Obesity is a growing problem in Canada. Currently a quarter of the population is obese and that number is expected to rise to one-third in the next decade. Not only will this have a significant impact on people's health but also it adds billions of dollars to our healthcare costs.
The search for ways to combat obesity has focused for the most part on healthier diets and an increase in exercise. Yet certain cultures have suggested other methods to deal with weight balance. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, red ginseng root has been used as a means to maintain health and possibly keep the pounds off. Research has revealed several possible mechanisms behind the claimed benefits including a reduction in inflammation and interactions with our gut microbes.
Although ginseng has been suggested as a promising addition to weight loss routines, turning potential into reality requires more than just correlation. A molecular mechanism of action needs to be identified such that the role of the herb can be properly defined. Without this information, one cannot reach the necessary level of trust needed to assure people they are not wasting time and money.
For the most part, research into the benefits of ginseng has focused on certain chemicals found in the root known as ginsenosides. There are over 30 of these molecules and each is known by an alphanumeric code, such as Ra, or Rb1. Over the years, several of these components have demonstrated an ability to control inflammation suggesting a potential role in various inflammatory conditions. Only one, Rg1, has showed any potential for obesity.
Studies on Rg1 have shown it appears to be involved in maintaining immune balance in colon. It accomplishes this by increasing the concentration of a particular molecule known to reduce inflammation in this area. It's known as nucleotide-binding oligomerization domain-like receptor family pyrin domain containing 12, but most call it by its acronym, NLRP12. It's known to help prevent inflammation in colitis and helps healthy individuals keep their guts balanced.
Based on these circumstantial links, the idea of preventing or treating obesity using ginseng's Rg1 seems like a decent approach. However, there needs to be a link between an increase in NLRP12 and obesity. Until last week, that has never been seen. But now, the evidence may be at hand.
An American team of researchers recently have discovered how NLRP12 can help to resist obesity in mice. Their results suggests the molecule is an important player in keeping our guts healthy and our weight balanced. The evidence may provide the scientific backing needed to explore the use of red ginseng and Rg1 in obesity management.
In the study, the authors first had to determine whether obese individuals had lower levels of NLRP12 in their bodies. This would at least confirm their theory that this molecule was important. Looking at tissue samples from a previous clinical trial, they discovered a lack of this molecule in these individuals. This suggested their theory had merit and they could continue with confidence.
The next stage of experiments was performed in mice as this enabled the team to wipe out the production of NLRP12. Mice who no longer produced the molecule ended up with more inflammation as expected. They also became obese.
Taking a closer look at how this happened, the team found the absence of NLRP12 allowed inflammation in the gut to explode, especially in the presence of a high fat diet. This matched what is normally seen in humans in which inflammation in the gut directly contributes to increased weight gain. For the authors, this suggested that NLRP12 may be involved in resistance to obesity by controlling inflammation.
The last stage involved determining whether NLRP12 had any impacts on the gut microbiome. Previous research had suggested a possible role in maintaining microbial balance and this could help to reduce the chances for inflammation in the gut due to a lack of microbial diversity, known as dysbiosis. The team assessed whether the presence of the molecule had any effect on mice fed a high fat diet known to induce obesity.
As expected, the absence of the molecule led to a reduction in diversity and an increase in inflammation leading to increased weight gain. Although the authors did not determine how NLRP12 led to a balancing of the gut microbial population, the results suggested it was important to help reduce the potential for dysbiosis and reduce the chances for obesity.
Taken altogether, the team revealed the importance of NLRP12 in preventing and managing obesity in mice. Whether this will translate into humans remains to be seen but the evidence opens the door to more testing in humans. This could in turn help realize the promise of Rg1 although this will be years into the future. However, if the theory holds, we may one day see a natural and safe way to help manage obesity.