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Shea butter for skin cancer, typhoid fever



Until now, Shea butter was known for its application in the treatment of osteoarthritis and skin care products among others. Topical use of Shea butter has also demonstrated anti-ageing and anti-inflammatory properties.

But recent studies have validated extracts of Shea butter for the treatment of skin cancer and typhoid fever. Dietary intake of Shea butter has hypocholesterolemic (reduces cholesterol) effect and reduces serum and organ protein concentrations.

Commonly called Shea butter in Nigeria, okwuma in Igbo, kadanya in Hausa, kochi in Nupe, yokuti in Ewe, and ori in Yoruba, Vitellaria paradoxa, is a tree of Sapotaceae family, indigenous to Africa. The Shea fruit consists of a thin, tart, nutritious pulp, surrounding a relatively large, oil-rich seed, from which Shea butter is extracted.


According to a study published in Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences by researchers from Ekiti State University, Ado-Ekiti, different parts of the plant including leaves, roots, seeds, fruit and stem bark have been used in the treatment of enteric infections such as diarrhea, dysentery, helminthes and other gastrointestinal tract infections, skin diseases and wound infections. The bark is used to suppress cough and also to treat leprosy.

Shea nut contains about 60 per cent fat (Shea butter), and together with the oil palm serve as sources of edible oil for many households in many parts of the Sahel Africa, particularly Northern Nigeria. Local healers use Shea butter as a treatment for rheumatism, inflammation of the nostrils, nasal congestion, leprosy, cough, and minor bone dislocation. It is also used as raw material for the production margarine, soap, detergent and candle.

On the pharmacological studies and uses of Shea butter, a new book titled “Food as Medicine: Functional Food Plants of Africa” by Prof. Maurice Iwu, noted: “Shea butter is used for a variety of health purposes, especially for skin care. It has been incorporated in many topical products and cosmetics for the reduction of wrinkles, blemish reduction, treatment of stretch marks and haemorrhoids, as an antihistamine, and as a vehicle for intradermal application of active pharmaceutical agents intended for the treatment of subcutaneous diseases. Some of its constituents have anti-inflammatory, emollient, and humectant properties, as well as positive effects on sinusitis and relief of nasal congestion and muscular pains.”

Iwu, a professor of pharmacognosy from the University of Nigeria Nsukka (UNN) is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme (BDCP), a non-profit and non-governmental organization (NGO). A subsidiary of BDCP, Intercedd Health Products (IHP), produces and markets drugs developed by the International Center for Ethnomedicine and Drug Development (InterCEDD), a Research and Development (R&D) centre based in Nsukka, Enugu State.

Iwu said there are no reports of allergic reaction owing to consumption of Shea butter or its produce.

The researchers from Ekiti State University in their study published in Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences enumerated the effects of Shea butter.

Sun-screening and skin cancer treatment
A recent study by Japanese scientists has validated the use of extracts of Shea butter for the treatment of skin cancers.

The study published in journal Chemistry & Biodiversity is titled “Melanogenesis-inhibitory activity and cancer chemo-preventive effect of glucosylcucurbic acid from Shea (Vitellaria paradoxa) kernels.”

The researchers from the College of Science and Technology, Nihon University, Tokyo, Japan, noted: “Two jasmonate derivatives, glucosylcucurbic acid (1) and methyl glucosylcucurbate (2), were isolated from the MeOH extract of defatted shea (Vitellaria paradoxa; Sapotaceae) kernels. These and their deglucosylated derivatives, cucurbic acid (3) and methyl cucurbate (4), were evaluated for their melanogenesis-inhibitory and cancer chemopreventive potencies.

“Compounds 1, 3, and 4 exhibited potent melanogenesis-inhibitory activities in α-melanocyte-stimulating hormone (α-MSH)-stimulated B16 melanoma cells. Western-blot analysis revealed that compounds 1 and 3 reduced the protein levels of MITF (=microphthalmia-associated transcription factor), tyrosinase, TRP-1 (=tyrosine-related protein 1), and TRP-2 mostly in a concentration-dependent manner.

In addition, compound 1 exhibited inhibitory effects against Epstein-Barr virus early antigen (EBV-EA) activation induced with 12-O-tetradecanoylphorbol-13-acetate (TPA) in Raji cells, against TPA-induced inflammation in mice, and against skin tumor promotion in an in vivo two-stage mouse skin carcinogenesis test based on 7,12-dimethylbenz[a]anthracene (DMBA) as initiator, and with TPA as promoter.”

Sunscreens absorb or reflect some of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation reaching the skin exposed to sunlight and thus helps protect against sunburn, preventing erythema and reducing further risk of sun-induced skin-cancer.

The major cause of photo carcinogenesis is UVB radiation (290-320 nm) since it directly interacts with cellular Deoxy ribonucleic Acid (DNA)/genetic material and subsequent formation of cyclobutane pyrimidine dimers and thymine glycols.

Cinnamate esters of triterpene alcohol which are the main constituent of Shea butter’s unsaponifiable fraction are known to have strong absorbance of UV radiation in the wavelength range at 250-300 nm, which make the addition of Shea butter’s unsaponifiables into sunscreens provide synergistic sun-protection by increasing absorption of UVB radiation. However, the effectiveness of the triterpenes is somewhat doubted since studies using double-fractionated Shea butter with 20 per cent of triterpene esters found that this triterpenic fraction only provided the sun protection factor (SPF) of 3-4.

Typhoid fever
Another study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that extracts of Shea butter could be effectively used to treat typhoid fever.

The researchers concluded: “Investigations on the aqueous leaf extract of V. paradoxa show that this plant contains antimicrobial substances which support its use in local treatment of typhoid fevers. Further work should focus on identification of the active principles of this leaf extract and ascertaining whether they are similar to those described for the stem bark.”

The study is titled “Effects of Vitellaria paradoxa (C.F. Gaertn.) aqueous leaf extracts administration on Salmonella typhimurium-infected rats.”

Salmonella enterica is a group of Gram-negative bacterial pathogens, which cause significant morbidity and mortality worldwide. Among the Salmonellae of medical importance are Salmonella Typhi, Salmonella Paratyphi A, Salmonella Paratyphi B, which cause typhoid, paratyphoid A and paratyphoid B fevers respectively. Worldwide, there is an estimated 22 million episodes of typhoid fever causing 216 500 deaths each year, with the overwhelming majority of infections and deaths occurring in developing countries.

Meanwhile, extracts from the seed have also been used for the treatment of arthritic conditions.

Previous study by Taiwanese and Nigerian researchers has validated the efficacy of Shea nut oil extract in knee osteoarthritis (OA) patients.

The scientists from China Medical University, Taichung and Asia University, Taichung, Taiwan, concluded: “The effectiveness of treatment of knee OA using Shea nut oil, an extract from the indigenous African Vitellaria paradoxa tree, is proven. After sufficient dosage and intervention, its effects include decreased inflammation, increased collagen, amelioration of pain, and improved muscle function.

“Although improved muscle function was observed, including greater control and an increase in muscle strength to achieve a functional goal, the subjective feeling of improvement in the activities of daily living was not significant.

“The findings have proven the efficacy of shea nut oil extract as a complementary option to improve the symptoms and function in relation to knee OA.”

The study was published in the journal Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

OA, also known as degenerative arthritis, degenerative joint disease, and osteoarthrosis, is a group of mechanical abnormalities involving degradation of joints, including articular cartilage and subchondral bone. OA is the most common form of arthritis and the leading cause of chronic disability.

It most commonly affects the knee and has an impact on the health-related quality of life of the elderly. Symptoms may include joint pain, tenderness over the inside of knee, stiffness, locking, reduced mobility, atrophy of lower extremities, and decreased walking speed.

These functional impairments may reduce a sufferer’s general level of exercise and increase the risk of consequent injuries, such as those that might result from a fall.

Several studies have shown that Shea butter is a skin super food that comes from the seeds of the fruit of the tree and is naturally rich in vitamins A, E and F. It provides the skin with essential fatty acids and the nutrients necessary for collagen production. Shea butter has been used in Africa and other countries for years to improve skin and hair.

Mrs. Catherine Joseph, a rheumatism patient, said she uses Shea butter as an ointment on the affected part to reduce joint pain and it has been working for her since she started using it.

Kemi Olasoju, a consistent user of Shea butter said it reduces nasal inflammation and nasal congestion. She said an application of Shea butter into the nostrils helps in clearing nasal congestion within a period of 90 seconds and that it has been very effective for her and her children.

The researchers from Ekiti State University in their study published in Journal of Nutrition & Food Sciences enumerated the effects of Shea butter.

As an emollient and skin moisturizer:
Due to its semi-solid characteristics and buttery consistency, Shea butter is great emollient and moisturizer for the skin hair, scalp and hair even without further processing. However Shea butter is usually found as active component of processed moisturizers. In addition, fractionated Shea butter especially olein fraction is easily formulated in creams or surfactant based products such as bath products and shampoo to provide the skin, scalp, and hair with well-maintained or increased moisture. Shea butter melts at body temperature, acts as a «refatting» agent, has good water-binding properties and absorbs rapidly into the skin; making it useful for skin care.

In an article titled ‘Winter Itch’, Shea butter was recommended for repairing dry inflamed skin caused by dermatitis and as a night time moisturizer for hands and feet. In a study by Poelman and co workers, a cream containing five per cent Shea Butter versus a placebo cream were applied to the forearms of 10 volunteers. Short-term moisturization was observed; it peaked after 1 hour and persists for eight hours. For all subjects, a daily application maintains a very good moisturization of the superficial layers of the skin. Shea butter has also been shown to be superior to mineral oil at preventing transepidermal water loss (TEWL).

In a test where participants’ arms were washed in ethanol, it was found that Shea butter was able to help the skin totally recover from TEWL within two hours. One study showed that it worked as an emollient for eczema. Using a scale from zero to five-zero denoting clear and five denoting very severe disease — Shea butter took a three down to a one, while Vaseline only took a three down to a two.

Anti-ageing properties:
It has been revealed that Shea butter has UV anti-erythemic activity, which helps tissue cell regeneration and softening of the skin. In a clinical study involving 30 volunteers, Renard reported that Shea butter diminished various aging signs.

In another clinical study performed by the same author for studying dry, delicate or aging skin, 49 volunteers applied twice a day either 15 per cent or pure Shea Butter and discovered that Shea butter prevented photo-ageing. In another study with rats, Shea butter was shown to boost collagen production.

Collagen and elastin are the major structural proteins providing skin with toughness and plumpness and α-amyrin and lupeol, the triterpenes also found in the unsaponifiable fraction of Shea butter, were found to contribute to the inactivation of proteases such as metalloprotease (example, collagenase) as well as serine protease (example, elastase). The anti-ageing, potentially collagen-boosting effects were therefore attributed to its unsaponifiable components.


Effect on cholesterol metabolism:
Shea butter has been reported to be used by a pharmaceutical company, BSP Pharma, to lower cholesterol levels. Tholstrup and co workers observed a reduction of total cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL)/bad cholesterol by Shea butter administration and attributed the antihypercholesterolemic effect to the high stearic acid content of Shea butter. In a study with rats, Akinwale and co workers reported a significant reduction in High density lipoprotein (HDL), Total Cholesterol and Low density lipoprotein (LDL) when rats were fed with Shea butter. The antihypercholesterolemic effect of Shea butter was attributed to the presence of saponins in it. Saponin, which is present in the unsaponifiable fraction of Shea butter has been reported by several authors to lower serum cholesterol by forming mixed micelles with cholesterol and bile acids in the intestine thereby inhibiting its absorption and increasing its excretion.

Although, Shea nut is distantly related to Brazil nut, which cross-reacts with almond, hazelnut, walnut, and peanut, there are no reports of allergy reaction owing to the topical or oral use of Shea butter. Furthermore, Kanwaljit and co workers reported that Shea butter contains no IgE-binding soluble proteins and reassures that Shea butter is safe for use even for individual with nut allergy.

Conversely, Wiedner found that pharmaceutical composition containing at least five per cent of Shea butter’s triterpenes such as butyrospermol, lupeol, parkeol, germanicol, dammaradienol, 24-methylene-dammarenol, and α, and β-amyrins effectively suppresses hypersensitivity reaction in a mammal such as Immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated allergic reactions and autoimmune reactions in a mammal.


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