Neem is an important botanical in the Ayurvedic system of healing of India. It is traditionally used to treat inflammation, infections, fever, various skin disorders and to cleanse the liver and kidneys. Another reputed use of this plant is to promote weight loss, sometimes in combination with other herbs. However, there is little scientific evidence to validate an association between neem and weight loss.
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Neem, or Azadirachta indica, is a flowering tree in the mahogany family. While it is often considered an invasive species in regions where it has escaped contained cultivation, it is revered as the “village pharmacy” in its native lands of India, Pakistan, Malaysia, Burma, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Traditionally, neem is used to improve oral health; deter intestinal parasites; and treat respiratory complaints, fever, diabetes, jaundice, malaria, rheumatism, acne, psoriasis and other inflammatory conditions. In fact, it is commonly added to skin creams and other personal care products sold in Europe and the United States, as well as India. Parts of the tree are also used for culinary purposes, and the flowers are central to many Hindu rituals and celebrations.
In Ayurveda, the five elements – air, fire, water, ether and earth – compose the tri-dosha, a system of interactions that govern every living thing. Each dosha, or type, is dominated by certain characteristics. For example, if your friends would describe you as creative, highly imaginative and a quick learner with a lean body type but frequently dry skin, then you might be predominantly vata dosha. Neem is traditionally used to address elevated cholesterol, blood sugar and obesity in people with a kapha constitution, which is represented by earth and water and indicates a reflective, easy-going personality with a fondness for food and a slow digestion. Kapha types also tend to crave astringent, spicy and bitter foods.
According to the “Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines,” neem seed oil contains azadirachtin, a chemical compound with a wide variety of medicinal properties including antiviral, antifungal, antibacterial and antimalarial. In addition, neem bark and leaves contain chemicals that reduce inflammation and fever, and dispel intestinal worms and other parasites. Certainly, this information supports many of the traditional uses of this herb in medicine. However, the PDR does not correlate any components found in neem with weight loss.
Researchers R. Subapriya and S. Nagini of Annamalai University in India published a review on the medicinal properties of neem in the March 5, 2005 issue of Current Medicinal Chemistry. Of the 140-plus compounds isolated from neem, the study authors didn’t mention any being associated with promoting weight loss. Instead, the scientists concluded that the existing medical literature demonstrates the antiviral, antifungal, anticarcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, antimalarial and blood sugar-regulating properties of neem.
It should be noted that the absence of evidence that neem promotes weight loss may be simply due to the fact that the plant has never been studied for this effect. However, Ripu M. Kunwar, Keshab P. Shrestha and Rainer W. Bussmann appraised the value of traditional herbal medicine, including the Ayurveda system, in the December 13, 2010 issue of the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine. Based on a review of clinical data, and specifically noting the use of neem to treat fever, the authors proposed that traditional therapies and how they complement conventional medicines are worthy of further investigation.