Natural Selections

natural selections

Dietary supplements have become the “snake oil” of the 21st Century, even though some natural products have positive benefits. With a multi-million-dollar boost from the National Institutes of Health, institutions throughout the country are diving in to research the health benefits of natural products.

Research into the benefits of natural products to treat numerous chronic conditions has been underway for years. However, the investigation on whether natural products could be the key to preventing and treating diabetes and obesity was recently given a huge financial boost — a boost that may help reveal much-anticipated answers in the very near future.

Last September, the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) Office of Dietary Supplements (ODS) and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) awarded five research centers nearly $35 million to focus on the safety of natural products, on how they work within the body, and on the development of cutting-edge research technologies.

Natural products include a wide variety of substances produced by plants, bacteria, fungi, and animals that have historically been used in traditional medicine and other complementary and integrative health practices. Nearly one in five U.S. adults use botanical supplements and other non-vitamin, non-mineral dietary supplements, such as fish oil/omega-3 fatty acids and probiotics, according to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey.

“Natural products have a long and impressive history as sources of medicine and as important biological research tools,” says Josephine Briggs, MD, NCCIH director. “These centers will seek not only to understand potential mechanisms by which natural products may affect health, but also to address persistent technological challenges for this field by taking full advantage of innovative advances in biological and chemical methodology.”

Natural Products and Obesity

Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University is one of the five NIH-funded centers and received a $9.2 million grant over the next five years to support its work investigating botanical extracts from plants that are found globally and those that are native to Louisiana for the prevention and treatment of diabetes, obesity, and other chronic conditions.

Pennington has been home to the Center for Research on Botanicals and Metabolic Syndrome (BRC) since 2005. At its 222-acre campus in Baton Rouge, the research enterprise includes about 80 faculty and more than 25 post-doctoral fellows who make up a network of 44 laboratories supported by lab technicians, nurses, dieticians, and other personnel.

The last five years at BRC have been spent evaluating the botanicals to prevent metabolic syndrome. Over the next five years, the team will begin focusing on the ability of botanicals to promote metabolic resiliency, the ability to maintain health in the presence of stressors such as high-fat diet or inflammation, and to study the mechanisms of action of the most promising botanicals in this context.

“Our goal is to understand if the extracts that we are interested in, fenugreek, PMI5011, which is an extract from Russian Tarragon, bitter melon, and moringa, rather than treating obesity-related diabetes or metabolic syndrome, if they’re taken soon enough, may actually prevent development of these obesity-related metabolic disorders,” says researcher Elizabeth Floyd, PhD, an associate professor at Pennington Biomedical.

“So we are looking at a lot of different mechanisms and a lot of animal studies for this, and I think at the end of five years, we will know more about how each of these extracts are working and the different systems that they might be affecting,” she adds.

The Proof is in the Publications

Pennington Biomedical is working on these efforts with researchers from Rutgers University’s Department of Plant Biology and Pathology. The collaboration has already led to several contributions to current research literature.

In the June 2015 issue of Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, investigators from both teams published research that found edible leaves from the moringa tree contain an abundance of secondary metabolites, such as polyphenols and four unique moringa isothiocyanates (MICs), with strong biological activity.

Mice that were fed a very high fat diet supplemented with 5% moringa concentrate had improved glucose tolerance and insulin signaling, and did not develop fatty liver disease compared to mice fed a very high fat diet. Mice in the moringa group also had reduced plasma insulin, leptin, resistin, and cholesterol.

“It’s always going to be complicated when you’re looking at dietary supplements or botanical extracts because it’s a complex mixture of things,” Floyd continues. “So we do in vitro studies, we do animal studies, and we move our studies to humans whenever possible.” – Elizabeth Floyd, PhD, associate professor, Pennington Biomedical Research Center, Baton Rouge, La.

The researchers concluded that moringa concentrate may be an effective dietary food to prevent and treat obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Another team paper appearing in Nutrition (March 2014), investigated the effects of polyphenol-rich extract of Rutgers Scarlet Lettuce (RSL) on mice after 28 days of treatment. The RSL extract was shown to have antidiabetic effects in vitro and in vivo and may improve metabolic syndrome conditions of fatty liver and glucose metabolism.

“As lettuce is widely and regularly consumed around the world, benefits from RSL consumption could have significant effect,” wrote the authors.

Expanding the Science, Providing Answers

One of the many challenges to the acceptance of complementary and integrative medicine is educating healthcare providers who may be slow to embrace the use of natural products. Many feel there just is not enough research on the proven safety, quantities, and concentrations for humans.

Floyd acknowledges the difficultly many providers have in understanding how these botanical extracts work. “That’s really why the NIH is interested in doing very stringent research to look at what is going on with these extracts. A lot of people use dietary supplements and they really need better information,” she says.

“It’s always going to be complicated when you’re looking at dietary supplements or botanical extracts because it’s a complex mixture of things,” Floyd continues. “So we do in vitro studies, we do animal studies, and we move our studies to humans whenever possible.”

“As part of our studies, our colleagues at Rutgers University ‘fingerprint’ each extract so that we can know exactly what compounds are present. This is essential for eventually identifying the bioactive components of the extracts.”

And how should providers best respond to patients who ask: “I saw this online! Is it better than my medications?”

“There’s so much misleading information out there about using dietary supplements and it’s really one of our goals to provide better information that the physicians can use,” Floyd stresses. “Physicians can always do a better job of educating themselves by going to NIH website and learn what’s going on with really rigorous research in these supplements.”

Physicians should absolutely tell their patients to keep following their medical routine and not take dietary supplements from a retail store, Floyd continues.

A keyword search for “diabetes,” for instance, on the NCCIH site ( reveals news for both consumers and health professionals about the common dietary supplements used for the condition, including safety information and summaries of recent scientific research.

Fauntleroy is a freelance health writer based in Carmel, Ind., and a regular contributor to Endocrine News. She wrote about the outlook for adrenal cancer treatment in the February issue.

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