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New Laurels for Diabetics
New findings show that bay laurel can dramatically
improve glucose and lipid levels in type 2 diabetes
By Will Block
How many thorns lie hid
Beneath the wreath which decks the aspiring brow!
Like the lone ivy o’er the oak’s worn trunk,
The laurel wreath too oft conceals the ruins
Of the mind.
—Mrs. Valentine Bartholomew
“Recollections of the Gifted: Olympia Morata”
Frazer’s Magazine, Vol. XXXI
January to June 1845.
re you resting on your health laurels? In
Ancient Greece, the adornment of a laurel wreath was a form of recognition for achievement. Such wreaths were made of interlocking branches and leaves of the bay laurel (Laurus nobilis, Lauraceae), an aromatic broadleaf evergreen. They were woven in a circular form, to be worn above the brow. In Greek and Roman mythology, the god Apollo is typically represented wearing a laurel wreath on his head. Apollo is young, beautiful, and beardless—symbolizing light and the sun; truth and prophecy; medicine and healing; poetry, music, and the arts; and more. During the period of Ancient Greek civilization, wreaths were awarded to victors of athletic competitions such as the Olympics and the Pythian Games (held at the sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi), which also laurelled music and poetry.
Moreover, later in Ancient Rome the bay laurel reflected deep respect. In Latin, laurus means “praise” and nobilis, “renowned.” A laurel wreath became a mark of excellence for aspiring poets and athletes, a symbol of wisdom and glory. It also celebrated martial victory, and was used to crown triumphant commanders. The Latin word laureate means “crowned with laurels.” It is the source for poet laureate or Nobel laureate. These ancient usages provide meaning to the admonition, “Don’t rest on your laurels!” Hence, it means that you should continue your efforts to achieve success on every level, including your aspirations for health. Do not fall back on your past successes, as if they were enough. Do not let old laurels deflect you from the search for new ones.
The History of Bay Laurel Usage
There is nary a soup, stew or tomato sauce that cannot be improved by bay laurel. A diversity of cuisines including French, Spanish, Greek, Romanian, Portuguese and Creole, among many others, employ its flavors in marinades, shellfish broils, pickling brines, and with game. So it is not surprising that, apart from its culinary use, across recorded history, bay laurel has been heralded and cited for a wide range of medicinal properties owing to its many active components.* Its medical properties include its use as an antioxidant, an analgesic and anti-inflammatory, as an anticonvulsant (antiepileptic), and for wound healing.
The acclaimed British archaeologist
R. Campbell Thompson excavated many sites in the region of the ancient Mesopotamian civilizations. Campbell was long associated with the British Museum and was a teacher of T. E. Lawrence (a.k.a. Lawrence of Arabia). In the 1920’s he uncovered tablets written about 1700 BCE, which he translated. It was determined that the tablets were of older writing dating back as far as 3000 BCE. The tablets revealed a list of medicines used by ancient Sumerians, and included on the list was bay laurel. In his Natural History, Pliny the Elder, the Roman scientist and scholar of the 1st Century CE, recommended bay laurel use in massages to ease the pain of rheumatism. Throughout the history of medicine, bay laurel has been found useful for gastrointestinal complaints (dyspepsia, indigestion, and flatulence) and in liniments for bruising and sprains. It was once used to keep moths away, owing to its lauric acid content which gives it insecticidal properties.
Even though the Hellenic physician Dioscorides, author of the De Materia Medica and a contemporary of Pliny the Elder, claimed the leaves were useful in treating diseases of the bladder, the scientific evidence is insufficient. He also claimed that it could help the kidneys, as modern research attests. Dioscorides thought that bay laurel could stop vomiting and sooth the stomach, for which there is some evidence. The great Greek/Roman physician and anatomist Galen suggested its use for stimulating and correcting liver disorders. There is some evidence for this too.
Across recorded history, bay laurel
has been heralded and cited for a
wide range of medicinal properties.
In the year 1000 CE, the great Islamic surgeon Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi completed Kitab al-Tasrif, an encyclopedic thirty-volume work on surgery and on diseases and their cures. In this work, he devoted much attention to the healing properties of oil extracted from various natural substances, including bay laurel. Al-Zahrawi believed that bay laurel oil could help to widen the opening of the veins and relieve pain of the organs as well as chills, earaches and headaches. So great was the medieval achievement of al-Zahrawi that his comprehensive medical texts shaped both Islamic and European surgical procedures up until the Renaissance.
During the century following al-Zahrawi, in Europe St. Hildegard of Bingen, the author of botanical and medical texts—as well as a belle lettrist of a wide variety of poems, plays, and songs—had high praise for bay laurel. She pronounced that it could be a universal remedy for many ailments, including heart palpitation, migraines, asthma, fever, gout, angina, and spleen and liver conditions. Bay laurel’s established antioxidant, analgesic and anti-inflammatory properties make most of these claims plausible.
A Wreath of Discoveries
Enter Dr. Richard A. Anderson, a leading authority on the use of nutritional supplements for combating type 2 diabetes and its precursor condition, insulin resistance, which causes impaired glucose tolerance. Without doubt, Dr. Anderson is a scientific laureate. After receiving his Ph.D. from Iowa State University, he did postdoctoral work at Harvard Medical School, before joining the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center at the United States Department of Agriculture. He has published more than 170 scientific manuscripts and has presented more than 175 presentations at national and international meetings throughout the world. He has been the recipient of several awards, including the American College of Nutrition Outstanding Scientist and the National Nutritional Foods Association Burton Kallman Scientific Award.
Dr. Richard A. Anderson
Dr. Anderson is well known for his research with chromium (an essential trace mineral in human nutrition), shown in numerous studies to help prevent diabetes and cardiovascular disease—in part through its beneficial effects in preventing weight gain. Dr. Anderson has also led the way in the investigation of insulin potentiating polyphenols in insulin resistance, diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Among the potentiators that he has studied are cinnamon and now bay laurel, coincidentally the source of the word laureate.
Chromium Helps But Does Not
Prevent Metabolic Syndrome
Clearly, if the symptoms of chromium deficiency are as Anderson describes them and if these symptoms add up to the metabolic syndrome (which is a pathway to major chronic illness), one would be foolish not to obtain an adequate daily amount of chromium—easily done through supplementation. It would be wrong, however, to assume that chromium by itself can prevent the metabolic syndrome—it cannot. That goal can be achieved, however, through wise lifestyle choices primarily involving healthy nutrition (of which adequate chromium intake is a small but important part) and regular exercise; the value of the latter cannot be overemphasized. Unfortunately for many, lifestyle changes are not that easy to make, so other avenues of help are welcome.
In addition to his work with chromium, Anderson is known for his discovery, in 1990, that cinnamon (Cinnamomum cassia) is beneficial in alleviating the signs and symptoms of diabetes. It does this by potentiating (increasing the effectiveness of) insulin. Subsequently, in 2001, Anderson and his colleagues showed in laboratory experiments that aqueous extracts of cinnamon powder can potentiate insulin activity more than 20-fold! As the foremost authority on the use of cinnamon extract as an insulin mimetic (i.e., a substance that mimics the biological actions of insulin), Dr. Anderson has shown that such a substance can, at least in principle, circumvent the problem of insulin resistance by causing insulin’s functions to be fulfilled via biochemical pathways—whether insulin’s or others—that yield the same results.
All three levels of bay laurel leaves
were found to reduce serum glucose
(from 21 to 26%).
Cinnamon Improves Insulin Sensitivity and More
In a further study, cinnamon has shown its muscle, reducing mean fasting serum glucose (18–29%), triglycerides (23–30%), total cholesterol (12–26%), and LDL-cholesterol (7–27%) in subjects with type 2 diabetes after 40 days of daily consumption of 1–6 g cinnamon. In a separate study, subjects with the metabolic syndrome who consume an aqueous extract of cinnamon have been shown to have improved fasting blood glucose (–8.4%), systolic blood pressure (–3.8%), percentage body fat (–0.7%), and increased lean body mass (+1.1%) compared with the placebo group. Yet another study, utilizing an aqueous extract of cinnamon high in type A polyphenols, has also demonstrated improvements in fasting glucose, glucose tolerance, and insulin sensitivity in women with insulin resistance associated with the polycystic ovary syndrome. It is important to note that for both supplemental chromium and cinnamon not all studies report beneficial effects. The responses are related to the duration of the study, form of chromium or cinnamon used, and the extent of obesity and glucose intolerance of the subjects. Dr. Anderson emphasizes that researchers use a water-soluble cinnamon extract, not whole cinnamon powder, because the latter contains certain chemical compounds that can be deleterious in large amounts; those compounds are not soluble in water, so they’re absent from the extract.
In as little as 10 days, improvements
in blood glucose were significant,
and they remained significant
even after the 10-day
More Insulin Potentiation from Bay Laurel
This brings us to the doorstep of bay laurel leaf research, which had been shown by Dr. Anderson as early as 2000 to be an insulin-potentiating material. But this initial study was done in vitro, and not in people. Although Dr. Anderson’s paper on the effects of bay laurel on humans appears to have been completed in 2007, it did not appear in print until this year (2009) for some reason. What Anderson and colleagues tried to do is to determine if bay laurel leaves may be important in the prevention and/or alleviation of type 2 diabetes. The 40 subjects selected for the study were required to have type 2 diabetes, and had to be 40 years old or more. They also were required not to be on insulin therapy and not taking medicines for other health conditions. The subjects were taking sulfonylurea and metformin diabetic drugs, but not statins. Subjects were excluded if they had a high body mass index (greater than 35 kg/m2), or a history of musculoskeletal, autoimmune, or neurologic disease.
When the study began, the subjects (18 men and 22 women) were divided into 4 groups and given capsules containing 1, 2, or 3 g of ground bay laurel leaves per day (in even doses immediately after breakfast and immediately after dinner) or placebo followed by a 10-day washout period. The subjects were instructed not to change their normal daily routine including medications, foods, and exercise activities.
There was virtually no dose-
correspondent response between 1
and 3 g daily of ground bay laurel
leaves; all three response levels were
All three levels of bay laurel leaves were found to reduce serum glucose (from 21 to 26%). In as little as 10 days, these improvements in blood glucose were significant, and they remained significant even after the 10-day washout period. Triglycerides too were significantly decreased (27 to 33%) after the washout period. Total cholesterol also decreased (21 to 24%) after 30 days, as did LDL cholesterol (32 to 40%). What’s more, HDL cholesterol increased (6 to 29%). The placebo group was unaffected and experienced no changes.
A Wreath of Bay Laurel Leaves
While this is an initial study, what’s important is that the protocol has been established by the work on cinnamon that has preceded it, and thus there is an added strength to the findings. The authors noted that it was not clear whether less than 1 g of bay laurel leaves would be effective, but because of the distribution of benefits, they conjectured that it should very well be tested. Also interesting was the finding that there was virtually no dose-correspondent response between 1 and 3 g daily of ground bay laurel leaves; all three response levels were similar. What’s more, lower serum glucose and lipid levels were maintained, even when the subjects were not consuming bay laurel leaves for 10 days. This denoted sustained effects of bay laurel leaves and indicated that bay leaves would not need to be consumed every day. Moreover, there were no compliance problems or side effects associated with the regimen at any level of consumption.
Lower serum glucose and lipid levels
were maintained, even when the
subjects were not consuming bay
laurel leaves for 10 days.
Finally, the mechanisms are unclear and the active components of bay laurel are under study. In summary, the consumption of 1–3 g of bay laurel leaves/day for 30 days decreased risk factors for diabetes, including glucose and lipid profile, and suggests that bay leaves are beneficial for people with type 2 diabetes. A bay laurel wreath for Dr. Anderson is in order. So next time you rest on your health laurels, make sure they’re made of bay leaves.
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Will Block is the publisher and editorial director of Life Enhancement magazine.