We got a ton of questions about last week’s COVID report so our dear friend and amazing medical writer Sheila Hass took a more in-depth look into how neem may help prevent the symptoms of COVID.
Researchers in India and Texas collaborated to search the scientific literature for easily available and inexpensive natural products that can be used at home to try and prevent infection by respiratory viruses, and to minimize symptoms for those who become infected. The resulting article—Natural products as home-based prophylactic (preventative) and symptom management agents in the setting of COVID-19—lists a number of such treatments and provides links to the original research documenting their efficacy.
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Neem is one of these products, based on two molecular studies documenting “potential therapeutic benefits against pulmonary fibrosis and pulmonary inflammation.” Even though this neem research is pre-COVID, there is definite COVID relevance. We know that the lungs are the first organ that COVID attacks, resulting in the signature symptoms of difficulty breathing and low oxygen levels as the lungs lose their ability to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream. We also know that this happens because COVID produces significant inflammation in the lungs, and that people with more severe disease also develop fibrosis (scar tissue) in their lungs.
The science behind these two studies is really complicated, but the upshot is that each group of researchers created lung damage in mice—fibrosis with preceding inflammation in one study, intense inflammation in the other—and then documented the preventive ability of two different neem treatments. In each case, damage was significantly less than expected.
One group used the cancer drug bleomycin—which has a high risk of causing fibrotic damage in patients’ lungs—to damage mouse lungs. This scarring disease is normally irreversible, continues to worsen and progressively destroy the lungs’ ability to deliver oxygen to the blood—and there is no way to stop it. Treatment in the study was a multifunctional neem compound called nimbolide that is extracted from neem leaves and blossoms. (This article was published in 2019 in the journal International Immunopharmacology.)
The other group combined two different irritants that each inflames the lungs—cigarette smoke plus a toxin called lipopolysaccharide found in the membranes of certain bacteria. This substantial inflammation also impairs the lungs’ ability to oxygenate the blood. These researchers created a treatment from the entire neem leaf, and compared the impact to the one drug that’s approved for the inflammatory lung disease COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). This study appeared in the 2017 International Journal of Molecular Medicine.)
Each research group discovered that neem treatment substantially reduced pulmonary damage. And they were also able to spell out in molecular detail exactly how neem achieved this. In each case, the neem treatment was able to reduce or eliminate the various substances and pathways that participate in creating the inflammation and in producing the fibrotic changes, which included stopping the inflammatory cells that would otherwise flood into the lungs.
And significantly less damage means significantly less harm to the lungs’ ability to do their work. In the COPD-related study, neem was also compared to the effects of the drug roflumilast, which is the only FDA-approved for severe COPD. Not only did neem leaf do a better job, it doesn’t have the serious physical and mental side effects that roflumilast has.
Bringing this back to COVID-19: When it comes to the intense lung inflammation and fibrosis that can occur, they are caused by many—if not all—of the same molecular elements and cells evaluated in these two studies.
So these studies expand the benefits that neem may hold in helping to tame COVID-19. Previously published reports have indicated that compounds in neem actually help prevent the spread of COVID-19, and now we’re waiting for the results of human trials—underway in India—to confirm that.