Ancient Indian religious texts say this tree is ‘One that cures all ailments and ills.’ Revered in India, it’s also referred to as the ‘reliever of sickness,’ as well as village pharmacy, nature’s drug store and divine tree.
In 1992, the US National Academy of Sciences described it as ‘a tree for solving global problems,’ and more recently the United Nations declared it the ‘tree of the 21st century.’
It’s already been the subject of four world conferences and several international programs.
This amazing display of interest and enthusiasm springs from the plant’s potential to prevent and treat a huge number of health problems, including cancer.
It’s called the neem tree.
The history of neem (Azadirachta indica) can be traced back to Siddha, an Indian and Sri Lankan medical system, one of the oldest known medical traditions. Its origins date back 12,000 years.
And neem is the first medicinal plant mentioned in Siddha. It is said to deter infectious diseases including smallpox and to have powers that can ward off evil spirits.
The earliest documentation of the plant, 4,500 years ago, mentioned that every part of neem — bark, root, seed, leaf, flower and fruit — could be used for medicinal purposes.
Today, there are around 18 million neem trees in India, and Indian emigrants took it to other places in the world where they settled. It is now well established in at least 30 countries, including small plantations in the US.
Neem trees grow fast — 20 feet in a mere three years. They can grow where rainfall is limited, thrive in desert-like heat up to 120º F, and live for 200 years.1
Staggering number of health benefits
More than 300 compounds have been isolated from neem, including 140 with medicinal properties.
A short review of neem published in the Biojournal of Science and Technology (BJST) in 2016 summed up the plant’s benefits:
“Various parts of this plant … contain compounds with proven anti-inflammatory, anti-pyretic, anti-histamine, anti-fungal, antibacterial, anti-ulcer, analgesic, anti-arrhythmic, anti-tubercular, anti-malarial, diuretic, spermicide, anti-arthritic, anti-protozoal, insect repellent, anti-feedant, anti-hormonal properties and anti-cancerous uses.”2
As I mentioned, it seems every part of the plant offers a health benefit:
Leaves: Extracts and/or pastes for skin cleansing and infections including acne, boils, burns, wounds, insect bites and eruptions. Conditioning and strengthening hair, promoting hair growth and treating dandruff. Cleansing and soothing the eyes, offering relief from fatigue and irritation. Boosting the immune system, reducing elevated blood sugar and healing ulcers.
Flowers: Intestinal worms, nausea and anorexia. Can also be found as an aromatherapy oil for its calming properties.
Twigs: Traditionally, and even today, these are chewed to clean the teeth, fight germs in the mouth, heal swollen gums and prevent or remove plaque.
Bark: Gastric acid reduction, cold sores, pain relief, and boosting the immune system.
Seeds: A rich source of fatty acids and antioxidants, the seed oil is used in soaps, hair, cosmetic and beauty products, and in mosquito repellents.
Fruit: Oil is extracted from the pulp as well as the seed and is used in a similar way. Tea made from the fruit is used to keep the kidneys and prostate healthy.
Sap: General weakness and skin disease.3
As the BJST summary suggests, neem has so many beneficial properties it would be of value for almost all health concerns. But I’m obliged to mention that few human trials have been conducted.
The ones that exist show neem acts as a mosquito repellent,4 reduces mouth bacteria, plaque and gum disease,5,6 heals stomach and peptic ulcers,7 is “highly effective” against head lice,8 and improves immunity (CD4 count) in HIV patients.9
Of the many compounds found in neem, the one of most interest to cancer patients is nimbolide, derived from limonoid, which is related to the terpenoid class of plant chemicals.
Nimbolide can scavenge free radicals and possesses antioxidant effects greater than vitamin C.
Studies using lab-cultured cancer cells demonstrate nimbolide works against the disease in five main ways.10
Induces apoptosis (cancer cell suicide) through a range of mechanisms – -increasing pro-apoptotic proteins, decreasing anti-apoptotic proteins, and generating free radicals (reactive oxygen species).(Free radicals have both positive and negative effects. In this case, they are working in ways that benefit us).
Reduces angiogenesis by inhibiting VEGF, a growth factor that helps supply new blood vessels for cancers to grow and spread.
Prevents proliferation through cyclin reduction and by reducing an enzyme it depends upon. Cyclin is a protein that helps regulate the cell cycle. Cell cycle arrest prevents the growth of cancer.
Reduces metastasis by inhibition of MMP 2 and MMP 9. Matrix metallopeptidases are enzymes cancer cells use to dissolve surrounding collagen and connective tissue so they can spread and invade other organs.
Promotes chemoprevention which helps stop cancer from developing by inhibiting phase 1 carcinogen activation enzymes and inducing phase 2 carcinogen detoxification enzymes.
Shrinks cancer cells by 70-80 percent
Although there are no human studies, findings from the lab are very encouraging.
Prostate cancer: Scientists at the National University of Singapore carried out a 12-week study of nimbolide given by mouth to mice with prostate cancer. The tumor shrank by 70 percent, and its spread was suppressed by 50 percent.
According to Associate Professor Gautam Sethi, who led the study, “…we have demonstrated that nimbolide can inhibit tumor cell viability — a cellular process that directly affects the ability of a cell to proliferate, grow, divide, or repair damaged cell components — and induce programmed cell death in prostate cancer cells.”
He continued, “This is possible because a direct target of nimbolide in prostate cancer is glutathione reductase, an enzyme which is responsible for maintaining the antioxidant system that regulates the STAT3 gene in the body.
“The activation of the STAT3 gene has been reported to contribute to prostate tumor growth and metastasis. We have found that nimbolide can substantially inhibit STAT3 activation and thereby abrogate the growth and metastasis of prostate tumor.”11
Pancreatic cancer: Scientists at Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso tested the compound on pancreatic cancer cell lines and in live mice.
In cell lines, the size and number of pancreatic cancer cell colonies were reduced by 80% and their migration and invasion capabilities were curbed by 70%. Growth and metastasis was likewise inhibited in the mice. In both culture and mice, normal cells were unharmed.
Senior author Rajkumar Lakshmanaswamy said, “The promise nimbolide has shown is amazing, and the specificity of the treatment towards cancer cells over normal cells is very intriguing.
“Nimbolide seems to attack pancreatic cancer from all angles.”12
As you may know, pancreatic cancer is one of the deadliest forms and the hardest to treat, so any treatment that helps is welcome and important.
Oral cancer: In 2017 a research team led by professor Siddavaram Nagini of Annamalai University in Chidambaram, India, found that nimbolide could inhibit oral cancer in hamsters by targeting a tumor suppressor protein called RECK.
The researchers concluded that “nimbolide may be a robust therapeutic approach to prevent oral cancer progression.”
Commenting on the study prof Nagini said:
“RECK has tumor-suppressing properties. In normal cells it maintains tissue architecture and prevents infiltration and spread of tumor cells to other organs. In cancer, an array of molecules inhibits the function of RECK. Nimbolide suppresses the functions of the molecules that inhibit the function of RECK”13,14
Breast cancer: The most recent findings, published in August, 2018, were carried out by scientists at The National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) in India.
One of the scientific team, Chandraiah Godugu, said their study showed that nimbolide “significantly inhibited the growth of breast cancer and triple negative breast cancer cells…by novel molecular pathways. It induces cell death and inhibits proliferation of cancer cells.”
He also speculated that “nimbolide may even reduce the severe side effects associated with chemotherapeutic drugs. As it shows anticancer activity by attacking multiple pathways, the chances of drug resistance are very low.
“It may prove beneficial against relapsed tumor which poses the challenge of drug resistance. It may even kill the dormant and resistant cancer stem cells.”15
A great many neem products are available including supplements, toothpowder, toothpaste, mouthwash, skin creams, bodycare, soap, shampoo and conditioner. Neem trees and seedlings can also be purchased.
All products are available from Neem Tree Farms of Florida, the oldest and largest independent producer of neem trees and products in the U.S. However, neem products are widely available elsewhere – even Walmart stocks a range of them.
WebMD describes neem as “possibly safe” to take by mouth for up to ten weeks, to apply to the inside of the mouth for up to six weeks, and to apply to the skin for up to two weeks. Longer applications, they say, are “possibly unsafe.” In short, not much is known, and you can assume this website is no great friend of alternatives.
Nimbolide – which seems to be an extract you’d want for cancer — cannot be purchased on its own, but some supplements contain a small amount. Because neem is a powerful immune system booster it should not be used by people with auto-immune diseases including lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis, except under medical supervision.