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Obesity, diabetes, and overall immune system health are problems that are all top-of-mind at the moment, particularly during the pandemic. To analyze how your diet can help prevent problems with these chronic diseases, the University of Maryland (UMD) was recently awarded a grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) to explore nettle as a functional food. Adding this plant in your diet may provide protection against excessive weight gain, insulin resistance, and also promote positive changes to your gut bacteria that can bolster your immune system.
While nettle extract has been studied previously as having benefits and is readily available on the market, nettle has been scarcely examined as a functional food that offers protective benefits in the diet. Its effects on the gut microbiome, the inherent balance of bacteria in your gut that affects the health of your immune system, is also largely unexplored. With this work, researchers are hoping to discover how nettle can potentially help improve public health.
We need food for energy and nutrients for daily functioning, but a functional food is a step beyond just food. It has specific health effects that it provides to your body aside from just energy and nutrients. It is not a drug or a medicine, but it can prevent certain diseases. In my lab, I focus on functional foods that are important for the protection of metabolic health. They are not a substitute for exercising and living a healthy lifestyle, but they provide extra health benefits to provide an overall protective effect for better health.”
Diana Obanda, Assistant Professor, Nutrition & Food Science at UMD and Principal Investigator
Since Obanda describes it, metabolic health or heart health is closely linked to the health of your gut microbiome. “In this award, we are proposing to find out how the changes in the gut microbiota affect obesity mechanisms,” says Obanda. “The types of bacteria which increase or are reduced because of nettle from the intestine, what do they do to affect the immune system and obesity? How can the phytochemicals in the nettle change or affect these bacteria species, and how do those mechanisms function to influence indicators for diabetes and obesity?”
However, the gut microbiome can do more than affect metabolic health. Most think of the gut as the largest center of your immune system, meaning that changes in the gut microbiota lead to changes in the strength of your immune system.
“A very large part of the immune system is in the gut,” says Obanda. “Along with the bacteria in the gut affect the immune system. And from previous function, the immune system is linked to obesity mechanisms. The gut bacteria shapes the immune system, and the immune system also forms the gut bacteria, therefore it is a cycle that we don’t know much about. The innovation of this work is trying to elucidate how this speciality food impacts our wellbeing through the microbiota, and then heading on to pinpoint what exactly happens to interpret that into beneficial effects.”
Obanda has a special interest in plants like nettles and other functional foods like kale that are gaining popularity in the U.S., but have always been a regular part of the diet in countries like her home country of Kenya. “Nettles have been studied for a lengthy time in different cultures, and they grow all around the world really,” says Obanda. “You find a lot in previous work about nettles as a food in certain cultures, and the extract is marketed and widely available as a supplement. Does this have a similar effect?”
This grand garden was started and maintained by the late researcher James (Jim) Alan Duke, an esteemed scientist at the USDA and a firm believer in the medicinal benefits of meals. Here, Obanda was able to gather authentic nettle for her preliminary work and the studies she will be conducting as part of this new USDA grant. She has also collected seeds and planted some nettle in the UMD Research Greenhouse Complex to keep her work. Obanda has been studying nettle for five decades now, and is excited about taking this work further, from basic science to applied and public health practice.
“My goal as a basic scientist is to understand the mechanisms of how things work, but finally to get collaborators who do clinical studies,” says Obanda. “We do our basic studies in cells and animal models, but then in order to have a broader impact, the work needs to go further to apply what we learn. I am looking forward to forming collaborations with scientists across clinical science and public health to help translate this work into usable information for the overall public health.”
University of Maryland