Alan Frischer, MD, MPH
Are you familiar with moringa, a popular new supplement? The sheer number of sources claiming a very wide range of unbelievable benefits is astounding. I must admit that after my recent research into health scams, this makes warning lights go off in my head.
Moringa oleifera is known as the drumstick tree, the miracle tree, the ben oil tree, and the horseradish tree. It has long been used to treat a variety of conditions. Native to India, it also grows in Asia, Africa, and South America. The supplement can be made from the leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, seeds, and root.
In some parts of the world, moringa is an important food source. It contains a variety of vitamins and minerals, including Vitamin A, thiamine, riboflavin, niacin, B6, folate, ascorbic acid, calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, and zinc. Because it can be grown cheaply and easily, and because the dried leaves retain their vitamins and minerals, moringa is used in India and Africa in programs to fight malnutrition. The immature green pods (drumsticks) are prepared like green beans, and the seeds are removed from mature pods and cooked like peas or roasted like nuts. The leaves are cooked and used like spinach, and they are also dried and powdered for use as a condiment.
Some of the benefits claimed by manufacturers of moringa supplements appear reasonable; its antioxidants may well fight free radicals, for example, which might lead to other significant benefits. But the list of benefits is rather staggering and speculative, including curing ailments from head to toe - from reducing inflammation to fighting cancer. Almost none have yet been backed up by scientific studies.
Naturally, moringa can have unintended side effects; consult your doctor before taking any kind of supplement. As with all supplements, the United States Food and Drug Administration doesn’t monitor or certify any health claims. It doesn’t evaluate the purity or quality. It doesn’t stand behind the validity of the claims made by the manufacturers, or whether it is safe or beneficial to consume.
The fact is that every chemical has some effect. For example, cinnamon lowers blood sugar, but diabetics don’t replace their insulin with cinnamon. Moringa may indeed lower blood pressure and raise thyroid levels in the body. However, supplements like moringa are not measured or mixed precisely or consistently, and we simply cannot count on them to treat important health issues like low thyroid or high blood pressure.
My bottom line will sound familiar. The world is filled with fascinating products that have the potential to help or to harm. While Western medical science cannot claim to have all of the answers, it does provide a framework with which to proceed as safely as possible. Some as yet unproven supplements might very well prove beneficial. It you are interested in moringa, please speak with your physician. He or she may not yet be familiar with it, but can at least evaluate your particular health situation and offer some educated advice.