Now researchers have figured out why

In Samoa, you don’t need ibuprofen to treat inflammation. The inhabitants of the Pacific island east of Australia have relied on nature for centuries. They make their medicine from the leaves of Psychotria insularum, known as Matalafi, a small rainforest shrub native to the South Pacific. The leaves of the plant are traditionally pureed into a paste and used in inflammatory diseases ranging from fever to swelling and skin infections. A research team, including the local scientist Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni, has found out what the secret is in ten years of work.

Excess iron is removed

The results suggest that Matalafi is something called an iron chelator. That means the leaves contain compounds that bind to iron and essentially help the body remove excess iron.

When Matalafi was tested on mammalian cells, research found that this iron chelator activity “decreased pro-inflammatory and anti-inflammatory cytokine responses in immune cells.” The anti-inflammatory activity found in the study rivaled that of ibuprofen, a popular anti-inflammatory drug.

Perhaps effective for Alzheimer’s as well

Matalafi’s iron chelator activity also suggests a number of other potential medicinal uses beyond its general anti-inflammatory properties. For example, abnormal iron levels in the brain have recently been suggested to be a cause of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

Andrew Munkacsi, another researcher who worked on the new study, says genomic analysis found compounds in the plant interacted with a gene associated with obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Wide applications now possible

“People in Samoa have been using this active ingredient for hundreds of years, but it took us a long time to figure out why it worked,” Molimau-Samasoni recently told New Zealand publication Stuff. This is extremely important for a broad application of the natural medicinal product. “You don’t want to experience bad surprises,” says the scientist.


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