Ancient, but potent healing power of palm oil


palm oilFOR generations, red palm oil has been revered as both a nutritious food and a valuable medicine. Even now, scientists are beginning to recognise the value of the prized plant in the treatment and prevention of several diseases. BEN UKWUOMA writes on the latest scientific work presented at the International Biomedical Science Congress held in Birminghan United Kingdom by a Nigerian scientist, based in Cape Town South Africa on the nutritional and healing properties inherent in the plant.

IT was prized by the Pharaohs of ancient Egypt as a sacred food. The oil was so highly valued that it was entombed with the Pharaohs so that they would have access to it in the afterlife.

Indeed, throughout history, palm oil has served as the primary source of dietary fat for countless people. Its nutritional and healing properties have been recognised for generations.

Until modern medicine arrived, red palm oil was the remedy of choice for nearly every illness in many parts of Africa.

When someone was sick, downing a cup full of palm oil was common. Even today, many people in the villages rely on this age-old method of treatment. Palm oil is regarded among many as essential in the diet for pregnant and nursing women in order to assure good health for the mother and child.

Today, scientists are recognising the value of red palm oil in the treatment and prevention of many diseases. There is array of scientific presentation in this direction. For instance, recently at the International Conference Centre Birmingham at the Biomedical Science Congress, Dr. Oluwafemi O. Oguntibeju, Department of Biomedical Sciences, Faculty of Health & Wellness Sciences, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Bellville Campus, South Africa further elucidated the potential of the red palm oil in the healing process.

Scientifically known as Elaeis Guineensis, palm oil is believed to originate from West Africa. However, archaeological evidence on palm oil consumption was found in Egypt over 5000 years ago.

Essentially, it contains rich, balanced mixture of saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, providing a higher level of bioavaliable nutrients than any other vegetable source.

Like coconut oil, palm oil is also rich in medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which mobilise body fat stores, increase the metabolic rate and are a great source of energy.

Palm oil is a rich source of antioxidants, especially Vitamin E. While the health benefits of Vitamin E are widely known, less widely known is the fact that Vitamin E is a complex of many constituents broken into two groups: tocopherols (alpha, beta, gamma and delta) and tocotrienols (alpha, beta, gamma and delta). And while alpha tocopherol is the form most commonly marketed as Vitamin E, the full spectrum of both tocoperols and tocotrienols are required for optimal assimilation.

The super-antioxidant tocotrienols are particularly important for optimal health. These natural antioxidants act as free radical scavengers and are believed to play a protective role in cellular aging, atherosclerosis, cancer, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease.

Researchers now believe that the tocopherols and tocotrienols together provide constituents that help limit damage during a heart attack.

Red palm oil not only supplies fatty acids essential for proper growth and development, but it is packed with an assortment of vitamins, antioxidants and other phytonutrients important for good health.

For instance, the red colour comes from carotenes such as beta-carotene and lycopene – the same nutrients that give tomatoes and carrots and other fruits and vegetables their rich red and orange colours.

Carotenes are valuable nutrients and powerful antioxidants. They are also important because the body can convert them into Vitamin A, an essential nutrient.

Vitamin A deficiency can cause blindness, weaken bones, lower immunity and adversely affect learning ability and mental function.

“Vitamin A is only found in animal foods. Such foods are too expensive for many people. Carotenes in fruits and vegetables can supply the needed Vitamin A if an adequate amount of fat is also consumed. Carotenes require fat for conversion into Vitamin A. Unfortunately those who can not afford animal products often do not eat much fat either.

Populations with ample carotene-rich foods available often suffer from vitamin A deficiency because they don’t get enough fat in their diet,” Dr. Albert Egbuehi of the Department of Biochemistry, College of Medicine University of Lagos said: “Red palm oil is the richest dietary source of provitamin A carotenes (beta-carotene and alpha-carotene) . It has 15 times more provitamin A carotenes than carrots and 300 times more than tomatoes. This has made it a valued resource in the treatment of Vitamin A deficiency.” “Just one teaspoon a day of red palm oil supplies children with the daily recommend amount of Vitamin A. Nursing mothers are encouraged to supplement their diet with palm oil to enrich their milk with the vitamin,” he stressed.

Studies, however, show that adding red palm oil into the diet can double or triple the amount of Vitamin A in mother’s milk.

The children are not only getting the Vitamin A they need but other important nutrients as well. Red palm oil is a virtual powerhouse of nutrition. It contains by far, more nutrients than any other dietary oil. In addition to beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, and lycopene it contains at least 20 other carotenes along with Vitamin E, Vitamin K, CoQ10, squalene, phytosterols, flavonoids, phenolic acids, and glycolipids.

Red palm oil is loaded with so many nutrients and antioxidants, it’s like a natural dietary supplement. In fact, it is currently being encapsulated and sold as a vitamin supplement.

The depletion of antioxidants including antioxidant enzymes is known to increase the risk of complications in conditions such as CVD, diabetes and cancer.

“This study was performed to examine the influence of red palm oil (RPO) supplementation on antioxidant enzymes in a rodent model,” Oguntibeju said

“Results showed that RPO caused a significant increase in the activities of antioxidant enzymes: Superoxide dismutase (SOD), Glutathione reductase (GR) Catalase (CAT), but showed no observable effect on GSH.

He concluded that the oil could minimise oxidative damage through its potential ability to increase antioxidant enzymes.

“RPO may therefore play a role in the prevention and treatment of oxidative injuries to explore and support this hypothesis,” he stated.

Antioxidant enzymes are the main defense components of the biological systems in both humans and animals. Endogenous antioxidants as intracellular defense systems protect cells from free radical damage and extensive lysis but are not 100 per cent.

“Therefore the intake of dietary-derived antioxidants (such as those present in RPO) could be of significant importance in curtailing the cumulative oxidative damage to macromolecules, ” he said.

Over the past two decades, researchers have painstakingly studied palm oil’s effect on cardiovascular health. The results have been surprising to researchers. Although high in saturated fat, it protects against heart disease.

Studies show that adding palm oil into the diet can remove plaque build up in arteries and therefore, reverse the process of atherosclerosis. This has been demonstrated in both animal and human studies. In one study, for instance, 50 subjects were divided into two equal groups. All the participants had been diagnosed with atherosclerosis and had suffered at least one stroke.

At the beginning of the study the degree of blockage of their carotid arteries ranged from 15 to 79 per cent. Without any other changes to their diets or medications, half of the subjects began taking a daily palm oil supplement. The other half received placebos and served as the control. The degree of atherosclerosis was monitored using ultrasound scans over an 18-month period. In the group receiving palm oil, atherosclerosis was halted in 23 of the 25 subjects. In seven of these subjects atherosclerosis was not only stopped, but also regressed. In comparison, none of those in the control group showed any improvement, in fact, the condition in 10 of them worsened This study demonstrated that palm oil can not only stop, but even reverse atherosclerosis.

Removing plaque is not the only way, palm oil protects against strokes and heart attacks. Palm oil can also improve cholesterol values. In a study at the University of Illinois College of Medicine researchers demonstrated a 10 per cent decrease in total cholesterol in 36 hypercholesterolemi c (high cholesterol) subjects given palm oil capsules for four weeks. A follow-up study of 16 subjects resulted in a 13 per cent lowering of total cholesterol.

Palm oil helps maintain proper blood pressure. The high antioxidant content of the oil quenches free radicals and keeps inflammation under control. Tocotrienols also strengthen the heart so that it can better withstand stress.

Researchers can purposely induce heart attacks in lab animals by cutting off blood flow to the heart. This causes severe injury and death. However, if the animals are fed palm oil the survival rate is greatly increased, injury is minimised, and recovery is quicker.

After looking at studies like this it becomes obvious that palm oil protects against heart disease. This is confirmed in populations where palm oil consumption is particularly high. Heart disease in Malaysia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Nigeria-where palm oil is a major if not the sole source of visible fat in the daily diet-are among the lowest in the world.

Studies show palm tocotrienols inhibit the growth of skin, stomach, pancreas, liver, lung, colon, prostate, breast and other cancers. Most of the research to date has been done with breast cancer where tocotrienols show great promise. They not only prevent cancer from taking hold, but also actively block its growth and initiate apoptosis- a process where diseased cells commit suicide. This is a normal process that is programmed into all of our cells in order to remove old and diseased cells. However, in cancer cells this process is blocked and affected cells continue to multiply and grow without restraint. Ordinary Vitamin E does not induce programmed cell death in cancer cells. Only tocotrienols have this effect.

The antioxidant power of palm oil has also shown to be of benefit in protecting against neurological degeneration. Two of the most significant factors that affect brain function are oxidative stress and poor circulation.

Oxidative stress generates free radicals that damage brain and nerve tissue. Poor circulation affects the brain by restricting oxygen and glucose, which are vital for proper brain function. Researchers have found correlations between oxidative stress and reduced blood flow to the brain to senile dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s disease, and even schizophrenia. All of these conditions involve brain cell death. Tocotrienols aid the brain by reducing oxidative stress and improving blood flow.
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