Flower Power

Weeds and wildflowers.

They’re yanked with impunity out of vegetable gardens. They’re doused in pesticides to banish them from urban sidewalks. They’re maligned as a nuisance and brushed aside in favor of their more glamorous, colorful, cultivated cousins.

But, more than ever, it seems some of these weeds and wildflowers may hold the promise of better health.

Evidence of herbs being used as medicine dates back to 3000 B.C., and we have yet to exhaust the power of plants. Recently, a Chinese traditional medicine scientist won the Nobel Prize for pioneering a new drug with a wormwood compound that combats malaria. Willow bark provides the basis for aspirin.  French lilac inspired Metformin, an anti-diabetes drug. And, Pacific yew tree extract generated Taxol, which is used to treat breast cancer.

By some estimates, 40 percent of prescription medicines come from plant extracts or synthesized plant compounds. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control estimates Americans spend $30.2 billion on dietary supplements.

“In most cases, people have no idea if these supplements are safe or effective,” says Elizabeth Floyd, Ph.D., associate professor in Pennington Biomedical Research Center’s Ubiquitin Biology Laboratory. “But, they like the idea of using botanicals because they are natural.”

Funded originally with a gift from the McIhenny Foundation, the Botanical Dietary Supplements Research Center at Pennington Biomedical has been studying the power of plants since 2005. Impressed by Pennington Biomedical’s contribution to groundbreaking studies, the National Institutes of Health recently decided to renew a $9.2 million grant and support the Center for another five years.

One of only three federally funded botanical research centers in the country—and the only one dedicated to the study of metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes—the Botanical Center is a collaboration between Pennington Biomedical and Rutgers University’s Department of Plant Biology.

With support from Louisiana Charities Trust, Pennington Biomedical also partnered with University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the USGS National Wetlands Research Center to explore the potential of plants used in traditional Creole medicines for their effects in skeletal muscle, immune or fat cells related to inflammation or insulin sensitivity. That work led to an ongoing pilot study that is investigating the anti-inflammatory effects of four plant extracts in fat cells.

Originally, Pennington Biomedical researchers were interested in whether botanical extracts could treat metabolic syndrome, a forerunner of Type 2 diabetes.

“We wanted to understand their safety and effectiveness in treating chronic diseases such as metabolic syndrome and Type 2 diabetes,” Floyd explains, “because more than 10 percent of the citizens in almost every Louisiana parish already have Type 2 diabetes.”

However, she continues, “We now want to know if we can use botanical extracts to prevent it from occurring in the first place.”

The botanicals consortium is currently exploring the potential benefits of bitter melon, Russian tarragon, redstem wormwood, moringa and fenugreek.

Studies are now underway to see if bitter melon, Russian tarragon and redstem wormwood have the ability to fight Type 2 diabetes by controlling glucose levels and boosting the body’s ability to store and use fat efficiently. Scientists are examining whether moringa’s powerful anti-inflammatory affects can prevent insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes. And, researchers are finding out whether Fenugreek seeds can regulate cholesterol levels and promote health by improving the gut microbiota, the bacteria that live in the gastrointestinal tract.

Despite these and other plants’ reported benefits, Floyd recommends anyone interested in taking botanical supplements first check with his or her physician to avoid adverse drug interactions.

And, this fall, as you seed and weed your garden, try to take a fresh look at local flora.  While it may be the scourge of your lush landscape today, it may be the source of a longer, healthier life tomorrow.

For more information about participating in a botanical or other research study at Pennington Biomedical, call 225-763-2602 or visit www.pbrc.edu.

2018-08-31T20:17:04+00:00 August 27th, 2018|