The moringa tree is indigenous to India, and also grown in Central and South America, Africa, Indonesia, Mexico, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Its leaves are rich in vitamins A, C, and E; some B vitamins; and the minerals calcium, potassium, zinc, magnesium, and iron. They even boast antioxidant and anti-inflammatory compounds.
Because moringa can be grown easily and inexpensively—and the leaves retain their nutrients when dried—it’s been an important crop in the fight against malnutrition in developing countries. Historically, moringa has been used medicinally to treat a long list of conditions, including anemia, arthritis, asthma, digestive problems, diabetes, high blood pressure, and infections. It’s applied topically, too, to treat wounds, bites, and warts. And moringa is thought to help promote breast milk production in new moms.
But much of the scientific research on moringa leaves and leaf extracts has been done with animals. Early findings seem to suggest the leaves may help with heart health and cancer protection, as well as physical endurance and sexual enhancement. Limited human research also suggests moringa leaf could be helpful for diabetes management. In one study, tablets of dehydrated moringa leaf reduced blood sugar levels in adults with type 2 diabetes by nearly 30% in three months.
It’s important to keep in mind, however, that just because a food is natural, that doesn’t mean it’s free from potential side effects and interactions. Preliminary animal studies suggest that moringa might further reduce thyroid hormone levels in people with hypothyroidism, and potentially reduce the effectiveness of thyroid hormone replacement medications.
And while moringa has been studied in lactating women, its potential effects on breastfed babies hasn’t been fully evaluated. So breastfeeding moms should steer clear for now.
What’s more, some parts of the moringa plant (other than the leaves) might carry health risks. According to the Natural Medicines Comprehensive Database, for example, the root, bark, and flowers of moringa can cause uterine contractions that may trigger miscarriage.
Another factor to consider is that moringa products often vary in their formulation. Some are sold as powders, others as capsules or tea. Some products combine moringa with other ingredients. And some may use various parts of the plant in different ways. Plus, there’s yet to be an established standardized moringa “dose” for general health and wellness.
Articles and TV segments that tout the latest and greatest superfood often don’t discuss its possible cons. So before you add any hot food or supplement to your regular diet, it’s worth doing a bit of homework. When considering if a new food or product is right for you, the following is key:
1. Know what you’re putting in your body.
2. Don’t go overboard.
3. And keep in mind that whether you’re using superfood add-ins or not, the best way to protect your health is with a clean, nutrient-rich, balanced diet; and following through with other healthy habits, like being physically activity and prioritizing sleep.
Cynthia Sass is Health’s contributing nutrition editor, a New York Times best-selling author, and consultant for the New York Yankees. See her full bio here.