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Kale has become an obsession for the health conscious and aspiring health conscious alike. From green smoothies and salads to pastas and milkshakes, wherever you go it seems kale is on the menu. But, would you believe there is a plant that trumps kale in nearly every nutritional category? Yet, few Westerners have ever heard about it.
Moringa is a tropical plant species which, like kale, belongs to the brassica family. It’s native to the Himalayas and parts of India and Africa and is now cultivated throughout Asia, Africa, the Pacific and Caribbean Islands, South America, and California. Moringa is packed with over 90 protective compounds including vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and isothiocyanates (which we’ll learn more about coming up). It is for this reason that it’s used to combat hunger and nutritional deficiencies in food-insecure places throughout the globe.
But moringa’s nutritional prowess extends far beyond nourishment. Its leaves, pods, and seeds have also traditionally been used in Ayurvedic and other healing practices for a variety of conditions, including: malnutrition, skin conditions, heart disease/high cholesterol, diabetes, blackheads, anxiety, headaches, anemia, bacterial, viral, parasitic, and fungal infections, chest congestion, allergies, cancers/tumors, fatigue, gastrointestinal disorders such as ulcers, diarrhea, constipation, stomach pain, thyroid disorders, low libido, arthritis, join pain, and even as a water purification medium.
In other words, this is a plant nearly everyone could benefit from. Hence, medical science has begun studying and validating many of moringa’s traditional uses—for the microbiome and beyond.
As the article title suggests, moringa is so nutrient-dense that it easily rivals kale for first-place in the healthiest leafy green category.
So, what makes it so nutritious? Moringa boasts:
Impressive, isn’t it? But moringa’s healing compounds don’t stop there. Its leaves, flowers, pods, seeds, bark, and roots also contain a variety of antioxidants such as quercetin and chlorogenic acid, all 9 essential amino acids (the building blocks of protein) such as tryptophan, methionine, lysine, etc., and omega 3 and 6 fatty acids.
It is these nutrients, and more, that have earned moringa the title of “healthiest plant on earth,” and the “tree of life.”
Plants in general are all beneficial for your digestion, microbiome, and immunity but moringa is in a class of its own.
For digestive health it works on multiple levels. It’s been shown to boost liver function, which supports bile flow and digestive enzyme production. It contains soluble, insoluble, and resistant fibers, which promote healthy bowel movements and gut flora diversity. And a 2017 animal study showed that moringa seed powder improved the colon tissue integrity while reducing the severity of colon inflammation due to ulcerative colitis. Researchers believe this is due to the active compound, isothiocyanate, a chemical also found in other brassica plants such as cauliflower, broccoli, kale, etc.
Moringa also has anti-fungal properties, and its seeds have been shown effective in combating Candida, a common gut health issue. It’s also been proven to fight common intestinal bacteria, like streptococcus and E. Coli, and parasites. And, its naturally-occurring omega 9 essential fatty acids help support healing of the gut lining.
Insofar as immunity is concerned, science says about 80% of your immune system is in your gut. Thus, all moringa’s gut-supportive properties help protect, nourish, and diversify your gut microbiome, which fortifies your immune system. Moringa is also rich in immune-supportive nutrients like vitamins A and C, and antioxidants which help further enrich your immune response.
There are several studies linking moringa to better metabolic health via its ability to support healthy glycemic control and prevent oxidative damage in diabetics.
There has also been much research on the role of gut microbes in a person’s risk of developing and healing from metabolic disease. In one study, it was found that moringa seed extract modulated gut microbiota and thus, improved metabolic health. Here’s a quote from the study:
“...fecal/cecal samples showed major modulation of the gut microbial community and a significantly reduced bacterial load, similar to an antibiotic response.”
Of course the benefit of using plants as medicine is that they do not have the gut-disruptive capabilities of a synthetic antibiotic. So you get more benefit with less risk.
In functional medicine we see the gut as ground-zero for the genesis and festering of chronic inflammation, a recognized causal or contributing factor of nearly all deadly diseases. Thus, finding functional foods, herbs, and medicines that help balance that inflammatory response is of great interest to the medical and integrative health communities.
Thanks to its high level of antioxidants, isothiocyanates (those brassica-chemicals we talked about earlier), amino acids, essential fatty acids, and other nutritive compounds, moringa shows promise in helping promote a healthier inflammatory response.
Per a report published in the Asian Pacific Journal of Cancer Prevention, the combination of moringa’s compounds work in the same way as many anti-inflammatory drugs. But scientists believe of all its compounds, it is the isothiocyanates found in the leaves, pods, and seeds, which have the biggest impact on inflammation.
Cognitive decline can hit at any age and ranges from common brain fog to more advanced conditions like dementia. While we are yet to pinpoint one definitive cause, researchers have found that oxidative damage from free radicals causes a “rusting” in the brain, which has been linked to Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.
There is also new research to suggest that your risk of cognitive decline or dysfunction is also related to the health of your microbiome, and even your quality of sleep.
Either way, moringa may be able to help. Its antioxidants have been shown to help protect against oxidative damage of the brain, enhancing spatial memory and providing neural protection. The tryptophan in moringa, an amino acid, is also beneficial in that it provides the building blocks of key neurotransmitters which promote healthy sleep and mood. Add to this the gut microbiome benefits we’ve already covered, and moringa shows promise as a functional food for protecting your brain and memory.
So far we’ve covered a few of moringa’s impressive benefits when taken internally. But, the compounds of this miracle tree also work wonders when used topically on the skin, hair, and in the mouth.
For example, the oil extracted from moringa seeds contain natural compounds that are antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and antioxidant and protect the skin from all kinds of infections, inflammation, and even aging. Traditionally moringa oil was used in cooking, topically for beauty preparations, to regrow hair, for chronic skin conditions, burns, warts, and more.
Moringa has also been shown effective in fighting off the bacteria and pathogens that cause gum disease (gingivitis), which is why you’ll see it listed on many natural mouthwashes and toothpastes.
Despite moringa’s incredible health benefits and pleasing flavor, North Americans would be hard-pressed to find it in our local grocery stores. In the meantime, you can find it as a dietary supplement and a beauty oil.
For supplements, always look for cGMP certified brands which are tested for purity (this is key, as tropical plants tend to harbor mold), and buy organic whenever possible.
For moringa oil, follow the same rules as you would for purchasing high-quality extra-virgin olive oil: cold-pressed, 100% moringa oil (unless its combined with other high-quality oils in a beauty cream, etc.), in a dark bottle, preferably organic, and unrefined.
As a functional food, you can find moringa starts/plants online and try growing it yourself. It may also be available fresh at your local Asian, African, or Caribbean market. You prepare the leaves a lot like kale in salads, braised, sauteed, added to soups or stews, etc., and the pods can be cooked like green beans or okra. You can also cook with the monounsaturated oil to sauté, bake, fry, etc.
Finally, moringa is also widely available as a tea, which you can drink “pure” or blend with other herbs or teas to suit your taste. It has an earthy, grassy taste that pairs well with green tea and citrus and is (obviously) highly nutritious.
Enjoy in good health!