Plants and animals in the wild evolve a variety of defense mechanisms. Some use exterior methods, such as a hedgehog’s spikes or a toad’s ability to camouflage itself among the leaves.
Others develop interior methods, such as poison ivy and poison oak, which secrete urushiol, the toxic oil that gives you the awful, itchy rash associated with these plants.
When Monarch butterflies are still caterpillars, they eat milkweed and internalize the plant toxins, which make them poisonous to predator birds.
What’s interesting about some of these chemical defense mechanisms is that they can affect some species but not others. For example, birds have no problem with urushiol, and in fact enjoy eating the berries off the same plants that we wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
That’s the case with one particular chemical, which certain plants and marine organisms use to defend themselves, but that we humans can use to destroy cancer cells and reduce tumors…
Read on to discover what it is, and how you can benefit from it…
Any idea what these chemicals are? They’re called saponins, and they’re showing tremendous promise as a chemopreventive agent.
Saponins are classified as a toxin (although not toxic to humans), found in abundance in a variety of plants and some marine organisms. Saponins are often described as “soap-like” because they foam up when shaken in water.
The name actually comes from the soapwort plant (Saponaria), named from the Latin “sapo” meaning “soap,” because the roots of the plant were historically used as soap.(1)
In modern times, researchers are finding promise in isolating saponins from their sources and using them to combat various types of cancer.
Saponins can fight brain cancer
In 2013 researchers extracted and isolated more than 129 saponins—76 of which were new compounds—from several species of starfish, sea cucumber and medicinal plants.
They found many of these saponins were especially toxic to glioblastoma cells, the most aggressive and frequent form of brain tumors in adults.
In vitro, the saponins were able to disrupt the glioblastoma cells in several ways, including interfering with the cell cycle progression, inducing apoptosis (programmed cell death) and blocking the signaling pathways.(2)
The best part is that saponins had a cytotoxic effect on the cancer cells, without disrupting or harming the nearby healthy cells.
More research is being done in using saponins as a lead to creating effective brain tumor drugs…
Wild yams fight cancer
When I think of medicinal foods, I don’t usually think of yams. But that’s about to change.
There have been more than a few studies of the saponins in wild yams (Dioscorea genus) and their anti-cancer effects.
A study published in the journal American Journal of Chinese Medicine found that an extract of wild yam stopped the proliferation of human breast carcinoma MCF-7 cells by increasing the activity of the progesterone receptor and pS2 genes at the mRNA level.(3)
mRNA are molecules that convey genetic information from DNA to the ribosome, which affects gene expression.
In a 2008 study published in the journal Nutrition and Cancer, researchers discovered saponins in wild yams, specifically a chemical called diosgenin, could destroy cancer cells by inducing apoptosis, disrupting cell signaling and stopping their growth.(4)
In addition to their chemopreventive properties, a study published in the journal Food Chemistry shows that saponins in wild yams act as antioxidants, scavenging free radicals and helping to prevent the onset of a variety of illnesses associated with inflammation, including cancer.(5)
It looks like having yams more often than just Thanksgiving can be beneficial to your health.
Other sources of saponins
Saponins are found in a variety of beans and legumes including
- Lima beans
- Navy beans
- Kidney beans
- Green peas
Adding beans to soups and stews is a great way to incorporate them into your diet. To reduce the gassy effect beans have on many people, use dried beans instead of canned, and stir in a half teaspoon of baking soda into the soaking water. Soak beans overnight, then drain and rinse several times. Use fresh water to cook the beans.
You can also make a garlicky hummus from chickpeas and eat it with raw veggies for a healthy snack.
Foods in the Allium species of plants are a rich source of steroid saponins.(6) These vegetables include
So don’t be afraid to add onions and garlic to as many dishes as possible. They not only add great flavor, but provide cancer-fighting saponins.
Soy is one of the best sources of saponins. However, soy is also one of the most genetically modified foods on the planet, so if you choose to eat it be sure to buy organic.
Better than eating tofu or soybeans, however, is eating organic miso. Miso is a fermented soybean paste with a salty flavor, most often used to make miso soup.
Because it’s fermented it’s also a probiotic, meaning it helps boost the good bacteria in your gut, which in turn can help prevent colon cancer (see Issue #539 for more information about how your gut bacteria prevents cancer).
In addition to that, miso consumption has also been linked to an inverse risk of developing breast cancer.(7)
It’s also been shown to act as an excellent antioxidant, scavenging free radicals and reducing inflammation,(8) which is the first step on the road to a whole host of diseases, including cancer.
You can find miso paste (look for unpasteurized miso) in the refrigerator section of the natural foods department at most grocery stores.
Saponins may be toxic to predators in the wild, but they can be one of the best weapons in our arsenal in preventing cancer.
Try adding beans, miso and yams as part of a healthy, whole foods diet. Every bit helps when you’re giving your cells and body what it needs to stay healthy.
- Saponins. http://poisonousplants.ansci.cornell.edu/toxicagents/saponin.html
- Saponins: The potential chemotherapeutic agents in pursuing new anti-glioblastoma drugs. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24032516
- Estrogen activities and the cellular effects of natural progesterone from wild yam extract in MCF-7 human breast cancer cells. http://www.worldscientific.com/doi/abs/10.1142/S0192415X09006746
- Cancer chemopreventive and therapeutic effects of diosgenin, a food saponin. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/01635580802357352
- Organic acid, phenolic content and antioxidant activity of wild yam (Dioscorea) tubers of Nepal. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0308814604000640
- Saponins in garlic as modifiers of the risk of cardiovascular disease.. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/131/3/1000S.long
- Soy, isoflavones, and breast cancer risk in Japan. http://jnci.oxfordjournals.org/content/95/12/906.short
- Japanese soybean paste miso scavenges free radicals and inhibits lipid peroxidation. https://www.jstage.jst.go.jp/article/jnsv1973/38/3/38_3_297/_article