Pennington looking at natural approach to future of medicine

Future miracle drugs may be hidden in a jungle or on a mountaintop.

Or they may be in your supermarket.

Researchers at Baton Rouge’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center are looking at traditional fruits and vegetables for cures to some of America’s most serious diseases. Dr. Frank Greenway, who specialializes in obesity research, has found solutions in cherry juice, raspberries and grapefruit.

“I find these kinds of thing really fun, that we can make drugs out of foods,” he says.

Getting your ZZZZs

A tart cherry, for example, has proved to help insomnia sufferers sleep longer.

Insomnia can be an annoyance for some, but long-lasting sleeplessness can seriously affect health, especially for the elderly.

“Insomnia is not just an inconvenience,” Greenway says. “It’s also a medical problem because it’s associated with high blood pressure and pain and diabetes and dementia.”

Sleeping pills work well for younger insomniacs, but with older people they quadruple the risk of falling, which leads to broken hips and, often, earlier death, the Pennington physician says.

In search of all-natural sleep aids, doctors learned that Montmorency tart cherries seemed to help some people sleep. But Greenway was unsure why.

The juice contains melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the sleep cycle, but it didn’t contain a large enough dose to help with sleep, he says.

Testing the juice on 11 insomnia sufferers and then studying their slumber in a controlled setting, Greenway and his colleagues found that those who drank a glass of cherry juice in the morning and at night were able to sleep more than an hour longer each night, and their sleep was “more efficient,” he says.

The cherry juice contains tryptophan, an essential amino acid that helps with sleep, Greenway says. While the dose of tryptophan in tart cherry juice is also smaller than a normal dose given to aid sleep, researchers found that the juice contains a compound that prevents the tryptophan from breaking down, helping it to work more effectively.

“For some people, especially the older people for whom calories are not a problem,” Greenway says, “drinking a glass of juice in the morning and the evening may be a better way and safer way to address their issues.”

Some truth behind a fad diet

Every few years since the 1930s, a fad diet based around eating grapefruit comes on the scene. The plan usually involves eating a low-calorie diet of a hard-boiled egg, vegetables, melba toast and half of a grapefruit at each meal. It works. But why?

“Is it due to the calories or due to the grapefruit in some way?” Greenway asks.

Working with a colleague at the Scripps Clinic in San Diego, Greenway tested the diet on 100 patients. The participants continued their regular diets and exercised a little. One quarter of them ate half a grapefruit three times a day while the others either took a grapefruit capsule, grapefruit juice or a placebo.

All of the grapefruit eaters lost some weight, but test subjects diagnosed with metabolic syndrome — a group of problems that increase risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes — lost between three and seven pounds in three months. Greenway and other doctors would like to create a drug from citrus rinds that contains the enzyme naringin, which could lead to weight loss.

“It seems to help the people who need the help the most,” Greenway says. “They’re the people who have the Humpty-Dumpty shape and they’re the ones who get all the problems associated with obesity.”

Blood vessels and disease

Doctors are in search of ways to stop new blood vessels from growing.

“Abnormal growth of blood vessels is responsible for diseases” such as the skin condition psoriasis, cancer and several forms of blindness, Greenway says.

Cancer cannot grow more than 2 millimeters or metastasize without new blood vessels. Blindness caused by giving premature babies life-saving oxygen can’t occur without new vessels, either.

Angiogenesis, the scientific name for blood vessel creation, can be positive. It helps to heal wounds, develop babies in the womb and create new blood vessels during a woman’s menstrual cycle.

Some drugs that have been developed to stop angiogenesis have many side effects, so researchers think a solution can be found in food.

Gallic acid, found in black raspberries, has worked as a cancer treatment when injected into rats. Used in a cream, the acid has also helped psoriasis. Pomegranates, a “superfruit” high in vitamin C and fiber, also contain the acid and could help treat human obesity, Greenway says.

A radish used in Korean food, platycodin radix, the root of a plant known as the balloon flower, also helps stop new blood vessel growth, he says.

Medical treatments for humans may be a few years away, Greenway says, but they are “promising” developments.