Fennel’s renowned history goes back to the ancient Greeks. And its Greek name – marathron – is the source of ‘marathon,” the name of the famous 26.2 mile race. The original long-distance run by a Greek messenger named Pheidippides, in 490 BC, delivered the news about a victorious battle at Marathon, a field full of fennel plants.
Aside from lending its name to one of history’s decisive battles and a popular athletic event, fennel enjoys a reputation for being a wonderful medicinal herb and delicious flavoring in many gourmet dishes.
The spice/medicine has been around for just about forever. . .
A Note from Lee Euler, Editor
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Fennel contains a natural chemical called anethole that scientists now believe is one of the prime reasons for its powerful action against cancer. One of its anti-tumor characteristics seems to be its slippery biochemical nature.
When cancer gets started in the body and then tries to branch out, it follows the old philosophy of trying to find a way forward by “throwing things against the wall and seeing what sticks.”
In cancer’s case, a developing tumor throws out cells to see where and if they can stick and spread.
But anethole can interfere with that deadly process.
In a study centered at Harvard that also involved researchers in Asia, lab tests showed that anethole could slow this metastatic spread by interfering with the cancer cells’ ability to detach from the supporting structure of a tumor, thereby thwarting the invasion of surrounding tissues.1 The test demonstrated that anethole could restrain up to 85 percent of the cancer cells and force them to stay put.
Along with that, the scientists found that anethole could alter the activity of enzymes in the tumor support system. The alteration made the cancer cells less likely to launch themselves from the tumor scaffolding and set up shop in a different part of the body.
At the same time, researchers also believe anethole can halt the activation of what’s called NF-kappaB – a protein in cells that can cause harmful mutations and set off destructive inflammation.2
Homocysteine for cancer survivors
Another interesting aspect of fennel’s benefits involves its effect on homocysteine.
Now, you’ve probably heard bad things about homocysteine. It’s an amino acid that the body creates and which has been linked to both an increased risk of heart problems and Alzheimer’s disease. But, so far, no one really knows if having a high level of homocysteine in your body causes these problems or is just a marker that shows there’s some underlying problem, one that makes you more vulnerable to heart disease and dementia.
But some chemotherapy treatments that make you more susceptible to memory issues also drastically increase your homocysteine levels. Particularly problematic is a drug called methotrexate, a chemotherapy agent that has been credited with improving the survival of many kids with leukemia.
A study at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital shows that patients treated with high doses of methotrexate suffer changes in their brain structure and are likely to have sky-high levels of homocysteine. One reason: this drug fights cancer by cutting off cancer cells’ access to folate, a B vitamin that cancer needs to survive.
Unfortunately, your other cells need folate, too. For this reason many doctors recommend taking folate supplements – which can lower homocysteine – after you receive treatment with methotrexate. (The drug is also used to treat rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis – but in much lower doses than in chemotherapy.)
Fennel may help keep homocysteine under control. A study at the University of Siena, in Italy, shows that anethole could both lower homocysteine by more than 50 percent and increase levels of glutathione – one of the body’s most important antioxidants – by up to 112% in the kidneys, brain and blood.3
Can be useful as a tea
Plus, fennel is a source of folate, which also adds to the spice’s homocysteine-lowering effects.
Fennel offers a further benefit for cancer patients. For women who undergo surgery for a gynecological cancer (which includes ovarian cancer, cervical cancer and endometrial cancer), drinking fennel tea has been shown to get the digestive tract working again, fast. As a result, say researchers, it can shorten hospital stays and reduce the risk of medical complications.4
However, fennel tea should not be consumed for a prolonged period of time. Some of the chemicals it contains can cause serious side effects if you drink the tea for too long.
Fighting toxins in the air
The scent of essential oil made from fennel may also protect the body by helping defend the lungs and liver against the inflammatory effects of air pollution.
According to an international study involving scientists in France and Lebanon, essential oil from fennel, as well as oil derived from cloves, basil, anise and ylang-ylang (a tropical tree), limits the harm to the body from tiny particles – linked to cancer – that we inhale on the lazy, hazy, polluted days of summer.
The researchers attribute this benefit to the anethole in oils made from fennel and anise, as well as the natural chemicals estragole from basil, eugenol from cloves and isoeugenol from ylang-ylang.
The lab tests showed that these substances reduced the destructive, inflammatory and carcinogenic activities of cytokines (immune molecules that cause cell damage) by up to 96 percent in lung cells and liver cells.5
Another fennel benefit: Including fennel in meals can help women ease the uncomfortable symptoms that take place during and after menopause. A study of women aged 45 to 60 found that it reduces problems with insomnia, hot flashes, vaginal dryness and anxiety – without any significant side effects. In the double blind tests, the women took capsules containing 100 mg of ground up fennel twice a day for eight weeks.6
The researchers believe the phytoestrogens in fennel (substances in the plant that mimic some of the effects of estrogen) were responsible for the improvement in postmenopausal symptoms.
Getting fennel into your diet is easy to do. Fresh fennel is sold at many supermarkets. I like to slice up the bulb and toss it into stir fries where it adds a satisfying, crunchy flavor. But go easy on fennel seeds and fennel tea, which contain chemicals that can be toxic in large amounts or when consumed for too long a time. Also, some experts say that pregnant women should avoid fennel, which is a good idea because there’s not a lot of solid information about fennel’s effects on pregnancy.
Our last issue covered another powerful anti-cancer food, and this time it’s a common one that many of us consume every day. If you missed the article, it’s repeated below this.