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Botanicals hailed as inflammation fighters

Chronic inflammation and its role in human disease was a common thread in presentations in the botanicals track at the Nutracon conference Wednesday at the Hilton Hotel in Anaheim, California. Presenters Dr. Gailen Marshall and Bharat Aggarwal, PhD, were enthusiastic about the role botanical extracts could play in reducing inflammatory diseases, especially cancer.

Aggarwal, of the University of Texas, spoke on the role of compounds found in various spices, especially those common to southern and southeast Asia, in fighting cancer. Epidemiological studies show a striking correlation of rock-bottom cancer rates in areas where consumption of such spices is high. Conversely, Aggarwal showed, a person moving from Shanghai to the US shows an increased risk of cancer. And North America, he noted, leads the world in the incidence of cancer.

Aggarwal related how then-President Richard Nixon declared war on cancer in 1971, with the goal of having a cure by 1975. But by 2002, cancer mortality rates hadn’t budged a whit.

“If we are going to play to game the game against cancer as we have for the last 50 years for the next 50 years things are not going to get any better,” he said.

The pathway of protection for botanicals is in inhibiting NF kappa-B, a necessary part of the immune system that is also the culprit in many types of chronic inflammation.

Aggarwal focused on curcumin, the active compound in turmeric. The substance shows powerful anticancer activity, as evidenced by the truly staggering amount of data that Aggarwal brought to the table. It plays a key role in modulating the potentially harmful activity of NFkB. Marshall was equally enthusiastic about botanicals’ role in fighting disease, but he sounded cautionary notes about aims and health claims.

“One size does not fit all,” Marshall cautioned. Boosting the immune system of an already overly sensitive individual – someone who suffers from allergies or other autoimmune conditions, for example – would be inappropriate, for instance.

Marshall likened the functioning of the human immune system to a gyroscope. What is needed is not necessarily turning up the spin (or overly “boosting” the system, in other words) but rather helping it to function with as little wobble as possible.

“One must be very careful about making claims,” he said. “If not, this field, which needs to move forward, will be set back by regulators.”

But, “there is great potential for botanicals as immune modulators,” he said. “Botanicals (as food, supplements, etc.) have a built-in natural appeal. It excites me as we move forward that we are becoming more evidence-based.”

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