Next time you pick fresh basil from your garden, remember it's great for brain health! New research shows that fenchol, a natural compound found in basil and other plants, may protect the brain from Alzheimer's disease.
Behind the herb
Fenchol is a type of terpene, or naturally occurring compound, that gives the plant its characteristic scent. This is why basil smells so heavenly. This is also the reason why basil and plants containing terpenes have antibacterial, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
But why could fenchol reduce the risk of Alzheimer's disease?? In the study published in Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, researchers sought to better understand the link between the gut microbiome and the brain. They knew from previous studies that the microorganisms living in our digestive tract play a major role in our metabolism, endocrine system and immunity. You also knew that these microorganisms release chemicals that improve brain health.
But could chemicals from outside the body also improve brain health? With this in mind, the research team theorized that fenchol protects the brain from Alzheimer's disease.
Understand the effect of fenchol on gut health and the brain
Multiple neurochemical pathways connect the gut to the brain. This means that the brain and gut are constantly communicating with each other. But how? According to a 2020 review published in Frontiers in Endocrinology, researchers believe short-chain fatty acids play a major role. Short chain fatty acids or SCFAs are a type of fatty acids in the digestive tract. Microorganisms in the gut produce it when they ferment certain foods, especially fiber and resistant starch. (Resistant starch is a carbohydrate in grains, seeds and legumes that resists digestion in the small intestine. Instead it ferments in the large intestine.)
SCFAs travel through the blood to the brain. There they activate a sensory mechanism in brain cells. As the frontiers in aging neuroscience As one study found, this activation causes the brain to begin eliminating any abnormal accumulation of Aβ protein. Aβ protein is the main component of the "bad" brain plaque that accumulates in the brains of Alzheimer's patients.
What does all this have to do with fenchol? Researchers found that the brain developed an abnormal accumulation of Aβ protein when they blocked the SCFA sensing mechanism. So they set out to find a plant compound that could unlock the sensory mechanism.
Fenchol was the plant compound for the job. Of all the compounds the researchers tested, it binds best to the sensory mechanism. Even better, it significantly lowered the amount of Aβ protein in the brain. It also reduced the death of neurons.
Fenchol did something else extraordinary. Upon closer examination, the researchers found that the plant compound decreased senescent neuronal cells, or cells that stop reproducing but do not die off. So they continue to release chemicals that cause inflammation. The inflammation can spread. Damage to neighboring cells. For this reason, scientists refer to them as "zombie" cells. Alzheimer's patients often have these zombie cells in their brains.
What this means for you?
As with any scientific study, we should take the results with a grain of salt. The authors said they didn't yet know if fresh basil alone would be as effective. You also still need to determine the exact dose of fenchol that would be most beneficial to the brain. And what about other plants that contain fenchol? Hemp, lime, nutmeg, wild celery and cannabis also contain fenchol.
Still, we all agree that the research is promising and that basil is delicious. Eating more of these tasty greens can't hurt! Besides fenchol, basil is rich in vitamin K, manganese, iron and calcium. Whether you serve it with sliced mozzarella and tomatoes or blend it into a creamy pesto, this tasty treat will enrich your diet.