Many potential medicines are being considered right now for the treatment of osteoporosis that has a few things in common. First, they all have an extremely strong flavor profile of black licorice. Second, they all are often lumped together and often incorrectly labeled under the blanket term “anise.” However, using one word to describe the wide variety of black licorice-tasting vegetables and seeds that are found throughout the world is not entirely wise. They aren’t even all of the same species!
This article will explore three different plants that, at one point or another, have been incorrectly labeled anise. These plants each have their own unique story to tell, but they all have been shown to have some rock star capabilities when it comes to treating the symptoms of osteoporosis.
The first anise on our list is called star anise. It was named for the star shape of its seed, which is also the only useful part of the plant. It was used primarily in China as an herbal medicine, and today makes up one of the five prongs of the famous Chinese five spice. It also has a profound cultural history as an ayurvedic medicine in India. It comes from the Illiciaceae family and its Latin name is illicium verum. It recently has been found to be extremely beneficial in treating influenza, and it has been found to be the only drug effective against the bird flu. In fact, it is the basis of the flu vaccination called Tamiflu. It is considered to be much stronger in its active compounds than other members of the anise named groups.
Anise or Anise Seed
Not to be confused with star anise, anise, or what is sometimes called anise seed or aniseed, is from the Apiaceae family and its Latin name is pimpinella anisum. Despite their common names and common licorice flavor, these two potent compounds are in no way related. They both have a strong medicinal history, but anise seed was more common in herbal medicine used throughout the Middle East and Europe. Romans ate it in a cake (with other ingredients) after a rich meal to prevent indigestion. As with star anise, the seeds are the only portion of the plant that is used, usually extracted or distilled into essential oils.
Fennel and Fennel Seed
The only anise that is grown for more than its seeds, fennel is a popular vegetable used in European cooking. It is grown not only for its seeds but also for its bulb and long green fronds. Its Latin name is Foeniculum vulgare and is also from the Apiaceae family. It is not related to the Chinese star anise. Along with being used as herbal medicine, fennel seeds were also used as a potent breath mint throughout Europe and Asia. The seeds are the strongest in flavor and chemical properties of all parts of the vegetable.
What is the Common Thread?
Now that we have taken the time to clarify the differences between all the plants, what is the common thread that brings them all together? They all contain a powerful substance called anethole, which accounts for their powerful licorice flavor. Anethole has been found to have many health benefits, including reducing inflammation and improving bone health and density. All the plants described above contain large amounts of anethole. The molecule is not very water-soluble. So, when used for medicinal purposes it is often more bioavailable if consumed via an extract.
Anise, Anethole, and Osteoporosis
Osteoporosis is a group of medical conditions that lead to a breakdown in bone density or overall bone loss. Sometimes an underlying medical condition leads to this disease. Other times medications are the cause, and sometimes it occurs naturally over time due to lifestyle and diet. Researchers now are looking into the potential of what were once forgotten Ayurvedic medicines for treating modern diseases. This has led them to examine if anise could treat the symptoms of osteoporosis.
In a 2012 study published in the International Journal of Molecular Medicine, researchers discovered that when a compound derived from anise was administered orally, there was a significant improvement in mineral and bone density. Anise was shown to produce intermediate improvements to bone health even after only six weeks. The researchers concluded the compounds found in fennel have significant potential to improve postmenopausal bone health and called for further research.
Osteoporosis also is known to cause inflammation, which puts further stress on fragile bones. Thankfully, this is another area where anise and anise compounds have been found to have beneficial medicinal qualities. In a 2005 study, researchers used anethole to treat inflammation in lab animals and concluded it was equally, if not more, effective than traditional anti-inflammatory pharmaceuticals such as Indomethacin. Anethole’s anti-inflammatory properties and its promotion of bone health and density could make it an effective natural treatment for osteoporosis and its symptoms.