” that can build up as cells age and cause a range of diseases and disorders.
“It is always nice to find a scientific rationale for traditional medical folk tales,” said Frank Madeo, a professor at the University of Graz’s Institute of Molecular Biosciences, in Austria.
Madeo, who helped lead the research, said the substance known as 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone or DMC, which occurs naturally in Ashitaba plants, induces a process called autophagy.
“This is a cleansing and recycling process,” he told AFP. It removes “superfluous material, especially cellular garbage like aggregated proteins.”
That “cleaning” process is key to sustained good health as the body ages. When cells fail to promptly and efficiently remove damaged parts, they can build up and that can lead to diseases including cancer.
There are already a handful of compounds known to scientists that work to stimulate the cleaning process. Fasting also appears to naturally encourage cells to undertake spring cleaning.
But in a bid to expand the field of compounds able to protect cells and turn back the hands of time, the team of researchers turned to a class of substances called flavonoids.
Many flavonoids have already been shown to have a range of beneficial effects, ranging from anti-inflammatory properties to protecting against brain degeneration and cancer.
The team reasoned that they might find flavonoids that could also help prevent destructive ageing in cells.
They screened 180 compounds representing various subcategories of flavonoids, looking for candidates that might have the natural ability to “counteract age-related cell demise.”
– Cell-protective capacity –
After initial screening, they settled on DMC and started by testing how the substance affected yeast cells.
They discovered it was indeed helping to protect the yeast cells from the effects of ageing, and that the substance performed as well or even better than some existing compounds prized for their cell-protective capacity like resveratrol, which occurs in grape skin, among other places.
The team then tested DMC’s effect on cells in both worms and fruit flies — common test subjects in medical research.
“Remarkably, chronic DMC treatment… prolonged the median lifespan of both model organisms by approximately 20 percent,” the study published Wednesday in the Nature Communications journal says.
Additional tests showed the compound helped protect cells in mice hearts through the autophagy process, and even protected against a kind of liver damage caused by ethanol intoxication.
The team also tested DMC’s effect on several types of human cells and found that there too the substance worked to slow ageing.
“The experiments indicate that the effects of DMC might be transferable to humans, although we have to be cautious and wait for real clinical trials,” said Madeo.
The research is still in the early stages and Madeo said next steps will include testing whether the positive effects of DMC in mice hearts extend more broadly to protect mice against ageing and age-related diseases.
Angelica keiskei, commonly known under the Japanese name of ashitaba (アシタバ or 明日葉), literally “tomorrow’s leaf”, is a species of flowering plant in the carrot family. It is native to Japan, where it is found on the Pacific Coast. It is endemic to the area of the Bōsō Peninsula, Miura Peninsula, Izu Peninsula, and the Izu Islands. It has been widely cultivated outside its natural range.
Scientific classification edit
Species: A. keiskei
It is a perennial, with a typical growth height of 50–120 cm. Like most other members of the carrot family, it produces large umbels of white flowers and has dissected leaves.
Angelica keiskei closely resembles Angelica japonica, but can be distinguished by its blooming period, which lasts from May to October, whereas A. japonica’s blooming period lasts only between May and July. Another indicator is the characteristic color of its sap.
This species is named in honor of Keisuke Ito, a Japanese physician and biologist. A named cultivar of this species, “Koidzumi”, refers to botanist Gen’ichi Koizumi. The Japanese name of Angelica keiskei, “ashitaba”, stems from the above-average regenerative capabilities it exhibits after injury.
Many Japanese plant ashitaba in herb gardens, flower pots, and backyards. This is due to the modest conditions for cultivation and fast rate of growth. This is a cold hardy plant, with optimal temperatures ranging between 12 and 22 °C. Harvesting a leaf at the break of day often results in a new sprout growing overnight, being visible the following morning.
The main use of their stipes, leaves, and taproots is in regional cuisine, where they are prepared as soba, tempura, shōchū, tea, ice cream, pasta, etc. The ‘Mikura-jima’ variety might excel in this regard as it is reputed to be less bitter than others.
A. keiskei has been claimed to exhibit cytotoxic, antidiabetic, antioxidative, anti-inflammatory, antihypertensive, and antimicrobial properties via in vitro studies, but the efficacy of these qualities have not been confirmed in vivo.
Traditionally, it is seen as a major contributor to the supposedly healthier, extended lives of the local residents, possibly due to the chalconoids that are unique to this species of Angelica. At one point in Edo period, the haulm’s yellow sap was effectively used in the external treatment of smallpox, which prompted Kaibara Ekken to describe the herb in his Yamato honzō (大和本草), under the name of ashitagusa (鹹草), as “a powerful tonic drug.” In folk medicine, it is claimed to be diuretic, tonic, to improve digestion, and when applied topically, to speed wound healing and prevent infection. Also, its nutritive qualities are said to be the factor behind the internal exiles and their families’ never waning stamina in the face of their arduous compulsory labor.
For similar reasons, it very widely serves as pasture for cattle, reckoned to improve the quality of milk, as well as the yield and to maintain cattle health at the same time. Most of these claims have yet to be proven in trials, while studies have substantiated the presence of furocoumarins in several of these plants’ components. Furanocumarin is known to increase skin sensitivity to sunlight and may cause dermatitis.
Claims of vitamin B12 source
Although it is often suggested that A. keiskei is a vegetable source of vitamin B12 (cobalamin), recently published, peer-reviewed scientific investigations of pharmacology and phytochemical constituents of interest report nothing that substantiates this claim. Traditional methods for measuring vitamin B12 in foods are compromised by contaminants (e.g. soil, bacteria, etc.) that contain detectable concentrations of inactive B12 analogs, which may explain the origin of this belief. More recent studies reveal certain mushrooms and algae as the only naturally occurring sources of B12 outside of the animal kingdom. Of these, only Chlorella has demonstrated the ability to reduce methyl malonic acid (MMA) levels (a product of B12 deficiency) in human subjects.
Has The Fountain of Youth Been Hiding In Japan For Centuries?
Ohwi, Jisaburo (1965). Flora of Japan. Smithsonian Institution. pp. 683–684.
Information on Angelica japonica
Ceasar, L.K.; Cech, N.B. (July 11, 2016). “A Review of the Medicinal Uses and Pharmacology of Ashitaba”. Planta Med. 82: 1236–45. doi:10.1055/s-0042-110496. PMID 27399234.
Yao, Y.Z.; Li, S.H. (August 2015). “Chemical Constituents from Angelica keiskei”. Zhong Yao Cai. 38 (8): 1656–1660. PMID 26983239.
Correa, Camila R.; Chen, C-Y Oliver; Giancarlo, Aldini; Rasmussen, Helen; Ronchi, Carlos F.; Berchieri-Ronchi, Carolina; Cho, Soo-Muk; Blumberg, Jeffrey B.; Yeum, Kyung-Jin (Oct 2014). “Bioavailability of plant pigment phytochemicals in Angelica keiskei in older adults: A pilot absorption kinetic study”. Nutr. Res. Pract. 8 (5): 550–557. doi:10.4162/nrp.2014.8.5.550. PMC 4198969. PMID 25324936.
Norris, RD, Jack. “Measuring B12: Why the Confusion?”. VeganHealth.org.
Watanabe, Fumio; Yabuta, Yukinori; Bito, Tomohiro; Teng, Fei (May 2014). “Vitamin B12-Containing Plant Food Sources for Vegetarians”. Nutrients. 6 (5): 1861–1873. doi:10.3390/nu6051861. PMC 4042564. PMID 24803097.
Norris, RD, Jack. “B12 in Plant Foods”. VeganHealth.org.