Native to Japan, ashitaba (Angelica keiskei koidzumi1) is a bitter leafy herb of the Angelica genus, closely related to the carrot. It's also known as "tomorrow's leaf," due to its rapid growth and regenerative abilities. It's a fast grower and new leaves rapidly sprout when picked.
The plant is well-known in China and Japan, having been part of the diet since ancient times. There, it has also been used medicinally for hundreds of years, as a general health promoter and antiaging remedy.2
The first reference to ashitaba is found in the Chinese Compendium of Materia Medica, compiled by Li Shizhen, a famous acupuncture physician and pharmacologist, between 1552 and 1578.3 According to a 2013 investigation,4 ashitaba "might be a useful agent in preventing deficit of learning and memory caused by AD [Alzheimer's disease] and aging."
Ashitaba — A Potent Autophagy Inducer
A more recent review,5 published February 2019 in Nature Communications, highlights the mechanism behind ashitaba's antiaging benefits. Turns out it's a potent inducer of autophagy. The term autophagy means "self-eating," and refers to the processes by which your body cleans out debris and toxins and recycles damaged cell components. As explained in the introduction:6
"This facilitates the supply of recycled components for biosynthesis and thus contributes to cytoplasmic renewal and consequent cellular rejuvenation.
Conversely, impairment or dysregulation of autophagic function results in age-related pathologies. Altogether, autophagy is largely associated with cytoprotection and overall health."
As noted by the authors, the aging process is one of the most expedient approaches to tackling chronic disease, since cellular aging is a core feature. By delaying the cellular degeneration associated with aging, you can stay healthier longer.
Healthy and efficient autophagy is an important part of this process, as without it, your body cannot effectively regenerate itself. As noted by the authors, "impairment or dysregulation of autophagic function results in age-related pathologies."
Flavonoids in general are well-known for their anti-inflammatory, anticarcinogenic, antineurodegenerative and cytoprotective properties. In the case of ashitaba, one of its key flavonoids is 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone (DMC) which, according to this paper is "a natural autophagy inducer with phylogenetically conserved anti-ageing properties." They also point out that:7
"… [A]dministration of DMC promotes cytoprotection and autophagy across species and … autophagy induction is required for the beneficial effects of this compound.
Autophagy activation by DMC depends on specific GATA transcription factors, but not on the TORC1 kinase, a major regulatory instance of autophagy. This suggests synergistic potential with other anti-ageing interventions that do rely on TORC1 signaling."
DMC Promotes Longevity in All Species
The paper sought to identify natural compounds with antiaging properties. To that end, they screened 180 different plant flavonoids "for their ability to counteract age-related cellular demise." Using three different assays, "DMC emerged as a top cytoprotective hit," the authors say.8 DMC even outperformed resveratrol. Results showed DMC treatment:9
- Reduced age-related increase in apoptotic and necrotic cell populations
- Diminished the population of reactive oxygen species-accumulating cells
- Promoted clonogenicity during ageing (clonogenicity refers to the ability of a cell to grow into a colony of cells in a cell survival assay10)
To assess DMC's antiaging ability, they tested it on nematodes and fruit flies. Chronic treatment prolonged the median life span of both of these multicellular organisms by approximately 20%, and this effect was independent of their diet (both food composition and amount).
DMC also protected against liver damage caused by excess alcohol consumption in animals, and inhibited the proliferation of certain human cancer cells, specifically osteosarcoma, cervical carcinoma and neuroblastoma cells.
Importantly, DMC was found to induce "autophagic flux in all model systems tested from yeast to mammals." In other words, it has the ability to induce autophagy across species, and a crucial component of this antiaging effect is its ability to induce autophagy. In the Discussion section of the paper, the authors summarize the importance of their findings:11
"While the beneficial effects of certain behavioral and dietary strategies (especially calorie restriction) are uncontestable, most individuals have difficulties to strictly and permanently adhere to them.
This has encouraged the search for potential pharmacological alternatives. The present work identifies the flavonoid 4,4′-dimethoxychalcone (DMC) as an anti-ageing compound with cardioprotective effects in mice and the potential to promote longevity across species …
To our knowledge, there is no natural source of DMC known to date. Intriguingly, we could detect DMC in the stipes and leaves (but not in the roots) of the chalcone-rich plant Angelica keiskei koidzumi (commonly known under the Japanese name of Ashitaba), to which longevity- and health-promoting effects are attributed in Asian folk medicine. This fuels the expectation that DMC may be therapeutically applicable in humans."
Lead researcher Frank Madeo, professor at the University of Graz's Institute of Molecular Biosciences in Austria, told Times of Malta,12 "It is always nice to find a scientific rationale for traditional medical folk tales."
Medicinal Uses for Ashitaba
Traditional uses for ashitaba have encompassed a variety of ailments, including but not limited to fever, arthritis, indigestion and hepatitis.13 Modern science now supports many of its traditional uses, and then some. For example, studies on ashitaba and its components show it may be useful for the prevention and/or treatment of:14,15,16
- High blood pressure17,18,19
- Heart attack and stroke21,22
- Type 2 diabetes26,27,28 and metabolic syndrome29
- Bacterial infections30,31
- Fatty liver32
- Alcohol-induced liver damage36 and liver damage caused by acetaminophen toxicity37
- Memory loss38 and dementia, including Alzheimer's39
- Smoking-induced DNA damage40,41
Studies have also confirmed ashitaba is nontoxic and generally well-tolerated,42 including by those with metabolic syndrome.43
How to Grow and Use the Ashitaba Plant
As mentioned, ashitaba is a rapid grower that is easy to care for. While it can be tricky to find in U.S. nurseries, if you're lucky enough to find one, you can grow it as a perennial in hardiness zones 7 through 10, as well as coastal regions near the ocean. Here are a few general guidelines for growing,44 harvesting and using45 ashitaba:
- Plant in deep, fertile soil in full sun or partial shade. Maintain consistent moisture, but avoid overwatering. Provided soil conditions are favorable, the plant may grow to a height of 4 feet.
- Fertilize in early spring using a 10-10-10 organic fertilizer.
- Ashitaba will typically bloom in its second year. Seeds will be produced before it wilts and dies off, which you can collect and re-sow. Alternatively, allow the seeds to drop and repropagate. Plant shoots can be plucked off and planted to form new plants. Removing them will help prevent flowering and seeding.
- Harvest leaves by pinching or clipping off individual leaves, which will rapidly regrow. Lay the leaves out to dry completely before storing. Be sure to avoid direct sunlight as they dry. To use the roots, gently loosen the soil and pull up the entire plant.
Fresh raw leaves can be treated like any other leafy green vegetable, so try adding some to salads, soups or smoothies. Start with a small amount, as ashitaba tends to be rather bitter. To make tea, gently crush a small handful of leaves into a pot of water and boil for 15 minutes. To make capsules, grind the dried leaves and stems into a powder first.