The Vanilla Orchid
The vanilla plant belongs to the orchid family. Before the raw vanilla beans are processed, they smell neutral, but after processing, they smell uniquely sweet. The vanilla bean has a distinct sweet smell that makes it possible to use less sugar when adding it to recipes. The sweetness isn't like the smell of sugar; it's more of an inviting, soft sweetness. This unique smell earned vanilla its important role as a popular ingredient in desserts(1-4).
Several cheap alternatives to real vanilla exist, and they include the plant Vanilla pompona. Vaneilla planifola, on the other hand, is considered one of the most expensive spices in the world and tends to be the richest-smelling vanilla plant (5).
The Medicinal Uses of Vanilla
People often think of vanilla as the flavoring for ice cream, but most vanilla flavouring is synthetic. On the other hand, real vanilla has many traditional medicinal uses and has been demonstrated to have a positive effect on several chronic diseases (long-term illnesses).
To name a few of its benefits, real vanilla has some anti-inflammatory properties and has been used to help with weight loss by making them crave less sugar. This is because the smell of vanilla makes food smell sweeter. Studies suggest that vanilla possesses some blood-sugar and insulin-regulating properties (6).
Pure vanilla extract and vanilla oil are added to topical treatments not only to make them smell better but also because vanilla pods are a natural source of the ingredient vanillic acid. Vanillic acid is added to beauty products because it is a strong antioxidant that can be put on the skin and has been shown to penetrate the skin and improve the condition of aging skin. Studies show that vanillic acid might help naturally smooth fine lines. Vanilla extract also has antibacterial properties that could give the skin an extra layer of protection (7-8).
Animal studies demonstrate the following possible benefits of vanillin:
- Emotional stress reliever
- Effective pain reliever
- High blood pressure support
- Supportive of healthy cholesterol levels
- High blood glucose support
- Antibacterial benefits
- Supported of sexual desire (men)
- Improver of heart health
- Supporter of good health (1-2)
Are All Natural Vanilla Extracts the Same?
Vanilla planifolia or Vanilla fragrans (family Orchidaceae) usually come from Mexico. They are grown in many places in the world, but Indonesia and Madagascar are two of the biggest producers. Additionally, Vanilla tahitensis and Vanilla pompona are also essential species for vanilla production. The quality and use of vanilla products made from these species vary. For example, the Vanilla pompona bean isn't as high in quality and is mostly used in perfumes. The smell of Vanilla planifolia and Vanilla tahitensis, on the other hand, is stronger and more pleasant. Cheaper ingredients are used to make synthetic vanilla extract (1,10).
Does Vanilla Get Cross into the Bloodstream?
Vanillic acid can be found in the serum 5 minutes after exposure. This demonstrates that at least some of the constituents of Vanilla do cross into the bloodstream.
What are the Health Benefits of Vanilla?
Exposure to the aroma of vanilla before and during regular blood draws calmed signs of distress in preterm and full-term human infants without changing heart rate or blood oxygen saturation. In a similar way, the calming effect of vanillin was seen to make newborns calmer (11).
There are also adult studies that demonstrate the positive effects of the aroma of vanilla on mental health. Most of the studies point towards the calming, anti-anxiety effects of the plant (12).
Sleep Apnea Support
Sleep apnea is a condition in which breathing is disrupted during sleep and is common in premature babies. Exposure to vanillin as an olfactory stimulant decreased the number of apneas and kept the heart rate from slowing down (slow heart rate). Vanilla's health effects are directly linked to how sweet it smells. Scientists hypothesize that the smell of vanilla stimulates the olfactory nerve (nerve responsible for the sense of smell) and increases blood flow to the orbitofrontal cortex (11-12).
Adults can also develop sleep apnea for different reasons than babies do. Researchers found that the smell of vanillin changed how healthy adults breathed while they slept. The change in sleeping patterns could mean that vanilla essence could also be a good way to support adults with sleep apnea (13).
Pain Relief & Anti-inflammation
In animal models of pain, doses of vanilla decreased inflammation and pain significantly. The pathway to pain relief seemed be directly linked to the activation of opioid receptors.
Opioid receptors are a type of protein that can be found in the brain, spinal cord, and gut. Opioids, which are a type of drug that includes both natural and man-made substances, work through these receptors to have their effects. When opioids attach to these receptors, they stimulate the nervous system. This makes the pain to reduce in intensity and inflammation to go down. Opioid receptors also help control how we feel and are thought to be involved in addiction (14,15).
The Effects of Vanilla’s Active Compound’s on Pain (16)
- Activating opioid receptors
- Anti-oxidant action
- Reduction of cytokines (body signals of inflammation)
- Direct alterations in the serotonin and adrenaline pathways
Anxiety & Depression
Vanilla has a strong effect on the nervous system. It is also shown to have few side effects while showing effectiveness as directly impacting the function of neurotransmitters. Scientists also speculate that vanillin's ability to fight free radicals may play a direct role in keeping this effect going (17).
Animal models showed that treating animals with vanillin decreased depressive symptoms. When higher doses of vanillin were compared to standard drugs, they were found to offer efficacy comparable to fluoxetine (18).
The active constituents of vanilla are speculated to be vanillin and venlafaxine. Several experiments demonstrate that both vanillin and venlafaxine significantly calm the brains of stressed animals. Higher levels of glutathione, nitric oxide, and serotonin were observed in the animals exposed to vanillin. The changes resulted in less stressed and less depressed animals (19).
An animal study, found that vanillin consuption was linked to less ischemia, a condition in which the heart doesn't get enough blood. Inflammation and oxidative stress were also found to be lessened by vanillin. The phenolic acid (type of chemical) in vanillin is thought to be responsible for these effects. Even though more research needs to be done on humans to confirm these results, the results of this study suggest that vanillin may be an ingredient that helps keep the heart healthy.
Libido, Hormones and Sexual Desire
Rumours have long circulated about the aphrodisiac effect of vanillin. In one study, men were asked to rate how attractive women with different scents were. Men were found to be more sexually attrackted to women who used vanilla-sented perfumes. Another study found that when men were exposed to the smell of vanilla, blood flow to their genital areas increased. This increase in blood flow is thought to be the reason why the vanilla bean makes people feel more sexually aroused (20-22).
Researchers have also found that vanilla extract can help raise the male sex hormone testosterone. Though testosterone is best known for how it affects sex drive, it also has a big impact on health as a whole. Low levels of testosterone have been linked to a number of health problems, such as tiredness, depression, and muscle loss. Even though more research needs to be done to confirm these results, vanilla extract may be a simple and natural way to help boost testosterone levels and improve overall health (22).
General, Unexpected Benefits Linked to Vanillin
- Some preliminary studies demonstrate the capacity of vanillin to prevent the blood-brain barrier from breaking down (23).
- The levels of the inflammatory cytokines interleukin 6 and tumour necrosis factor in the mice's plasma and liver also went down after they consumed vanillin (23).
- Data suggests that vanillin may also alter the populations of gut microbiota that are linked to obesity (24).
- Animal study models show that the animals who were given vanillic acid had lower blood sugar, insulin, triglycerides, and free fatty acids than the control group. They also had less insulin resistance and lower blood pressure (24).
- In mouse and rat models, both vanillin and vanillic acid were shown to stop chemically and mechanically caused tissue damage (25).