Moringa (Moringa oleifera)
by Nick Moya
Common Names: Well, this one is easy. It’s called moringa. The name comes from the Tamil word “murungai,” meaning drumstick. This is referring to the drumstick-like shape of the oil-bearing seedpods. It’s also been referred to as horseradish tree, drumstick tree, benzolive tree, or Ben oil tree, and there are many other local and regional names for the plant, wherever it is found native or naturalized.
History/Distribution/Taxonomy: There are at least a couple useful species in this genus, which is indigenous to tropical and subtropical Africa, and India, but when someone says, “moringa,” in the context of health and potential as an herbal medicine or food, they are almost always referring to just one species, M. oleifera.
The plant is native to the dry Himalayan foothills of northwestern India, but has shown so much potential, for so many applications, that it is now being cultivated globally (and with gusto) in subtropical and tropical climates. Due to its drought-hearty nature, its quick growth, and its plethora of medicinal and dietary boons, moringa has been suggested as no less than a possible cure for malnutrition the world over, quite a tall order. But, as we’ll see, that is not a claim that can be easily refuted.
In addition, there are applications that go well beyond moringa’s use as food. Here’s some of the other uses that I came across while researching moringa, but which I won’t be able to delve into: alley cropping, fertilizer, erosion control, water purification (the ground seed is a fining agent, flocculant), cosmetics (seed oil and zeatin), textile printing, insecticide, fungicide, lubricants, tanning leather, dye, fiber products, and in permaculture/landscape design as natural fencing and wind barrier. In at least one case, extracts of the aerial portions of moringa, heavily diluted in water and sprayed on immature plants, increased their initial growth, and the final yield of fruit by up to 35%. The sprayed plants were hardier and more resistant to disease and pests. (15, 17) Many venture to call it a “miracle plant.”
The classification of the genus, Moringa, is worth mentioning. There are only 13 species in the genus, and it is the only genus in its family, Moringaceae. So, it’s in a relatively isolated branch of evolution. Moringa’s closest extant relatives can be found on the next level up in classification, the order, Brassicales.
Benefits & Medicinal Uses: A quick glance at the toted health benefits and folk uses of moringa may surprise the uninitiated. Here’s a taste: antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, antiparasitic, hepatoprotective, hypotensive, cancer preventative and antitumor, cardiac tonic, urinary tract tonic, thyroid tonic, immunostimulant, antirheumatic, astringent, abortifacient, aphrodisiac… the list goes on.
Clearly, this is a plant to know. But how well do we know moringa? Many of these purported uses are from folk sources, and have yet to be fully tested in a controlled setting. But herbal enthusiasts are used to this. Much of what we know about the medicinal uses of plants began with this very same folk tradition. Only in recent decades, and much more in recent years, has the scientific method and modern technology been applied to test the veracity of ancient herbal wisdom, and study after study is confirming most of what our grandmothers have been telling us all along. It’s all par for the times, science and folk wisdom meeting once again.
But, for some natural products, it can get one level harder to sort out and find the truth. The added complexity comes from our hyper-intense commercial media and its seeming over-willingness to hype up a product on false or sketchy premises (“Superfood!”). It then falls on the budding herbalist to try and separate folk from fact from fiction from hype in order to find the truth about a product. Moringa, for better or worse, falls into this category. Much has been hyped up as to the medicinal and dietary properties of Moringa oleifera (mainly by those who have a stake in selling more moringa). The hype is there. There is also a centuries-long tradition of using moringa for myriad health conditions. The folk is definitely there. If you look at the folk applications of moringa, you’ll notice that its uses and effects often vary greatly, depending on where you are throughout its entire native and naturalized range, and you’d be hard-pressed to try and simplify these known effects into just a few concise actions. If we take it all as truth, out of context, moringa seems like a real panacea. It seems to promote balanced health and well-being in just about every conceivable way.
So, do we need to take the long lists of the medical benefits of moringa with a grain of salt? Well, interestingly, there has also been a surprising amount of scientific research conducted in recent years, and so far many of the studies conclude that moringa is effective in the exact ways it’s been used for centuries. The science is continually supporting the purported efficacy of moringa, no matter how great the claim.
To answer the conundrum of how moringa might have seemingly endless beneficial effects for different people and at different times, I believe we need look no further than nutrition (the ultimate alterative?).
Leaf: As mentioned above, many of the benefits attributed to moringa leaf are no doubt due to its stellar nutritional content. The fresh or dried leaves contain a wealth of important nutrients including a wide array of B vitamins, and vitamins K, E, D, C and A, the minerals manganese, copper, magnesium, zinc, phosphorus, iron, potassium, sodium and calcium, and a striking amount of some more common, but necessary compounds like protein and amino acids. (1, 2)
At this point, I believe I’m obliged by tradition to recite some form of this statement about the relative nutritional value of moringa compared to common foods. Here it goes: gram for gram, fresh moringa leaf contains about 4 times the calcium of milk, about 7 times the vitamin C of oranges, twice the protein of yogurt, 4 times the vitamin A found in carrots, and almost as much iron as spinach. And that’s just for fresh leaf. When the leaf is dried, and the weight of the water is no longer a factor, the leaf material can be considered concentrated, and the numbers are way more impressive. The dried leaf contains about 15 times the amount of potassium found in a banana, about 10 times the amount of vitamin A as a carrot, 9 times the protein of yogurt, 17 times the calcium found in milk, and 25 times the amount of iron in spinach! (You may be wondering about the vitamin C in the dried leaf. Unfortunately, it is the one major constituent that is lost in the drying process. But hey, if you feel an imminent bout of scurvy coming on, you can get your vitamin C from other sources.) Now, keep in mind that most of these numbers vary pretty widely depending on the source, I suspect due to the varying nature of the test material, the methods of testing, etc., but the thing to take away is that it’s a hell-of-a-lot of good things to be had in one plant. And that’s just the beginning. (14)
The drying process also concentrates the amount of chlorophyll to about 4 times that of wheatgrass, a plant mainly taken for its high levels of this photosynthetic pigment. Chlorophyll has been used successfully to treat myriad health issues from gastro-intestinal disorders, and hunger cravings (6, 7), to swelling and inflammation (8). It’s also highly antioxidant (13), and has proven itself as a vital aid in helping the body to detoxify heavy metals and carcinogens (9, 12).
Your body uses amino acids for a variety of functions, not least of which is the creation of proteins to build muscle and other tissues. There are 9 amino acids which are necessary for health, but which cannot be synthesized from other molecules, so you need to include them in your diet. All 9 of these “essential” amino acids are found in moringa leaf, along with several other non-essential amino acids. It’s a very rare quality for a plant to have all 9. Aside from protein-building, amino acids play a major roll in neuronal and central nervous system function, modulating immunity and metabolism, and even enhancing the efficacy of antioxidants in the body. (5) These essential and non-essential amino acids may be one explanation for why many people feel uplifted and more energetic after including moringa leaf in their diet, while others may achieve better relaxation and sleep. It’s all about the modulation.
Different sources cite different figures on exactly how many known antioxidants moringa leaf contains, but the digits are always double. Helpfully, a group of researchers have already put in the work on which method of extraction would yield the best radical scavenging results. The study found that a 70% ethanol alcohol extract of the dried leaves is the best method for antioxidant effects, (25) and a second study confirmed these results. (26) In light of what was stated in the last paragraph about amino acids increasing the effectiveness of antioxidants, moringa is starting to look like a prime candidate for a general anti-ageing tonic.
Zeatin is another constituent found in abundance in the leaves. The term zeatin comes from Zea, the genus name for corn, in which the substance was first discovered. Zeatin is a plant hormone that has been shown to increase the growth of new leaf buds when applied to plants externally (3). Interestingly, it’s also shown promise in stimulating growth in new human skin cells too (4), leading to its current use in some cosmetic anti-ageing products. I guess we aren’t so different from plants after all.
Some of the most exciting research has been in moringa’s effectiveness in treating cancer. In more than one study, the leaf extract not only helped to halt the spread of cancer cells, but actually induced apoptosis – it killed the existing cancer cells, or, more precisely, and to say it in a more dramatic way – it causes the cancer cells to commit suicide! (11, 21) Your guess is as good as mine as to which one, or many, of the above compounds could be responsible. It is likely that it’s the vast array of healthy compounds in moringa leaf working in concert, replenishing minerals and vitamins, and giving your body the tools it needs to do the job itself. I should also mention here, that there is some research that demonstrates moringa leaf as possibly having some use in mitigating the effects of DNA damage from at least one drug used in chemotherapy. (10)
I’m definitely not claiming that moringa will reverse, or cure, or even touch cancer. However, there is mounting evidence that it can be a helpful tool in the cancer-fighting repertoire.
Root: The roots of moringa are used for culinary purposes, very much like horseradish, and are described as having a very similar spicy flavor. This is an interesting link, because the two plants are classified in the same order, the Brassicales. One of the characteristic features of the Brassicales is the ability of plants in that order to synthesize a group of compounds known as glucosinolates. These compounds sit relatively inactive inside the cells of the plant, and are kept close to, but separate from, an enzyme called myrosinase. When cut or bruised, the cell walls are damaged, and the two components mix and react. Myrosinase breaks down the glucosinolates and creates the product isothiocyanate, known and loved as “mustard oil.”
The plants developed this technique as a chemical defense mechanism against pests and foragers who usually take one bite and decide to go for something that tastes a little less burny. Obviously, when they came up with this plan, they didn’t take the adaptability of human tastes into account. For us, these volatile compounds give the recognizable zing to spices like wasabi, horseradish, mustard and capers, and are also found in lower proportions in foods like cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts and radish. Yummy isothiocyanates…
But tasting great on a bratwurst is only the cover story on these spicy molecules. It turns out they have a place in our medicine cabinet too, or at least make a great case for food as medicine.
Isothiocyanates, in general, have been solidly established as having activity against a wide range of harmful bacteria and fungi, (16) and have proven anti-inflammatory action. (24) These compounds are concentrated mostly in the roots and seeds of moringa (not the oil, but the solid), but are also found in the leaves, and have been used for centuries to treat conditions ranging from rheumatism to colitis. One study showed that an isothiocyanate extract from moringa leaf, decreased inflammation on a cellular level. (27)
As beneficial as isothiocyanates certainly are, there is a potentially dangerous side to them also. It regards benzyl isothiocyanate, the particular mustard oil produced by M. oleifera root and seed. According to several sources, moringa root is used as an abortifacient (causing abortion) and contraceptive. At least one source speculates that the chemical action may involve benzyl isothiocyanate, which has exhibited hormonal actions. (30, 28) What is known is that moringa root extract, given to female rats, induced actual physical changes in the structure of the uterus, rendering the rats infertile. (29) Then there’s this tidbit:
“Moringa oleifera inhibits maintenance and growth of reproductive organs. In fact, in rural and tribal areas of the West Bengal province in India, the root of this plant is taken by women, especially prostitutes, as permanent contraception, and it has been shown to totally inactivate or suppress the reproductive system.”(28)
Obviously, there is some very powerful physiological alteration going on here. The thing is, no one is quite sure how it works yet. But it does permanently disrupt the function of the female reproductive system.
(Remember, we’re talking about the root and root bark here. Moringa leaf has never been known to have these effects, and actually quite the opposite. Moringa leaf is traditionally given to pregnant and nursing women as a way to bolster their nutritional intake and prevent anemia. Moringa leaf has proven to be very valuable in this way.)
In another twist, however, moringa root has shown a lot of promise for post-menopausal women in preventing and fighting ovarian cancer. It’s possible that the very same mechanism that’s at work in halting reproduction is also useful in reversing the conditions that can lead to ovarian cancer after the menopausal hormone shift. (28)
In short, the long-term effects of moringa on fertilization, pregnancy, and reproductive hormones are not completely understood, and the risks of taking moringa, especially while pregnant, may be high.
Seeds: On researching the purported and tested medicinal effects of the seeds, I came across some interesting studies. Seed extracts from moringa have shown the ability to reduce inflammation in the colons of rats, (20) an exciting result that may have implications in gastro-intestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, or Crohn’s disease. It may also act as an immunosuppressant, (21) possibly reducing inflammation caused by an immune reaction, as is the case for allergies. In another study, however, the seed extract was tested specifically against human colon cancer cells and breast cancer cells, and had little to no effect. Yet, in the same study, the moringa leaf and bark extracts showed intriguing results, inducing apoptosis, and reducing the ability of the cancer cells to colonize further. (22)
The seed extract has also shown its liver protective abilities in a lab setting. They dosed rats with varying levels of arsenic in their drinking water, predictably causing liver toxicity. Then, they gave them some moringa seed extract with their poison water, and discovered that their livers could handle the toxin much better. The extract not only protected the liver, but also the rat’s DNA from fragmentation by the oxidative stress. (23)
[Note: This is all very interesting to me, and I acknowledge that the information is valuable. Yet, I have to mention that it bothers me on a visceral level that the information was gained through what seems to be unethical animal testing. It touches on a dilemma that is by no means cut and dry, and the issue is widespread in any scientific discipline. I don’t believe that the knowledge up to now gained through these methods should be disregarded or ignored, but I can’t condone the methods used. The topic should at least be on your mind as you read about scientific studies on herbal constituents and their effects in vivo, but, for now, I’ll leave the subject without further mention… ]
Oil & Pods: In some parts of moringa’s range, its common name refers to olive, like “benzolive,” in Haiti. Some names, like “palo de aceite,” in the Dominican Republic, or “bèn ailé,” in Cambodia, contain a reference to oil. This is not an accident. Although not at all a close relative of the olive, the association with olive oil is right on the mark. Moringa trees produce seed pods, which contain seeds that are very rich in oleic acid, the very same substance that makes up the bulk of olive oil. Moringa seed oil is used for cooking in many parts of the world, where it serves as a healthy, tasty, and way cheaper option when compared to importing olive oil. The refined oil has a very long shelf life too. (18)
[Note: The “ben,” in many common names for moringa, comes from behenic acid, another component found in moringa seed oil. It’s called behenic acid, reportedly, because it’s named after the Persian month of “Bahman,” when the roots of Moringa oleifera were harvested.]
The drumstick pods – and the rest of the plant for that matter – are edible and used as a vegetable pretty much wherever there are moringa trees. As you may imagine, they have been consumed in every possible way: fresh, fryed, curried, canned, pickled, boiled, as soup, as a garnish, as a spice, etc… (The traditional culinary uses of moringa are innumerable. Just think of Bubba from Forest Gump.)
References & Citations:
(1) Gopalan, C., B.V. Rama Sastri, and S.C. Balasubramanian. Nutritive value of Indian foods. Hyderabad, India: (National Institute of Nutrition), 1971 (revised and updated by B.S. Narasinga Rao, Y.G. Deosthale, and K.C. Pant, 1989).
(2) Fuglie, Lowell J., ed. The Miracle Tree—Moringa oleifera: Natural Nutrition for the Tropics. Training Manual. 2001. Church World Service, Dakar, Senegal. May 2002.
(3) David W. S. Mok, Machteld C. Mok (1994). Cytokinins: Chemistry, Activity, and Function. CRC Press. p. 8. ISBN 0-8493-6252-0.
(4) Dr. Suresh I.S. Rattan and Lakshman Sodagam. Rejuvenation Research. March 2005, 8(1): 46-57. doi:10.1089/rej.2005.8.46.
(5) Atmaca G. Antioxidant effects of sulfur-containing amino acids. Yonsei Med J. 2004;45:776–88.
(6) Stenblom EL, Montelius C, Östbring K, Håkansson M, Nilsson S, Rehfeld JF, Erlanson-Albertsson C. Supplementation by thylakoids to a high carbohydrate meal decreases feelings of hunger, elevates CCK levels and prevents postprandial hypoglycaemia in overweight women. Appetite. 2013 Sep;68:118-23. doi: 10.1016/j.appet.2013.04.022. Epub 2013 Apr 28.
(7) Young RW, Beregi JS Jr. Use of chlorophyllin in the care of geriatric patients. J Am Geriatr Soc. 1980 Jan;28(1):46-7.
(8) Subramoniam A, Asha VV, Nair SA, Sasidharan SP, Sureshkumar PK, Rajendran KN, Karunagaran D, Ramalingam K. Chlorophyll revisited: anti-inflammatory activities of chlorophyll a and inhibition of expression of TNF-? gene by the same. Inflammation. 2012 Jun;35(3):959-66. doi: 10.1007/s10753-011-9399-0.
(9) Shaughnessy DT, Gangarosa LM, Schliebe B, Umbach DM, Xu Z, MacIntosh B, Knize MG, Matthews PP, Swank AE, Sandler RS, DeMarini DM, Taylor JA. Inhibition of fried meat-induced colorectal DNA damage and altered systemic genotoxicity in humans by crucifera, chlorophyllin, and yogurt. PLoS One. 2011 Apr 25;6(4):e18707. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0018707.
(10) Nayak, G., Vadinkar, A., Nair, S., Kalthur, S. G., D'Souza, A. S., Shetty, P. K., Mutalik, S., Shetty, M. M., Kalthur, G. and Adiga, S. K. (2016), Sperm abnormalities induced by pre-pubertal exposure to cyclophosphamide are effectively mitigated by Moringa oleifera leaf extract. Andrologia, 48: 125–136. doi: 10.1111/and.12422
(11) Sreelatha, S., A. Jeyachitra, and P. R. Padma. "Antiproliferation and induction of apoptosis by Moringa oleifera leaf extract on human cancer cells." Food and Chemical Toxicology 49.6 (2011): 1270-1275.
(12) Jubert C, Mata J, Bench G, Dashwood R, Pereira C, Tracewell W, Turteltaub K, Williams D, Bailey G. Effects of chlorophyll and chlorophyllin on low-dose aflatoxin B(1) pharmacokinetics in human volunteers. Cancer Prev Res (Phila). 2009 Dec;2(12):1015-22. doi: 10.1158/1940-6207.CAPR-09-0099. Epub 2009 Dec 1.
(13) Zhang YL, Guan L, Zhou PH, Mao LJ, Zhao ZM, Li SQ, Xu XX, Cong CC, Zhu MX, Zhao JY. [The protective effect of chlorophyllin against oxidative damage and its mechanism]. Zhonghua Nei Ke Za Zhi. 2012 Jun;51(6):466-70.
(14) United States Department of Agriculture. Agricultural Research Service
National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference Release 28; Basic Report: 11222, Drumstick leaves, raw. https://ndb.nal.usda.gov/ndb/foods/show/2974?fgcd=&manu=&lfacet=&format=&count=&max=35&offset=&sort=&qlookup=moringa
(15) This is from a presentation by the organization, Trees for Life, treesforlife.org, referencing the work of Mr. Nikolaus Foidl and his associate, Leonardo Mayorga, and their research on moringa in Nicaragua. They have collaborated with the University of Hohenheim, Germany and with Dr. Michael Kreuzer of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.
(16) U. Eilert, B. Wolters and A. Nahrstedt. The Antibiotic Principle of Seeds of Moringa oleifera and Moringa stenopetala. Journal of Medicinal Plant Research 1981, Vol. 42, pp. 55—61.
(17) Ashfaq M., Basra S.M., Ashfaq U. Moringa: A Miracle Plant for Agro-forestry. J. Agric. Soc. Sci. 2012;8:115–122.
(18) Leone A, Spada A, Battezzati A, Schiraldi A, Aristil J, Bertoli S (2015). "Cultivation, Genetic, Ethnopharmacology, Phytochemistry and Pharmacology of Moringa oleifera Leaves: An Overview". Int J Mol Sci 16 (6): 12791–835. doi:10.3390/ijms160612791. PMID 26057747.
(19) Fahey JW. Moringa oleifera: A review of the medical evidence for its nutritional, therapeutic, and prophylactic properties. Tree Life J. 2005;1:1–15.
(20) Mohsen Minaiyan, Gholamreza Asghari, Diana Taheri, Mozhgan Saeidi, Salar Nasr-Esfahani Avicenna J Phytomed. 2014 Mar-Apr; 4(2): 127–136.
(21) Mahajan, Shailaja G., and Anita A. Mehta. "Immunosuppressive activity of ethanolic extract of seeds of Moringa oleifera Lam. in experimental immune inflammation." Journal of ethnopharmacology 130.1 (2010): 183-186.
(22) Al-Asmari, Abdulrahman Khazim, et al. "Moringa oleifera as an Anti-Cancer Agent against Breast and Colorectal Cancer Cell Lines." PloS one 10.8 (2015): e0135814.
(23) Chattopadhyay, Sandip, et al. "Protective role of Moringa oleifera (Sajina) seed on arsenic-induced hepatocellular degeneration in female albino rats." Biological trace element research 142.2 (2011): 200-212.
(24) Effects of allyl isothiocyanate from horseradish on several experimental gastric lesions in rats.Matsuda H, Ochi M, Nagatomo A, Yoshikawa M
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(25) Antioxidant properties of various solvent extracts of total phenolic constituents from three different agroclimatic origins of drumstick tree (Moringa oleifera Lam.) leaves.
Siddhuraju P, Becker K, J Agric Food Chem. 2003 Apr 9; 51(8):2144-55.
(26) Vongsak B., Sithisarn P., Mangmool S., Thongpraditchote S., Wongkrajang Y., Gritsanapan W. Maximizing total phenolics, total flavonoids contents and antioxidant activity of Moringa oleifera Leaf extract by the appropriate extraction method. Ind. Crop. Prod. 2013;44:566–571. doi: 10.1016/j.indcrop.2012.09.021.
(27) Stable, water extractable isothiocyanates from Moringa oleifera leaves attenuate inflammation in vitro.Waterman C, Cheng DM, Rojas-Silva P, Poulev A, Dreifus J, Lila MA, Raskin I. Phytochemistry. 2014 Jul; 103():114-22.
(28) Bose, Chinmoy K. "Possible role of Moringa oleifera Lam. root in epithelial ovarian cancer." Med Gen Med 9.1 (2007): 26.
(29) Biochemical and physiological alterations in female reproductive organs of cyclic rats treated with aqueous extract of Moringa oleifera Lam.
Shukla S, Mathur R, Prakash AO, Acta Eur Fertil. 1988 Jul-Aug; 19(4):225-32.
(30) Antifertility profile of the aqueous extract of Moringa oleifera roots.
Shukla S, Mathur R, Prakash AO, J Ethnopharmacol. 1988 Jan; 22(1):51-6