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Stress? Boost Immune System With Neem, Inverted Yoga

Neem flowers and leaves at Pune Market in India. Credit: Sarah Khan 2001

Neem flowers and leaves at Pune Market in India. Credit: Sarah Khan 2001

In this three-month series exploring simple teas and yoga postures (asanas) to keep you healthy during the holiday season, November will explore bitter neem (Azadirachta indica) and the powerful antioxidant amla (Emblica officinalis). First up is neem, often called “the wonder tree” or “nature’s pharmacy.”


Ancient neem most probably originated in the Assam region of northeast India and Myanmar and then rapidly spread through the drier South Asian subcontinent, including India, Pakistan and Bangladesh; West Africa; and more recently the Caribbean and South and Central America. Revered for its religious and medicinal significance, the neem tree vibrates a rhythmic beauty, especially the organization of the leaves.

Culinary and traditional medicine uses

In different parts of South Asia, young neem flowers are collected and sautéed in the spring. A bitter and sweeter variety of neem leaves are made into pickles. Unlike a North American fast-food palate, many culinary cultures seek out bitter flavors (another bitter food that I love is kerela, also known as bitter gourd in South Asia) because bitter foods often possess medicinal properties, alkaloids in particular, in large quantities. The bitter alkaloids fight potential plant pathogens, and those properties get passed on to those who consume the plant.

Neem has been used in Ayurvedic medicine for more than 4,000 years, and the earliest Sanskrit medical writings refer to the benefits of its fruits, seeds, oil, leaves, roots and bark. Moreover, both the water and oil extracts possess different plant properties for healing. It is used in agriculture to protect against pests, topically on the skin as an antibacterial soap and internally to prevent and treat chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, respiratory diseases and diabetes.

Contemporary research

According to scientists reporting in the International Research Journal of Biological Sciences in October 2012, scientific research supports many of the ethnobotanical and traditional findings of its multiple uses. In another review article in the journal Current Medicinal Chemistry-Anticancer Agents, researchers state neem extracts fight inflammation, infections, fever, skin diseases and dental disorders. The leaf extracts, in particular, demonstrate immune enhancing, anti-inflammatory, anti-hyperglycemic, anti-ulcer, antimalarial, antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral, antioxidant, antimutagenic and anticarcinogenic properties. That’s a lot of “anti” for such a thin leaf.

Pair your food and herbs with yoga to build immunity

Yoga is about practice. No one asana (yoga posture) is a cure-all, just like no one super food can heal everything. If you are to pair your herbal teas and foods with yoga, then I suggest basic Hatha yoga as a starting point. I have found some of the best yoga teachers are Iyengar-trained. That certainly does not preclude many other traditions; it is merely a personal preference based on extensive study and experience in the U.S. and South Asia.

Practice the basic Sūrya Namaskāra series (sun salutation) and do it every day for general stretching and flexibility. To focus specifically on immunity, you want to keep two things in mind: the lymphatic system and inverted postures. The lymphatic system is part of the circulatory system. Unlike your vascular system (the system that moves blood around the body), the lymphatic system has no muscles helping move the lymph fluid. So walking, running and yoga postures —  specifically inverted poses — facilitate fluid movement through the lymph system and toward the heart.

Find a certified yoga teacher, learn the Sūrya Namaskāra series and begin some basic inverted poses, such as bridge pose and downward facing dog. Building and strengthening your body, from a yogic perspective, is about daily practice not about how complex a yoga pose you can get into. Simple and consistent is the key. To make the most of your practice, make sure to top off your daily yoga practice with a cup of neem tea this season.

Neem tea

If you live in an urban area, you may find fresh neem leaves in a local South Asian food store in the early spring. If not, you can buy dried neem leaves in bulk. It is also available in tea bags from several tea companies. And, finally, it is available in a powder pill form.

If you have fresh neem leaves, steep 3 to 5 leaves in a cup and add a local honey to counter the bitter alkaloids. If you have dried leaves, steep 4 to 6 leaves in a cup and add honey.

For health advice and recommendations, always consult with your chosen health-care professional. To ensure proper yoga training, seek the advice of a certified yoga specialist.

Photo: Neem flowers and leaves at Pune Market in India. Credit: Sarah Khan 2001

Zester Daily contributor Sarah Khan writes about food, culture, climate and sustainability. For her second Fulbright, she is presently traveling in South and Central Asia for a year (2014-15) to tell the stories of female farmers as they contend with a rapidly degraded agricultural landscape, gender inequality, poverty and climate change. She will document their challenges and victories in multiple media. To follow her journey, visit her website.