Can You Eat Neem Leaves? What Are The Health Benefits?

Medically reviewed by Dr.Varsha Prabala, BAMS, MD
by Swathi Handoo

The neem tree used to be (and still is) the one-stop-shop for all medical problems our ancestors had. Even today, medical practitioners prescribe neem leaves or their extracts to help ease digestive issues, manage liver ailments and diabetes, and possibly reduce cancer risk (1).

Neem leaves are relatively abundant in active ingredients like azadirachtin and nimbin. These molecules can give you dandruff-free hair, acne-free skin, plaque-free teeth, and an ulcer-free stomach. Studies on the effects of neem leaves against malaria and fevers have been gaining more attention.

Check out the sections below to know why neem could be so potent. You might also find interesting evidence backing several myths about neem leaves.

Why Are Neem Leaves Therapeutic?

Various schools of medicine across the world, including Ayurveda, Unani, Homeopathy, and modern medicine, recognize the medicinal value of neem. Its leaves, flowers, seeds, fruits, roots, and bark have been used for treating inflammation, infections, fever, skin diseases, and dental disorders and reducing the risk of cancer (1), (2).

About 140 (or more) compounds have been isolated from different parts of neem. Its leaves contain nimbin, nimbanene, vitamin C, and several flavonoids. They can eliminate toxic intermediates and free radicals from your body (1).

Research also suggests that these active ingredients help reduce the inflammation in your body. They downregulate the genes that produce pro-inflammatory compounds and work well as anticancer agents (1).

Neem leaves demonstrate anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, antiulcer, antimalarial, antiseptic, antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anticancer properties (2).

Read the next section to understand how they can improve your health.

How Do Neem Leaves Benefit Your Health?

Neem leaves can help treat a variety of disorders related to the heart, skin, and liver due to their antioxidant activity. They are effective against pathogenic bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The leaf extracts could be a popular option for managing diabetes as well.

1. Possess Antioxidant Effects

According to studies, the extracts of the neem leaf, flower, and bark have predominant antioxidant properties. Polyphenols like azadirachtin and nimbolide are majorly responsible for this effect. They scavenge free radicals from your body and prevent them from damaging vital tissues and organs (1).

Thus, using neem leaves or their extracts can reduce the risk of atherosclerosis, cancers, diabetes, cirrhosis, and other inflammatory ailments. Dried neem leaves also have shown to boost immunity in animal studies (1).

2. May Help Manage Diabetes And Hypoglycemia

Several animal studies confirm the anti-diabetic effect of neem leaves. In subjects dealing with diabetes, 250 mg of neem leaf extract per kg of body weight was found to lower glucose levels (1).

The leaf chemicals suppress the activity of enzymes that are involved in glucose metabolism. They control the amount of glucose released into the bloodstream, thereby preventing spikes in sugar levels (3).

Some animal studies claim these extracts could regenerate the insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. Neem leaves also lower the cholesterol (triglyceride) and creatinine levels. This way, they may protect the heart, pancreas, liver, and the kidneys from diabetes-induced inflammation (4), (5).

3. May Heal Acne And Skin/Face Issues

Neem leaf extracts are applied externally on boils and blisters in traditional medicine. They are often used in anti-acne products. Along with neem, holy basil, licorice, and green tea extracts were identified with the potential to inhibit acne-causing bacteria (Staphylococcus epidermis and Propionibacterium) (6).

Poultices and decoctions of neem leaves are used to treat septic sores, ringworm, eczema, and maggot-infected burns and wounds. The active neem compounds can treat several fungal and bacterial skin infections, including athlete’s foot and abscesses (7).

4. May Protect Your Liver

The bioactive constituents of neem, including azadirachtin, have potent liver-protective (hepatoprotective) properties. Animal subjects show a reduction in the levels of inflammatory liver enzymes when treated with these extracts (1).

Neem leaves could prevent changes in the levels of bilirubin and proteins, which may lead to liver damage. Hence, you can use the extracts to treat liver injuries caused by drug overdose, particularly those caused by an overdose of anti-tuberculosis medication and generic paracetamol derivatives (1), (8).

5. Have Anti-inflammatory Properties

Clinical trials demonstrate anti-inflammatory effects of neem leaves at a dose of 200 mg/kg. Phytochemicals like nimbidin suppress the functions of the immune system cells (e.g., macrophages, neutrophils) in response to inflammation (1).

The leaves could reduce fever, pain, and swelling (edema) in study subjects. They prevent cell death in damaged tissues and induce cell death in cancer cells. Hence, neem extracts have been used in treating inflammatory diseases of the skin, heart, liver, and kidneys (9).

6. May Exhibit Antimicrobial Effects

Neem bark, leaf, seed, and fruit extracts were studied for their antimicrobial properties. The leaves showed a significant effect on foodborne pathogens. Consuming them orally could kill endodontic bacteria and fungi. Aspergillus, Cladosporium, Alternaria, and related fungal species are particularly susceptible to neem leaves (1).

These leaves have also been studied for their antiviral effects. According to experimental studies, they interfere with the viral replication cycles. This causes inactivation of the virus and reduces the new virus yield in the host. Simply put, neem extracts can effectively lower the severity of a viral infection (1).

7. May Promote Dental Health

Nimbidin, azadirachtin, and nimbinin, the main active constituents of neem leaves, are responsible for their antibacterial properties. They are also present in the bark of this tree. Both of these (neem leaves and bark) are used in many kinds of toothpaste and toothpowders (1), (10).

They eliminate bacteria and fungi inhabiting the teeth and gums. The extracts, thus, can relieve gingivitis, tooth decay, mouth ulcers, dental caries, and plaque. Several neem products (twigs, oil, gel-cream, mouthwashes, etc.) have also been reported to help in managing oral cancers (10).

8. May Help Treat Malaria And Parasitic Diseases

This plant is proven to have antimalarial and antiplasmodic effects. Studies demonstrate how neem extracts could reduce the number of malarial parasites by 50%. Azadirachtin and limonoids available in these extracts eliminate Plasmodium berghei and  Plasmodium falciparum in affected individuals (1), (11).

However, a few trials claim neem to be ineffective against these parasites. Hence, there is a need for further research to prove the efficacy and safety of neem leaves as an antimalarial drug replacement (12).

9. May Aid Cancer Treatment

The extracts of seeds, leaves, flowers, and fruits of neem have shown antitumor effects against different types of cancer. Their phytochemicals inhibit cell proliferation and induce cell death in cancer cells. They also boost your immune response against the migration of tumors (13), (14).

Flavonoids, terpenoids, tannins, coumarins, proteins, and polysaccharides in neem leaves and seeds have been linked to such anticancer effects. They have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and cytotoxic properties. Therefore, neem is one of the most studied herbal remedies for aiding the treatment of cervical, ovarian, breast, stomach, oral, blood, prostate, and liver cancers (1), (13), (14).

Though evidence is insufficient, neem leaves are known to ease digestion. They reduce ulcers, gut inflammation, and other related issues if taken in small amounts.

As neem heals almost every organ system of our body, various kinds of neem products have been produced to date. Go through the next section to know what suits your needs.

How To Use Neem Leaves

Neem extracts are added to cosmetics and hair care and dental care products.

Neem oil, soaps, creams, shampoos, toothpaste, dental ointments, etc. are available commonly in the market. Neem oil is added to purified cosmetics like nail colors and facial creams. Several anti-dandruff and anti-lice products contain neem as well (15).

You can also topically apply a paste of neem leaves to your face. It may help reduce acne, blemishes, infected wounds, and blisters. But consult your healthcare provider before doing so.

The remnants obtained after neem oil extraction are used to make ‘neem cakes.’  They are rich in carbohydrates, fiber, fat, and ash (15).

Scientists report a unique potential of neem cakes as fertilizers. These compressed cakes contain abundant nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and magnesium. They can be used as manure for cash crops like sugarcane and vegetables (15).

Due to the presence of active limonoids, neem cakes protect the plant roots from nematodes and white ants, when plowed into the soil (15).

Neem: A Pet-friendly Herb

Veterinary medicine uses neem extracts against various diseases in animals. Neem poultices and pastes kill maggots, horn flies, blowflies, blood-sucking flies, etc. (7).

Active phytochemicals, including azadirachtin, prevent these pests from growing and infecting pets and cattle.

If applied on their body, neem paste acts as a fly repellent and heals infected wounds.

With such potent human and animal applications, the therapeutic importance of neem leaves is only increasing.

However, a few studies report the downside of using these extracts. Scroll down to know more.

Is It Safe To Use Neem Leaves? What Are The Side Effects?

It is recommended not to have neem leaves or leaf extracts for a long time. Anecdotal evidence reports kidney failure in such people. Consuming neem oil is also regarded as unsafe/toxic for adults and children (7).

Nevertheless, various animal studies and clinical trials confirmed that neem is safe, though only at specific doses (1).

Therefore, it is best to ingest neem leaves or derivatives only under medical supervision.

If you are using neem on your skin/face, do a patch test. Apply a small amount of the neem product to a patch of skin on the forearm/leg. Wait for 24 hours to check if a reaction/allergy develops. If you see redness, rashes, swelling, or any discomfort, contact your doctor.

Also, there is insufficient information about the safety of neem products for children, pregnant, and lactating women. In these cases, it is best to refrain from ingesting or using neem without medical consent.

In Summary

Ancient and modern research emphasizes the health benefits of neem leaves. The leaves have potent antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimalarial, antidiabetic, antipyretic, and anticancer effects. Use them in small, regulated amounts to maximize their benefits on the heart, liver, skin, hair, eyes, brain, teeth, and gut.

But, beware of their adverse effects. Talk to your healthcare provider about the safety and dosage of neem leaves before taking the plunge. You can also send relevant queries and suggestions to us through the comments section.

15 sources

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Swathi Handoo

Swathi holds a Master’s degree in Biotechnology and has worked in places where actual science and research happen. Blending her love for writing with science, Swathi writes for Health and Wellness and simplifies complex topics for readers from all walks of life.And on the days she doesn’t write, she learns and performs Kathak, sings Carnatic music compositions, makes plans to travel, and obsesses over cleanliness.