Beware headlines that promise a simple way to slow aging.
Could the fountain of youth be shaped less like a fountain and more like a leafy green herb? That’s what some headlines may have you believe after a study was published looking at certain anti-aging compounds in a plant called ashitaba.
But experts caution the research is still in the early stages and doesn’t prove that the anti-aging properties will actually work in humans.
Despite a great deal of scientific evolution to help increase life expectancy, little has been done to increase health spans, or the period during which age-related health conditions aren’t a factor in a person’s life, the study’s authors state.
Their solution: a compound found in angelica keiskei koidzumi, known colloquially as ashitaba, which has been revered for centuries as a traditional treatment for conditions from heartburn to hay fever.
Ashitaba contains a variety of nutrients, including a flavonoid (or a plant-based disease-fighting nutrient) called 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone (DMC).
DMC, which the researchers, from the University of Graz in Austria and other institutions, identified as a “natural compound with anti-ageing properties,” could slow cell degeneration, or cell aging. This degeneration process can lead to chronic health conditions like heart disease and cancer.
In tests on human cells, DMC appeared to slow senescence, the process that causes cells to stop dividing and start growing permanently.
Senescence is a turning point in a person’s aging process. Once it begins, your body enters the permanent aging period.
The researchers say DMC slows aging by inducing autophagy, a process during which the body recycles damaged cells and removes them in favor of healthier new cells.
If DMC could slow cell aging and trigger autophagy in people, the researchers concluded, the plant’s anti-aging properties might help individuals live longer with fewer chronic health conditions.
Perhaps, but the research isn’t there yet.
“The science claims from this study are very limited, and results are based on mice and isolated in one form. There is scarce evidence that ashitaba actually works,” she said.
A handful of studies on ashitaba suggest it may have some helpful benefits beyond aging.
For example, one study found that animals which consumed ashitaba produced less stomach acid. This may mean the plant is beneficial for treating heartburn.
Another study, this one in rats, found that an extract in ashitaba may help lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, as well as total cholesterol and triglyceride numbers.
These studies, as well as several others, didn’t look at humans, however, only lab studies of human cells. It’s difficult to translate those types of studies to real effects for humans, says Ginger Hultin, a Seattle-based registered dietitian, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and owner of a dietitian practice called Champagne Nutrition.
“There are so many great antioxidant flavonoids in all plant foods, and [DMC] is one of many. 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone exists in ashitaba, but this study was done on organisms ranging from yeast to mice. It’s so hard to know how it works in humans,” she said.
There isn’t one.
“Studies are actually currently lacking sufficient evidence to list potential reactions, herb/supplement or drug interactions, or proper dosage, so that’s always a red flag for me,” Hultin said. “Many herbals do have some interactions with medical conditions or medications, so I’d use caution before starting something like this and definitely speak to your physician about it.”
You can find ashitaba as a dietary supplement or with herbal compounds. Be extra cautious when buying a supplement, too. In the United States, supplements aren’t regulated.
“Unfortunately, there have not been extensive human studies performed on this herb, so the safety and effectiveness are largely unknown,” Hultin said. “Much of the research done has taken place in vitro — in a lab setting — or on animals. Make sure that you’re getting a quality product by looking for third-party testing on the label to ensure safety.”
Most of the existing ashitaba studies aren’t focused solely on DMC. They’re looking at other nutrients in the plant, finding that the many vitamins and minerals, as well as antioxidants like DMC, may be the key to the plant’s powerful regeneration effects.
Ashitaba may not be an herbal way to stop aging. But a healthful plant you could add to your diet? Perhaps.
“There are some wonderful nutrients in ashitaba, but you get these same kinds of nutrients from all the plant foods we eat in the diet,” Hultin said. “There’s not just one ‘fountain of youth’ plant. It really comes down to how you treat your body daily over a long period of time. Supplements are not the answer, rather the type of lifestyle you live and how you care for your body.”
Zarabi added, “We find one plant in a faraway destination, want to bottle it up in a pill form and source it around the world as its claim to fame for fighting disease. Let’s just stick to the basics and eat a balanced diet and exercise to improve our telomeres and anti-aging properties.”