Beneficial basil – or not!

Fruit and vegetables are important parts of the daily diet. They are low in fat, salt and sugar and a good source of dietary fibre. Fruits and vegetables contain many vitamins and minerals that are good for your health. They also importantly contain a range of exciting phytochemicals – biologically active substances that can provide protection from some diseases. Now it’s time to cover fenchol – a phytochemical found in basil.

Fenchol is a natural compound abundant in some plants including basil. It is used extensively in the perfume industry, as well as in the food processing industry. It has a smell of pine, lemon and camphor. Fenchol has many known medicinal properties, most notably antibacterial, antimicrobial, and antioxidant effects. And now there might be one more.

Gut-brain communication

A recent preclinical study by scientists at the University of South Florida Health explored interactions between the gut microbiome and the brain. Emerging evidence had indicated that short-chain fatty acid metabolites produced by beneficial gut bacteria contribute to brain health. However, the abundance of such metabolites is often reduced in older people with mild cognitive impairment and Alzheimer’s disease, but a possible association remained largely unknown.

When these gut-derived microbial metabolites travel through the blood to the brain they bind to and activate the free fatty acid receptor 2, a cell signalling receptor expressed on brain cells called neurons with a hitherto unknown effect. One hallmark pathology of Alzheimer’s disease is hardened deposits of amyloid-beta protein that clump together between nerve cells to form amyloid protein plaques in the brain. This contributes to the neuron loss and death that ultimately cause the onset of Alzheimer’s, a neurodegenerative disease characterized by loss of memory, thinking skills and other cognitive abilities.

The research findings

In step one, the new study showed for the first time that the stimulation of the free fatty acid receptor 2 can be beneficial in protecting brain cells against toxic accumulation of the amyloid-beta protein associated with Alzheimer’s disease. By blocking the receptor the scientists found an abnormal build-up of the amyloid-beta protein proving the importance of functioning receptors for sustained brain health.

In step two, the scientists performed a large-scale virtual screening of 144,000 natural compounds to find other potential candidates that could stimulate the free fatty acid receptor 2 equally well compared to the microbial metabolites. Among the leading 15 compounds, the most potent in binding to and stimulating the receptor was fenchol.

In step three, further experiments in human neuronal cell cultures, as well as worm and mouse models of Alzheimer’s disease demonstrated that fenchol significantly reduced excess amyloid-beta accumulation and death of neurons by stimulating the free fatty acid receptor 2 signalling.

Still early days

Although the intriguing preclinical findings look promising it is still early days. Before you start throwing lots of extra basil into your salad to help prevent the development of dementia, be aware that much more research is needed including in humans. A key question is whether fenchol consumed in basil itself would be more or less effective than administering the compound in a pill.

And a final caveat, if you google fenchol you will find several websites covering cannabis in which it is also present. But I would stick to basil to enhance the taste of food as well as possibly preventing the development of dementia – or not.

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