Ferulic Acid: an intriguing new supplement with some unusual antioxidant properties
Ferulic acid (FA) is a substance found in the seeds and leaves of most plants, especially in the brans of grasses such as wheat, rice, and oats. Its chemical structure strongly resembles that of curcumin, the substance responsible for the yellow color of the spice turmeric.
The amount of ferulic acid in plant materials varies widely depending on the species and growing conditions; supplements are therefore a more reliable source of this substance than food or unprocessed herbal materials.
Ferulic acid has antioxidant properties that make it an important anti-aging supplement, and they also contribute to FA’s other potential uses. These include applications in diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer, neuroprotection, bone degeneration, menopause, immunity, and (perhaps) athletic performance. Let us look at these uses in more detail.
Free radicals are chemically reactive molecules produced in cells as byproducts of normal biochemical processes, particularly the metabolism of sugars and fats. Once produced, free radicals can damage almost any biological structure they come into contact with. Membranes within and surrounding cells contain many components that are prone to free radical damage. We perceive the results of such damage as “aging”.
Like many other dietary substances, FA is an antioxidant – but it is an unusually good one. It is especially good at neutralizing the free radicals known as “superoxide”, “hydroxyl radical”, and “nitric oxide”. It acts synergistically with other antioxidants, giving them extra potency. In addition, FA can be activated to even higher antioxidant activity by exposure to UV light, suggesting that it might help to protect skin from sun damage.
Experiments with diabetic rats at Annamalai University in India showed that FA supplementation at relatively low doses increased the activities of antioxidant enzymes, thereby neutralizing free radicals which, in diabetics, are primary causes of accelerated tissue damage. FA also decreased blood glucose and lipid levels.
In male rats fed a high cholesterol diet, FA supplementation significantly lowered total cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations in the blood, as compared to a control group. Moreover, HDL (“good cholesterol”) is increased with FA supplementation.
Cancer in a variety of different tissues has been shown to be suppressed by ferulic acid supplementation. These include:
- cancers of the digestive tract: tongue, esophageal, stomach, intestinal and colorectal cancers
- prostate cancer
- lung cancer
- liver cancer
- breast cancer
Some of FA’s anti-cancer effects appear to be due to its ability to prevent the conversion of the nitrites used in foods into cancer-causing chemicals.
Neuroprotection (Alzheimer’s, cognitive decline, macular degeneration)
By virtue of its antioxidant properties, ferulic acid greatly reduces free radical damage to the external and internal membranes of nerve cells without causing nerve cell death. FA also appears to encourage the proliferation of at least some types of nerve cells, such as retinal cells. These properties have attracted the interest of researchers looking for treatments for Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases, and for certain diseases of the retina such as macular degeneration.
Bone degeneration (osteoporosis)
Studies of bone metabolism suggest that ferulic acid prevents bone loss by a mechanism different from that of estrogens. In an era when hormone replacement therapy is under fire from anti-technology crusaders, ferulic acid may be a welcome addition to the osteoporosis treatment arsenal.
Ferulic acid has been shown effective in treating hot flashes in menopausal women, according to a review in the journal “Alternative Medicine Review”.
Tissue culture experiments in Taiwan have shown that FA stimulates the production of human white blood cells and increases the secretion of IFN-gamma (gamma-interferon), an immune-system stimulatory protein. This suggests a possible value of FA as an immune stimulant, and provides some support for traditional usages of ferulic-acid-containing plants as treatments for cancer and infectious diseases.
Ferulic acid (or its metabolic precursor, gamma oryzanol) has been widely used to enhance athletic performance, both in humans and in race horses. One rationale has been that it reduces fatigue by neutralizing free radicals that would otherwise damage the energy-producing structures in cells. This concept has merit theoretically, but has yet to be demonstrated in clinical trials.
Safety and dosage
The safety of ferulic acid is well-established both by animal studies and by its consumption as part of people’s daily diet for thousands of years – it is a significant component of grains, seeds, leafy vegetables and other food plants.
Effective dosages of FA for most of the applications mentioned above have not yet been established scientifically. Supplement companies therefore recommend dosages based on the usage of this supplement (or its precursor, gamma oryzanol) by athletes as a performance enhancer. A commonly recommended dose is 250 mg twice per day.