Prevention is better than cure

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Asiatic Pennywort
Asiatic Pennywort

1. Nutrition and the Adaptogen Concept

“Prevention is better than cure”, or so the old adage goes. And it’s perhaps not surprising to find that when it comes to safe-guarding our future health and preventing illness, a lot of what’s important for healthy backs is also beneficial for our overall health. If we want to have a reasonable degree of control over your future health status, there are three key areas that we have to keep in check – our psychology, nutrition and physical training. As part of a new series of articles on preventative medicine, this following article will focus on nutrition, introducing the ‘adaptogen’ concept with a review of the medicinal food plant, the ‘Asiatic Pennywort’.

The distinction between food and medicine is open for debate. New research in the field of ‘nutraceuticals’ (a contraction of ‘nutritionals’ and ‘pharmaceuticals’) goes some way to bridge the gap with popular and effective products such as the margarines containing plant stanols which lower cholesterol. But medicinal foods needn’t involve any sort of artificial manipulation, and there are many foods which naturally have bona fide medicinal properties. In fact, the Ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates (460BC – 370BC), who established the Hippocratic Oath and is credited as being the ‘father of Western medicine’, was recorded as saying, “Let food by thy medicine, and medicine be thy food.”

The Asiatic Pennywort (Latin name: Centella asiatica) is a small herbaceous creeper found in many tropical and subtropical countries, including India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, South Africa and Eastern Europe. It has a long history of use in the traditional Indian, Chinese and African medical systems but is also used as a leaf vegetable – much like spinach or kale – in Thai and Sri Lankan cuisine. In health stores, it’s often labelled as ‘Gotu kola’, meaning ‘conical leaf’ in Sri Lanka’s Sinhalese language.

On the backdrop of several thousand years of ethnobotanical use, Western research efforts into the potential therapeutic uses of the plant began in the late 1940’s and 50’s with the corroboration of its traditional use in wound healing. Since then the research literature has expanded to include over 300 published studies detailing the many beneficial properties of the herb.

In fact, the herb exhibits so many distinct and seemingly unrelated benefits that it has been given the title of ‘adaptogen’. The term ‘adaptogen’ was coined in 1947 by Russian-born pharmacologist Nikolai Lazarev and is used to describe a newly realised class of botanical compounds which confer a non-specific resistance to physical, biochemical and psychosocial stressors.

Medicinal Prop​ertyReferences
Cognitive Health – Enhances memory and learning in a rodent Alzheimer’s disease model and in human adults, and substantially improves child ADHD12859423, 20677602, 20228219
Affective Health – Anti-anxiety effect in rodents and humans, and anti-depressant effect in rodents.16488124, 20677602, 16209267, 15058206
Neurological Health – Anti-epileptic and anti-convulsant activity, preventing fits and seizures in rodents.20711371, 20144879
Anti-inflammatory & Analgesic Effects – Demonstrated in rodents.20606777, 3092715
Wound Healing – Promotes healing of incision and burn wounds in rodents, even reversing the suppression of healing by dexamethasone.18484522, 22817824 16928669
Ulcer Healing – Promotes healing of physical, chemical and stress-induced gastric ulcers in rodents, and human skin ulcers.11480209, 1293014 5153018
Antibiotic Effect – Natural anti-biotic activity demonstrated in human leprosy and in fish columnaris (a common fish farm infection).4480467, 20575361
Anti-Cancer Effect – Kills rodent and human cancer cells.20162036, 19865514
Circulatory Health – Promotes circulatory health in the context of long-distance flight-induced oedema, chronic venous insufficiency and perhaps varicose veins.11666121, 7936334 2150405
Ultraviolet Radioprotective – Protects against UVB radiation damage in human skin cells.22948173, 23064234
Gamma Radioprotective – Protects against gamma radiation poisoning, specifically weight loss, DNA damage, and radiation-induced taste aversion in rodents.12458490, 19589237, 11399290
Heavy Metal Detoxification – Counteracts heavy metal poisoning, specifically lead and arsenic in rodents.21843793, 17600859

Reference numbers correspond to the PubMed archive at the US National Library of Medicine and can be accessed online by appending the number to

In essence, adaptogens literally promote adaptation, adjustment and acclimatisation to our total environment (physical, biochemical and psychosocial). This implies an interesting relationship between their usage and the philosophy of preventative medicine which is all about alleviating stresses and correcting imbalances before they generate illness.

Nutritional Information for the Asiatic Pennywort

NutrientQuantity (mg/100g)% RDA
Beta-carotene (Vitamin A)34ND
Thiamin (Vitamin B1)0.870
Riboflavin (Vitamin B2)0.751
Ascorbic acid (Vitamin C)2126
Nutritional Information for Asiatic Pennywort

Quantity data from the US Department of Agriculture, RDA data from the UK Department of Health; NE = Not Determined

In keeping with the concept of true adaptogens, the Asiatic pennywort is non-toxic and appears to exert a harmonising and restorative effect on the entire human system. This makes adaptogens entirely different from medicinal drugs (whether synthetic or naturally occurring, e.g. morphine) which are used to suppress biological functions, bringing an attempted masking of symptoms but also the risk of side effects. In a sense, the adaptogen concept accommodates the highest ideals of medicine – namely to prevent and remedy illness whilst doing no harm.

In closing, the Asiatic pennywort is a nutritious vegetable plant with a significant volume of modern scientific research to support its long history of traditional medicinal use. But beyond this, it serves as a valuable illustration of how richly nutrition can be upgraded from the basic macro-nutrient (carbohydrates, proteins, and fats) and micro-nutrient (vitamins & minerals) concepts.

Personal Experiences​ with the Asiatic Pennywort

I first started using this herb as capsules of dried extract from health food stores. More recently, I discovered that the fresh plant material is not only much cheaper, but also far more effective.

I found it available fresh in a local Sri Lankan food store as “Villarai” (its name in the Tamil language) and in a Thai food store as “Bua Bok” (the Thai name). I’ve also experimented with growing this vegetable myself and can report great success even in our temperate climate.

I have now incorporated this vegetable into my regular diet. I eat it raw much like a salad leaf, and have noted several interesting effects:

  • Greatly enhanced sleep quality when consumed before bed
  • Performance enhancement during cardiovascular training
  • Clearly noticeable reduction in psychological stress  

Dr Adam Al-Kashi
Head of Research at BackCare