Bay leaf (Laurus nobilis) has featured in traditional cuisines the world over probably because of its digestive benefits. It slows down the passage of food in the small intestine so that more nutrients can be absorbed. It also helps the intestinal walls secrete less fluid so that you don’t lose too much water through stool. Bay leaf helps manage your blood glucose levels too. It slows down carbohydrate breakdown and makes your cells more receptive to insulin and therefore more adept at storing glucose.
The laurel wreaths associated with the deity Apollo and the Roman legend Caesar are nothing but bay leaves woven into crowns. They’re taken from the bay laurel tree.
The leaves aren’t just symbols of victory but hold a deeper value for the human body. Here are the compounds that make them worth your while, 1,8-cineole being especially helpful:
Why It’s So Great
1. Supports Digestive Health
Digestion is a complex process. Thankfully, spices and herbs like the aromatic bay leaves offer help in keeping the process glitch-free. That is why they have been part of traditional diets for centuries. Here’s how bay leaf works:
- Slows down the passage of food: The longer food is in your intestines, the more you get out of it in terms of nutrients. Your digestive enzymes need time to do a thorough job. The extra time also allows for the proper absorption of water and electrolytes so that you don’t have to worry about diarrhea.
- Prevents fluid buildup: The leaves also condition your intestinal wall to secrete lesser fluids. This serves as a second check on the level of fluids making it to your bowels. Good news again.
The groups of compounds called flavonoids, alkaloids, and tannates are working behind the scenes here.
2. Balances Blood Glucose
It’s important for everybody to maintain healthy blood glucose level. The catch, though, is that blood glucose is like a pendulum set in motion, extremely responsive to the smallest elements of your diet and lifestyle. Your body could do with a little support from dietary herbs like bay leaf. Here’s how it works.
- Removes glucose from the blood: The leaves help your cellular universe conspire to make this happen, checking the right boxes in your body’s glucose management system. You become more responsive to circulating insulin so that more glucose is stored inside cells and not left out to loiter in the blood.
- Regulates the breakdown of carbs: Carbs are broken down into simple sugars, including glucose. Bay leaf’s compounds 1,8-cineole, α-pinene, and limonene inhibit the enzyme α-glucosidase that is involved in this breakdown.
3. Manages Cholesterol
Let’s first get rid of a mental block: cholesterol by itself is not bad. It is a necessity in the body, being involved in many reactions and serving as a building block for cellular structures. But the balance between different types of cholesterol (LDL and HDL) needs to be right. That’s what bay leaf helps your body with.
- Cholesterol: Going straight for the kill, the leaves inhibit the enzyme HMG CoA reductase involved in cholesterol synthesis. This takes care of any potential spikes in LDL cholesterol and total cholesterol.
- Free radicals: Free radicals are highly reactive molecules that have a special affinity for the LDL cholesterol. They oxidize (modify) LDL to form plaque that clogs up arteries. Bay leaves’ flavonoids and terpenoids scavenge free radicals, while their sesquiterpene lactones inhibit excessive nitric oxide production. Though nitric oxide (also a free radical) is involved in a number of cellular processes, too much of it can be toxic to the body.
4. Limits Inflammation
Inflammation (redness, swelling, pain, and heat) is an immune system reaction to infection, injury, and stress. It subsides after the threat has vanished or the damage has been repaired. But as you age, or if you don’t follow a good diet and lifestyle practices, your innate anti-inflammatory agents do not function as well. Your body can then have some inflammation at all times without you being any the wiser. Simple tweaks in the diet in the form of including anti-inflammatory spices and herbs could help your body fight back better.
- Bay leaves can help reduce inflammation by restricting proinflammatory mediators, which are immune system chemicals dedicated to create an inflammatory uproar.
The leaves suppress the production of TNFα, IL-1b, IL-8, IL-10, and PGE2. The army of compounds making this happen includes eugenol, methyl eugenol, α-pinene, β-pinene, sabinene, and 4-terpineol.
Many plant species have leaves that look and smell like bay leaves. They’re even sold with the label “bay leaves.” So, make sure you’re getting the real deal from the bay laurel tree when trying to tap into the benefits mentioned above.
Importantly, don’t eat the whole leaves. They are not digested by your body and pass through the digestive tract intact. Because the edges are sharp, they can tear tissue as they move along.
The wiser and more appropriate thing to do is add the leaves to your curries or soups as they cook or use them as wraps to steam vegetables or fish, and then remove the leaves before you take a serving. About 2–3 leaves should do the trick. Alternatively, grind the leaves before adding them.
You may also have powdered bay leaves, up to half a teaspoon a day.