Revealed: the carrot of youth


 A Japanese salad vegetable is a natural source of a compound with anti-ageing properties. Natalie Parletta reports.


Ashitaba, a staple in Japan.

Ashitaba, a staple in Japan.

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A Japanese relative of the carrot might hold the key to longevity, scientists have discovered.

The flowering ashitaba (Angelica keiskei) plant, traditionally used in Asian medicine, contains a flavonoid called 4,4’-dimethoxychalcone, or DMC. European researchers discovered the substance’s superior health benefits when testing 180 subclasses of flavonoids for their anti-ageing properties.

DMC was their “top hit”, as reported in the journal Nature Communications – even outperforming other known protective compounds, including resveratrol, a chemical found in red wine .

The large research team was led by Frank Madeo and Guido Kroemer from the University of Graz in Austria and the Centre de Recherche des Cordeliers in Paris, France.

“Our rationale was that there is a million years of coevolution between animals (humans) and plants, which is probably the reason why many of the blockbusters in medical treatment are plant-based substances,” says Madeo.

In a series of experiments, DMC prolonged the lifespan of yeasts, fruit flies, worms and human cells. It also showed protective benefits for heart and liver in mice.

Further experiments using “genetic tricks” revealed that, in most cases, DMC switches on the fasting response of cells.

This process is called autophagy: “a cellular cleansing and recycling program”, explains Madeo, that sweeps damaged protein and mitochondria out of cells – both causes of age-related diseases such as Parkinson’s and dementia. Other ways to induce autophagy include fasting and calorie restriction.

The results support previous suggestions that the antioxidant properties of flavonoids, the most abundant phytonutrients found in edible plants, may not be their only health-promoting virtues.

Whether the findings are transferable to humans remains to be seen. But the researchers could detect DMC in the blood of mice fed with chow enriched with the compoud, suggesting that mammals can absorb it from food.

And Asians have long used ashitaba – the only natural source of DMC that the researchers could find – for its longevity and health-promoting properties. The plant grows in many Japanese gardens.

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Natalie Parletta is a freelance science writer based in Adelaide and an adjunct researcher with the University of South Australia.
  1. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-08555-w
  2. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/resveratrol-the-hype-continues-201202034189
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2670399/
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