The Truth About Neem: Real Benefits and Side Effects

The Truth About Neem: Real Benefits and Side Effects

Neem, or Azadirachta indica to give it its generic name, is a tree that grows on the Indian subcontinent and has formed a part of traditional Indian medicine for many years. These days, all kinds of weird and wonderful herbs are being dragged out of antiquity to help with modern ailments, and neem is one of them.

So, how healthy is neem? How beneficial is it for your health? And can it rival superfood-worthy Indian plants like moringa?

What is Neem?

Also known as Indian lilac or nimtree, neem is a tree native to the Indian subcontinent. Just like the oceanic tree eucalyptus, neem is very fast growing and can exceed 20 meters in height relatively quickly. Its leaves are harvested and dried to create a medicinal herb, and they can also be processed into a highly concentrated neem oil.

This tree is said to have been harvested for more than 2,000 years for this purpose, and it has played a key role in Ayurvedic medicinal practices in that time (this is also where you’ll find the earliest use of the plant holy basil and the herb ashwagandha).

5 Health Benefits of Neem

As regular readers can attest, we like to back up all of the claims we make on this site with actual scientific evidence, and if a claim doesn’t have a wealth of peer-reviewed evidence behind it, then we don’t echo that claim. The problem with neem is that there isn’t a great deal of evidence out there, which makes it hard to verify or vilify common claims.

The following claims are therefore based on a small number of studies and should be taken with a pinch of salt. They may suggest some promising health benefits, and they definitely warrant further research, but it’s too early for certainties.

1. Neem Oil Can Fight Stomach Ulcers and Bacteria

Neem has long been known to possess antibacterial effects. It contains compounds that can also be found in other antibacterial herbs, and when these are concentrated in the form of neem oil, they seem to possess some potent effects.

A recent study used neem oil in the treatment of H. pylori, a pathogen that is increasingly becoming resistant to common antibiotics. They found that after a concentrated dose of neem oil was administered, the pathogen all but vanished. (1) It’s not alone in providing these effects, and we’ve noted similar benefits with antibacterial herbal resins like mastic and with dried herbs like rosemary, but the more the merrier—if the age of antibiotic resistance really is just around the corner, then natural substances like this could prove invaluable.

2. Neem Could Help in the Fight Against Cancer

The C word usually makes an appearance where herbs and their health benefits are concerned. That’s because these herbs contain a high concentration of antioxidants that can do everything from inhibit growth to fight oxidative stress and inflammation. Neem is another herb with anti-cancer potential, and there is an increasing amount of research pointing towards its effects on gynaecological cancers in particular. (2)

3. Neem May Improve Oral Health

This ancient Indian herb is one of the many being studied as a potential natural alternative to antibacterial chemicals used in mouthwash and in the administration of root canals. It’s early days, but it has displayed potent antibacterial effects when used in this manner and the research is very promising. (3)

If the idea of a common herb being used to treat everything from root canals to bad breath and plaque seems strange, consider this: the main antibacterial compound in commercial mouthwash is extracted from thyme.

4. Neem for Skin Health

This herb could also prove effective in treating certain skin conditions. Very little research exists, but there is a lot of anecdotal evidence, and it’s also a safe assumption to make considering what we know about its antibacterial effects and the nourishing antioxidant compounds it contains.

It has been used for the treatment of eczema and acne, and it’s antibacterial and antiseptic properties mean it may also help with fungal infections and conditions such as athlete’s foot as well as general swelling and irritations.

However, this is something you need to be very careful with, as a highly concentrated form of anything—even a relatively harmless herb—can do serious harm to your skin.

5. It Improves Overall Health

Finally, and perhaps most noteworthy, neem can also improve overall health. The more natural antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals you consume, the lower your risk of chronic diseases will be. Countless research can back up these claims, and it’s something modern science has known for a long time.

This doesn’t mean that you need this particular herb to live a long and healthy life, nor does it mean that a healthy lifestyle will guarantee you’ll be disease-free, but it could certainly improve your chances.

There have been other suggested health benefits of neem, as well, including the suggestion that it can help improve the condition of your hair, making it thicker and more manageable, but we’re not sure where these claims come from and can’t find any evidence to back them up.

Side Effects of Neem

While Ayurvedic has given us some genuinely healthy herbs and remedies, its beliefs don’t exactly tie in with modern medicine, and some Ayurvedic practices are incredibly dangerous, including the use of heavy metals that can—and have—led to heavy metal poisoning. There are no such concerns with neem, however, and providing you’re using a pure product that has not been tainted during harvest or production, and you don’t consume it to excess, then there should be no issues.

However, you should avoid this herb if you:

  • Are pregnant: There are concerns that neem can increase the risk of miscarriage.
  • Have an autoimmune disorder: Neem is thought to stimulate the immune system, and while this would be a healthy and even welcome effect for many, it could be cause for concern in those suffering from diseases like MS and lupus.
  • Are breastfeeding: There is simply not enough research out there showing that neem is safe when nursing.
  • Have diabetes: There are concerns that neem can cause blood sugar levels to drop too low, potentially causing issues for anyone with diabetes.
  • Have recently had surgery: Its effects on blood sugar may also impact anyone who has recently undergone surgery.

We would also advise caution in anyone with a preexisting health condition, anyone taking medication, and anyone with a transplanted organ. In such cases, it’s always better to be safe than sorry, so discuss medicinal use of neem with your doctor first.

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