There may be more to the relationship between plant hormones and human health than previously thought.
Researchers in France write in Trends in Plant Science that while the scientific community agrees that plant hormones are "key players in plant–microbe interactions," the effect of these plant hormones on human physiological processes has not been studied nearly as much. First author Emilie Chanclud notes that her previous work on fungal-derived plant hormones led her to her interest in this realm of research.
“Moving in postdoc with Dr. Benoit Lacombe, a specialist of plant hormones, was a great opportunity for very fruitful discussions,” she explains. “Could plant hormones play roles in human-microbiota interactions as they do in plants-microbiota interactions?”
After compiling a variety of studies reporting the effects of plant hormones on human physiology, the researchers were able to answer this question in the affirmative: in their paper, they identified three individual plant hormones that had effects on humans, paving the way for even more research into the role of plant hormones on human health.
Lowering Blood Sugar with Plants
Abscisic acid (ABA) is a plant hormone found in apricots, apples, carrots, and sweet potatoes. The hormone, which is synthesized to alert the plant to drought conditions, can also stimulate increased glucose uptake in humans. For this reason, the researchers note, consuming ABA-rich fruits and vegetables can help alleviate aspects of diabetes.
“ABA increases in plasma after food consumption, and this increase is impaired in diabetic patients,” notes Chanclud, explaining that while it is unclear why this happens, it certainly warrants further testing.
“ABA has been shown to increase uptake of glucose, making those foods better options for people with diabetes, or underlying blood sugar issues,” explains naturopathic doctor Serena Goldstein, noting that diabetes sufferers aren't the only ones who can reap the benefits: anyone who is constantly craving carbs or sugar may take advantage of this hormone to balance out their blood sugar.
Using Plant Hormones for Better Gut Health
ABA may be beneficial to sufferers of diabetes, but it has also been shown to cause inflammation. Sufferers of inflammatory bowel syndrome, for example, may find that ABA makes symptoms worse.
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That said, another set of hormones can reduce inflammation: gibberellic acids (GAs) naturally occurring in peppers, olives, certain grains, and spinach, can lessen IBS symptoms and may even be part of a beneficial treatment plan for those with any sort of inflammatory bowel disorder.
“Further investigations are needed to establish such treatment,” explains Chanclud, “But I think that could at least help for daily life."
She notes that since IBS is known to be favored by certain gut bacteria which secrete hydrogen sulfide, thus leading to inflammation, if plant products containing anti-inflammatory hormones are consumed, symptoms might be alleviated, "either directly or for instance by favoring bacterial SCFA production.”
Naturopathic doctor Serena Goldstein believes that when used in tandem with other treatments, consuming gibberellic acids could be helpful to some IBS sufferers.
“These conditions developed for a multitude of reasons and therefore need treatment with multiple therapies,” she explains, pointing towards sleep, stress, and hormone imbalances as other areas that would need to be explored with a professional when building a treatment plan.
A Cure for Cancer?
Indole acetic acid (IAA) is a powerful plant hormone that has been found to kill off cancer cells under certain conditions, thus leading the researchers to posit that IAA should be studied for anti-tumor action.
While the exact link between IAA and cancer cells is still unclear, Chanclud posits that co-evolution could be part of the explanation.
"We have evolved in an environment including plants and microbes while consuming plant hormones," she says. "We have IAA and ABA in our body, and even if we don't know where they come from, we may have evolved ways to respond to them over time."
While more work is certainly needed in this exciting realm of study, these are just three more excellent reasons to include more plants in our diets.
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