Photo of neem tree seeds
A staple of ayurvedic medicine, modern research is caching on to neem's many benefits [Image: Qniemiec - wikimedia Commons]

Neem – natural healing from the ‘village pharmacy’

26 March, 2013

In its native India it’s known as “the village pharmacy”.

The ability of neem to treat many illnesses is described in the earliest Sanskrit writings. For more than 4,500 years, Ayurvedic healers have used the bark, seeds, leaves, fruit, gum and oils of the neem tree (Azadirachta indica) for dozens of internal and external medical treatments.

Historically its uses have included a wide variety of diseases and disorders including malaria, dental health problems, diabetes, heart disease, pain jaundice, leprosy, stomach ulcers, chicken pox, heat-rash and many other skin disorders including cuts, bruises, acne, boils and wounds.

Modern researchers have isolated more than 140 compounds from different parts of the tree; these compounds have been shown, mostly in animal and laboratory studies exert anticancer, antioxidant, wound-healing and antimicrobial properties. Neem is also a powerful insecticide that has become a staple of many natural head lice treatments and mosquito repellents.

A natural insecticide

In fact Neem’s insecticidal properties make it a useful substance for farmers. Long before synthetic chemicals and commercial insecticides were available, neem was used in Indian villages to protect and nourish crops. Farmers usually mix neem leaves with grain before keeping it in storage.

Eco-friendly pesticides like neem reduce the risk of exposing pests’ natural enemies such as birds and small mammals to food poisoned with commercial pesticides. They also offer the prospect of better food quality as there is no toxic residue in the food. Neem is non-toxic to birds, animals, earthworms and man but protects crops from pests.

Soothes the skin

As far as human health is concerned, modern research suggests that eczema and psoriasis may also respond to treatment with neem, due to the presence of two anti-inflammatory compounds, nimbidin and nimbin. In one early study these chemicals were found to be at least as effective as both steroidal and non-steroidal creams  in the treatment of inflammatory skin conditions, but without the side effects. Many practitioners report good results using neem as it moisturises and protects the skin while helping to heal the lesions, scaling and irritation. It relieves the itching and pain while reducing the scale and redness of the patchy lesions.

Neem also contains a number of constituents that may be helpful in the fight against cancer.  One study reported how five of those active constituents showed an significant inhibitory effect on the development of melanoma skin cancer.  Another study on the antioxidant properties of neem found that the extract induced apoptosis (cell death) of cervical cancer cells.

Tests in the US have shown that neem is toxic to the herpes virus and can heal cold sores. Neem’s ability to surround viruses and prevent them from entering and infecting cells makes it one of the few agents capable of relieving shingles.

How to use it

Neem can be used in a variety of different ways. Traditionally, the fresh juice has been extracted from the plant and taken medicinally in doses of around 10 to 20 ml (2 to 4 teaspoons) three times per day. You can also take 2 to 4 grams (1/7 to 1/10 of an ounce) of powdered leaf up to times per day.

When using neem oil, always blend with other base oils. Try starting with just a few drops and increase the amount slowly, to no more than 5% of the total blend. For the hair – add to a base oil and leave on the hair for up to 10 minutes, before washing out with shampoo.

In addition:

  • For beauty care. As a natural skin protector and moisturiser it may have an effect in preventing or softening the appearance of wrinkles. Neem helps healthy skin retain its natural suppleness that we lose as we age. Try rubbing a few drops of Neem Oil – or a neem based cream or massage oil – onto areas that are particularly susceptible to drying and wrinkles. As a hair treatment, add to a base oil and leave on the hair for up to 10 minutes, before washing out with shampoo.
  • For sprains and bruises. Neem can help increase blood flow to the bruised area, helping to remove the discolouration and promote healing. use a neem based ream or a few drops diluted in oil as needed.
  • For fungal infections, as well as cold sores, athletes foot, herpes etc, treat immediately with a topical application of neem oil or a neem based cream or ointment. Try making your own by adding 2-3% neem oil to a neutral base lotion. Continue until eruption has peaked and then healed.
  • For arthritis: Apply neem oil or lotion topically as needed to help relieve pain.
  • For head lice: add around 3% neem oil to a mild shampoo (e.g. an organic baby shampoo)or massage a few drops of neem oil into the hair before combing through with a nit comb. Repeat and hour later, then wash the hair. Repeat weekly until no more lice are present. In severe cases apply and leave on overnight before washing out in the morning. Wash all pillowslips, hats, scarves etc that come into contact with the hair.
  • For holiday protection: Neem oil (in a concentration of 1 to 4%) mixed in coconut, mustard, or other oil bases is used for repelling insects. Unlike chemical insecticides, it works on the insect’s hormonal system, not on the digestive or nervous system, and does not lead to development of pesticide resistance in future generations. Blend with your holiday body cream/sunscreen to give added protection from insects like mosquitoes.
  • For dental health: Neem gel has been shown to be more effective that chlorhexidine at reducing plaque and bacterial levels in the mouth. Try applying a gel containing 2.5 to 5.0% extract twice per day. Neem’s antiplaque activity may also make it useful in preventing tooth decay
  • For peptic ulcers: Freeze-dried neem bark extract (30 to 60 mg twice a day) has been shown helpful for people with stomach ulcers.