Neem, The Divine Tree

The neem tree might be unknown to many Westerners, but in its native India it is one of the most revered trees of all. Nicknames for this evergreen relative of maple and mahogany include “divine tree,” “nature’s drugstore,” and “village pharmacy.”

In fact, the name “neem” comes from the Hindu nimba, meaning “bringer of good health,” and the tree’s ancient Sanskrit nickname, sarva roga nivarini, translates to “one that cures all ailments and illnesses”. The source of these extravagant nicknames is neem oil, pressed from the seeds of the neem tree, which has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for over 4,500 years.

This golden-yellow oil has an incredible number of health benefits and uses: as a contraceptive, hair treatment, skin treatment, anti-parasitic, anti-inflammatory, and even as a natural insect repellant. Nature’s drugstore, indeed!

Tree of a thousand uses

In addition to benefiting from the medicinal activity of neem oil, people in India have used the neem tree for millennia in many different ways. For one thing, it may be the source of the world’s first toothbrushes, as chewing small neem twigs is a traditional tooth-cleaning method in India and the Middle East—in more modern times, this tradition has evolved into neem toothpaste.

The leaves and oil are excellent at repelling insects, and are used for that purpose both in the fields and at home. Neem leaves, seeds, and bark, are also a traditional fertilizer used in India even today. For the women of India especially, neem oil is intrinsically linked with beauty, and is widely used in cosmetics, soaps, hand lotions, and more.

In fact, neem oil is traditionally burned in a lamp to a black residue, which is combined with other ingredients to make kajal, the famous eyeliner of India. With this wide array of uses, and the bonus superstition that planting three neem trees will grant you entrance to heaven, it is no wonder that even today every village in India has at least one neem tree!

Interesting properties

Neem oil has been used for its health benefits in Ayurvedic medicine for millennia, and is even mentioned by name in the founding texts of the practice. Ayurvedic practitioners have traditionally used neem oil, leaves, bark, and seeds to treat a myriad of conditions, ranging from leprosy to digestive issues to malaria.

One of neem’s most popular and long-lasting uses is to treat skin conditions like rashes, psoriasis, and eczema, or even those caused by parasites like ringworm or scabies. Clinical trials have indicated that lotion containing neem oil or dried neem leaf is very effective against all of these skin conditions and more 1, meaning that you should certainly reach for the neem lotion the next time you have a rash that won’t go away!

But neem is good for more than just the skin—for one thing, some studies have indicated that neem extract can help regulate blood sugar levels in people with diabetes 2, and clinical research demonstrates that neem supplements can help heal gastric ulcers and reduce ulcer-associated discomfort without causing any unwanted side-effects 4.

Even more promising is neem’s strong anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidant properties.  In addition to making neem lotion very good for treating joint pain and other inflammations, these properties have even been linked with anti-cancer activity 3. With powerful and wide-ranging health benefits such as these, perhaps it is time for more people to take advantage of “nature’s drugstore”!

References

1. Brahmachari G. 2004. Neem-an omnipotent plant: a retrospection. ChemBioChem 5(4): 408-421.

2. Charkrabortty T, Verotta L, and G Poddar. 1989. Evaluation of Azadirachta indica leaf extract for hypoglycemic activity in rats. Phytotherapy Research 3(1): 30-32.

3. Arivazhagan S, Balasenthil S, and S Nagini. 2000. Garlic and neem extracts enhance hepatic glutathione and glutathione dependent enzymes during N-methyl-N’-nitro-N-nitrosoguanadine (MNNG)-induced gastric carcinogenesis in rats. Phytotherapy Research 14(4): 291-293.

4. Bandyopadhyay U, Biswas K, Sengupta A, et al. 2004. Clinical studies on the effect of neem (Azadirachta indica) bark extract on gastric secretion and gastroduodenal ulcer. Life Sciences 75(24): 2867-2878. 

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