A team of scientists has found that the leaves of the Samoan tree, matalafi, are as effective at relieving inflammation as over-the-counter ibuprofen.
The small rainforest shrub, Psychotria insularum, is native to South Pacific regions. For generations, Samoan communities have used matalafi leaves in traditional medicine to treat different inflammatory conditions, such as fever, body aches, and skin infections. According to New Atlas, the leaves are traditionally mashed into a paste known as a homogenate.
“Matalafi is used in two ways in Samoa—to treat illnesses attributed to ghosts, and to treat various forms of inflammation,” explains Indigenous Samoan scientist Seeseei Molimau-Samasoni. “I began my Ph.D. at Te Herenga Waka in 2013, and worked with traditional healers in Samoa to harvest the matalafi and bring it to Aotearoa to find out how and why it works.”
After almost a decade of research, the recent study indicates precisely how the anti-inflammatory effects of the matalafi plant work. According to the study, matalafi is an iron chelator, which means that it contains compounds that bind to iron and thus help the body remove excess iron.
In tests, the researchers found that the plant’s iron chelator activity “decreased proinflammatory and enhanced anti-inflammatory cytokine responses in immune cells.” The anti-inflammatory effects were reportedly similar to those of ibuprofen, an everyday painkiller used for a variety of aches and pains.
The scientists, however, note that the plant’s medicinal benefits could go beyond its anti-inflammatory effects, to potentially help treat obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and even prevent Alzheimer’s.
“Our findings also highlighted the sensitivity of the RIM101 gene deletion to the P. insularum homogenate.,” says Andrew Munkacsi, another researcher on the study. “This gene is a major regulator of lipotoxicity (cell death due to lipid toxicity), which underlies obesity.”