Saponins are naturally occurring plant glycosides; which is to say they are phytochemicals — chemicals found in plants. They possess soap-like qualities and produce a lather when mixed with water.
Over one hundred families of plants contain saponins and there are more than eleven classes of them including dammaranes, tirucallanes, lupanes, hopanes, oleananes, taraxasteranes, ursanes, cycloartanes, lanostanes, cucurbitanes, and steroids. It’s believed many other varieties remain undiscovered.
The word saponin is derived from sapo, Latin for “soap.” True to its name, the root of the Saponaria, or soapwort plant, has been traditionally used as soap.
Why Are Saponins Beneficial?
Saponins have a unique chemical structure that produces foam when mixed with water, just like a detergent. And, also like detergent, can bind with water as well as fats and oils. This means that, in the digestive tract, saponins produce an emulsification of fat-soluble molecules. Specifically, they bind to bile acids and help eliminate them from the body, preventing cholesterol from being reabsorbed. You might even say saponins “wash away” various toxins.
What Are the Health Benefits of Saponins?
The unique chemical structure allows them to offer a number of prospective health benefits. It’s believed they have a favorable effect on cholesterol, can help boost the immune system, have an antioxidant effect, and may even support bone strength.
Saponins and Cholesterol
Saponins seem to help promote normal cholesterol levels. The body uses cholesterol to produce the bile necessary for digestion. They bind with bile and prevent cholesterol from being reabsorbed back into the bloodstream; rather, it’s simply excreted. Many cholesterol medications operate in the same way.
The cholesterol-lowering effect of saponins has been known for decades. A 1977 animal study found that saponins may reduce cholesterol absorption. A separate study found that giving a certain saponin extract to rats with high cholesterol reduced “bad” (LDL) cholesterol without affecting “good” (HDL) cholesterol.
Saponins Boost the Immune System
In nature, plants rely on saponins as a mechanism to fight parasites. Similarly, when consumed by humans, they provide a similar defense against harmful organisms. One study demonstrated this action against Candida cells, specifically. In another study, a specific type of saponin was observed to have antimicrobial activity that favorably influenced oral health. Their ability to act as a broad, frontline shield reduces the burden on the immune system.
Saponins and Cancer
Cancer cell membranes have cholesterol-type compounds. Like cholesterol, saponins are able to bind with these compounds and disrupt the proliferation of cancer cells. According to an article published in the Journal of Nutrition, saponins from soybeans may slow the growth of cancer cells. Other studies have reported having induced the death of cancer cells and slowed tumor growth.
It’s important to realize that most of the research into the effects of saponins on cancer cells has been preliminary and involved specific enzymes, proteins, or other components of saponins extracted in specific ways and matched against specific cancer cells under specific situations. In other words, it’s not quite as simple as eating a handful of soapberries and thinking it will cure cancer.
Other Health Benefits of Saponins
Investigations into saponins have yielded a number of other, interesting revelations about their qualities. Preliminary research from a 2010 study concluded that saponins from Terminalia arjuna (arjun tree) may offer a therapeutic benefit for kidney or urinary stones. In a 2015 issue of Natural Products Research, it was noted that, in the past ten years, several preclinical reports have suggested that they may offer hope as a natural solution for depression.
Other positive qualities include supporting Kupffer cells in the liver and encouraging normal detoxification. Saponins found in oats and spinach support digestion by accelerating the body’s ability to absorb calcium and silicon. In animal studies, saponins have been found to promote balanced blood sugar and support normal bone density.[14, 15]
Where to Find Saponins
Saponins are a component in over a hundred different types of plants and foods including beans, chickpeas, peanuts, quinoa, and soy. They exist in nightshade vegetables like tomatoes. Herbs like ginseng, Tribulus terrestris, jiaogulan, bupleurum root, osha, and collinsonia also contain saponins.
Saponins are common in food products, often added as an emulsifier. Some carbonated beverages like root beer rely on saponins extracted from yucca and quillaja to produce a foamy head.
The berry shell from the soapberry plant can be used as a natural laundry detergent. The hard shell, which resembles a nut, releases saponins when it absorbs water, acting as a detergent to release grime, dirt, and oil from clothing.
Have you used saponins in any way? Do you have an experience or thought to share? Leave a comment below and add to the conversation.
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