The most revered medicinal berry in the entire subcontinent of India—Amla berry, or Emblica officinalis—is said to come from the first tree to appear on earth, manifested out of the tears of Brahma while he was meditating.
Folk tales often have a ring of truth, and this extraordinary legend could be seen as a way of conveying the remarkably varied, potent, broad-spectrum healing powers of the Amla berry, which has been called sarvadosha hara, remover of all diseases. This super berry is a centrepiece of the great tradition of Ayurvedic medicine, but is also utilised in Siddha, Unani, Tibetan, Sri Lankan, and Chinese medicine  “Amla is the most important medicinal plant in the Indian traditional system of medicine,” says expert Manjeshwar Shrinath Baliga, PhD, an author of nearly sixty peer-reviewed published studies of medicinal plants, and a professor at Father Muller Medical College in India. “Its fruits possess multiple benefits and are of immense use in folk medicine. And yet this sour, tasty berry, about the size of a plum, is still largely unknown outside the Indian subcontinent.”
Baliga goes on to say, in his review of the literature, “In various folk medicines, the fruits, which are astringent, are useful in treating ophthalmic problems, dyspepsia, gastritis, hyperacidity, constipation, colitis, haemorrhoids, haematuria, menorrhagia, anaemia, diabetes, cough, asthma, osteoporosis, weakness and fatigue.”2
New research is backing up the folk medicine: peer review studies document Amla’s superb antioxidant ability, and sophisticated technologies are revealing the potency of its novel blend of molecules—such as gallic acid esters and a molecule similar to ascorbic acid.Several comprehensive reviews have been published in the last few years, and over 30 peer-review studies of Emblica officinalis were published in 2011 alone. The newest studies document Amla berry’s helpful role in conditions ranging from diabetes to cancer, liver disease, circulatory problems, ulcers, general debility and anaemia. What follows is a review of the most current and cutting-edge findings on the berry’s antioxidant and disease-fighting capacities, as well as a look at new research on the molecules responsible for its potency.
An Unparalleled Antioxidant and Super Berry
Emblica officinalis is a superb antioxidant. It belongs in the pantheon of rare super berries, and its antioxidant abilities create a deep foundation for its unique healing properties.
Reports suggest that it contains a wide range of tannins, alkaloids, and phenolic compounds, all with the ability to quench a wide range of reactive oxygen species.2 As for its unique array of potent healing molecules, get ready for a long list of names (some familiar, some mind-numbingly unpronounceable); according to Baliga, the active molecules include gallic acid, ellagic acid, quercetin, chebulinic acid, chebulagic acid, emblicanin A, emblicanin B, punigluconin, pedunculagin, citric acid, ellagotannin, trigallayl glucose, pectin, 1-Ogalloyl-b-D-glucose, 3,6-di-O-galloyl-D-glucose, chebulagic acid, corilagin, 1,6-di-O-galloyl-b-D-glucose, 3 ethylgallic acid and isostrictiniin, kaempferol 3 O-a-L rhamnopyranoside and kaempferol 3 O-a-L rhamnopyranoside.2
In screening tests, Amla berry emerges as an incredibly potent antioxidant. In one study, extracts of a thousand different herbs were screened—using sophisticated electron spin technology—and Amla berry was one of only four chosen for both its superoxide radical scavenging activity and heat resistance. Another study of three fruit extracts analysed their free-radical scavenging activity of hydroxyl, superoxide, nitric oxide, peroxynitrite, hypochlorous acid and other active, oxidative, damaging molecules. Though individual plants varied in their specific actions on specific molecules, overall, the authors note, all three “fruit extracts showed quite good efficacy in their antioxidant and radical scavenging abilities.” Yet another study of 30 different Thai medicinal plants traditionally used for diabetes found that five had strong antioxidant properties, and of those five, Amla berry had the strongest antioxidant activity and the highest total polyphenol and tannin content.
Amla berry is a superb antioxidant. It belongs in the pantheon of rare super berries, and its antioxidant abilities create a deep foundation for its unique healing properties.
The extract also excels at protecting livers from oxidative damage. Oxidative stress is considered an underlying mechanism responsible for alcohol-induced liver injury. When laboratory animals were administered enough alcohol for sixty days to significantly increase oxidation of fats in the liver, and to significantly lower levels of glutathione as well as superoxide dismutase, Amla berry alleviated the damage and restored the antioxidant levels. The researchers concluded that the tannoid, flavanoid, and nitric-oxide scavenging molecules in Amla berry “may offer protection against free radical mediated oxidative stress in…alcohol-induced liver injury.”8 Their work follows a similar study in 2010, once again administering laboratory animals alcohol for sixty days, leading to “significantly higher total bilirubin, creatinine, and abnormalities in lipid and lipoproteins.” Amla berry significantly modulated plasma lipids and lipoprotein patterns and also decreased total bilirubin and creatinine levels. Once again, the researchers suggest the results are due to Amla’s antioxidant power. And yet another study in 2009 proved Amla’s efficacy in liver damage: Amla berry given to “alcoholic” laboratory animals protected the liver, slowing free radical damage to lipids, increasing antioxidant enzymes and generally protecting the animals against alcohol-induced damage.
Like the liver, the skin is protected by Amla berry, because antioxidants quench the free-radical damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation. When researchers exposed skin cells called fibroblasts to ultraviolet light, they found that an extract of the berry protected pro-collagen 1 (a precursor to collagen in skin). In a 2011 study, Amla berry extract protected against ultraviolet-B radiation’s damaging impact as well. This study looked at skin cells in vitro, and found Amla berry four times as protective as ascorbic acid; this suggests the topical benefit of Amla. The researchers concluded that the berry extract has “promising cosmeceutical benefits against photoaging.” In a study on wound healing, applying Amla berry extract speeded wound healing, and the researchers found higher levels of ascorbic acid, alpha-tocopherol, reduced glutathione, superoxide dismutase, catalase, and glutathione peroxidase in the tissue at the wound site.
In other studies, Amla berry protected against arsenic-induced damage, radiation damage, and “genotoxicity”(damage to genes) induced by a potent carcinogen known as DMBA. In the latter case, Amla berry extract protected laboratory animals against bone marrow micronuclei—rare changes that indicate chromosome damage.1 According to K.H. Khan, PhD, of the School of Biotechnology, Chemical and Biomedical Engineering at VIT University in India, “the protection…may be due to its antioxidant capacity and through its modulatory effect on hepatic activating and detoxifying enzymes.”1 In his review article, Khan also mentions the use of Amla berry extract to reduce urea nitrogen and serum creatinine in aging laboratory animals. His conclusion: “Amla ameliorates oxidative stress from aging.” He cites another study on the aorta of aging laboratory animals, where an extract of the berry inhibited the master mediator of inflammation, NF-kappaB. Other studies, he notes, showed that the berry increased the liver’s antioxidant system.1
Amla berry also protects against radiation damage. Mice were given a traditional Ayurvedic mix of three herbs called Triphala, which includes Amla berry, for seven days, and then exposed to whole body gamma-irradiation. The herbal mixture protected them “through inhibition of oxidative damage in cells and organs.” And in vitro, in the Petri dish, the breaking of strands of DNA by gamma-radiation was inhibited by Triphala as well.1
The Case of the Vanishing Vitamin C
Does Amla berry contain high amounts of ascorbic acid—perhaps four times as much as an orange—and does that ascorbic acid account for much of its antioxidant activity? Or are other compounds responsible for its potency and has the Vitamin C content been mistakenly exaggerated?
Amla berry protects against DNA damage from the potent toxin aflatoxin B1 as well as damage from heavy metals including cadmium, aluminum, cesium chloride and excess chromium.
For many years, it was thought that high amounts of ascorbic acid were a keystone of Amla berry’s antioxidant power. The fruit was called Mother Nature’s best source of Vitamin C. Now that is being debated, and perhaps that debate makes sense, because Vitamin C alone would not account for this plant’s efficacy. It turns out that plant preparation may make a big difference in the amount of ascorbic acid available: a study in 2006 found that when the berry was processed according to a traditional Ayurvedic method, where “the therapeutic potential of the plant is enhanced by treating the main herb with its own juice”, the ascorbic acid content tripled, and accounted for as much as 45-70% of the plant’s antioxidant activity.
Even in its most enhanced state, however, “the antioxidant activities exhibited by Emblica officinalis extract are superior to those of ascorbic acid itself,” according to a much discussed 2009 study. Researchers utilised cutting-edge technology to determine a few of the key antioxidants in this berry’s arsenal. They made a novel discovery: the ascorbic acid is often bound to other antioxidant acids—such as gallic acids—and when extracted they are still bound together. Previous studies may have therefore miscalculated the total amount of ascorbic acid. In addition, the berry contains mucic acid lactone, an antioxidant compound that is very similar to ascorbic acid. The authors conclude: “For several decades this fruit has been claimed to be a rich source of ascorbic acid…during our attempts to quantify the ascorbic acid with newly developed methods, we found that…[it],..was below the quantifiable limits…the trace amounts of free ascorbic acid in E. officinalis fruit extract suggests that the antioxidant effects…are due to gallic acid esters.”17
And yet, the jury is still out. A 2011 study found both ascorbic acid and ellagic acid: “Liquid chromatography-mass spectroscopy (LC-MS) analysis revealed that methanol extract of…[Emblica officinalis]…contains ellagic acid and ascorbic acid as the major compound respectively.” Another study found predominantly ellagic and gallic acids. Yet another study looked at the nitric-oxide scavenging abilities of Amla berry, and found that gallic acid was the major compound in an ethyl acetate extract of the berry.
Ultimately, says Baliga, many researchers “believe it is not exclusively Vitamin C that is responsible for the myriad benefits. Other molecules are also important.”3 In any case, the fruit appears to have a range of potent antioxidant molecules, including Vitamin C, flavonoids, tannins and gallic acids.
Protection Against Diabetes and Depression
Amla berry is cardio protective in diabetes, as well as protective of kidney function. In a 2011 study, diabetes was induced in laboratory animals, and those treated with Amla berry extract did not have an increase in blood glucose or disturbed lipid profiles. Antioxidant levels in the heart were protected. In another 2011 study, 13 uraemic patients with diabetes (these are patients with kidney disease and diabetes) were screened after receiving a mixture of herbs including Amla berry extract, for three months. The researchers conclude: “We found that [this] mixture…for 3 months significantly improved antioxidant defences as well as diabetic and atherogenic indices in uraemic patients with diabetes.” Another study found that Amla berry reduced key enzymes linked to Type 2 diabetes. And finally, Amla berry extract, along with two other herbs in the well known Ayurvedic remedy called Triphala, lowered blood sugar in diabetic laboratory animals within four hours of administration. Daily administration of the extract produced a sustained effect. The extract may also exert an antidepressant effect. In a test where mice were forced to swim, the extract was comparable to fluoxetine and phenelzine, two popular antidepressants. When drugs that block antidepressant activity (by binding to key receptor sites) were given to the mice, the extract was ineffective in enhancing swimming activity. The researchers speculate that “aqueous extract of E. officinalis showed antidepressant-like activity probably by inhibiting MAO-A and GABA; and also due to its antioxidant activity.”
Is Amla Berry Anti-Mutagenic and Anti-Neoplastic?
“Compelling preclinical studies with both in-vitro and in-vivo systems have shown that Amla possesses anticancer, chemopreventive, cytoprotective, and radioprotective effects,” writes Dr. Baliga. “Studies have shown that administering Amla reduces the cytotoxic effects of proven carcinogens.”2
Compelling preclinical studies with both in-vitro and in-vivo systems have shown that Amla possesses anticancer, chemopreventive, cytoprotective, and radioprotective effects. Studies have shown that administering Amla reduces the cytotoxic effects of proven carcinogens.
A number of studies demonstrate that Amla berry inhibits cancer cell growth. The extract was antiproliferative in numerous human tumour cell lines. It caused cell death in two cancer cell lines in another study. A 2010 study showed that Amla berry extract inhibited the growth of lung, liver, cervical, breast, ovarian and colorectal cancer cells in vitro—yet was not toxic to normal lung cell lines. A 2007 study found the same lack of toxicity in healthy hamster ovarian cells. A 2004 study found the extract inhibited proliferation of two breast cancer cell lines, and the extract significantly reduced tumours in mice with lymphoma. Tannins in Amla berry are cytotoxic to human oral squamous cell cancer lines, as well as to salivary gland tumour cell lines, but nontoxic to healthy fibroblasts from gingival (gum) tissue.2
A fascinating 2009 study found that a powerful compound in Amla berry, known as pyrogallol, had a potent antiproliferative effect on human lung cancer cell lines. Mouse studies confirmed the effect; when the mice were injected with pyrogallol, tumours shrunk. The authors conclude: “Taken in vitro and in vivo studies together, these results suggest that pyrogallol can be developed as a promising anti-lung cancer drug particular for the non-small cell lung cancer.” The compound also inhibited four other human tumour cell lines in a study of Amla berry and other herbs; Amla berry proved the most potent.
Liver cancer may be responsive to Amla berry extract, according to a 1999 study. Liver cancer was induced in 100% of laboratory animals with a toxin, and then several extracts, including Amla berry, were administered. The anti-cancer activity of the extracts was evaluated by monitoring tumour incidence, levels of carcinogen metabolising enzymes, liver cancer markers and liver injury markers. The extracts significantly reduced these markers and enzymes, suggesting “that these extracts offered protection against chemical carcinogenesis.”
How might Amla berry work to help protect against cancer? Baliga notes that it is proven to be a free radical scavenger, to increase glutathione S-transferase, decrease excessive Phase 1 liver enzymes (which can convert chemicals into carcinogens), decrease lipid peroxidation, and is anti-inflammatory, anti-mutagenic, and immunomodulatory. Research has shown that Amla berry protects against DNA damage from various carcinogens, including the potent toxin aflatoxin B1, as well as DNA damage from heavy metals including cadmium, aluminum, cesium chloride and excess chromium.2
“Cell invasion is one of the fundamental processes required during tumour progression,” writes Baliga. He cites a 2009 study in which Amla berry extract prevented invasion of cancerous cells in vitro, and another study in which gallic acid inhibits stomach adenocarcinoma cell migration. The last two decades of work, says Baliga, “have clearly shown that Amla possesses antineoplastic…effects….and countless possibilities for investigation still remain.”2
 Khan, KH. Roles of Emlibca officinalis in Medicine – A review. Botany Research International 2(4): 218-228, 2009.
 Personal email communication with Dr. Shinrath Baliga, PhD.
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 Sumitra M, Manikandan P, Gayathri VS, Mahendran P, Suguna L. Emblica officinalis exerts wound healing action through up-regulation of collagen and extracellular signal-regulated kinases(ERK1/2).Wound Repair Regen. 2009 Jan-Feb;17(1):99-107.PMID: 19152656
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 Chemical and antioxidant evaluation of Indian gooseberry(Emblica officinalis Gaertn., syn. Phyllanthus emblica L.) supplements. Poltanov EA, Shikov AN, Dorman HJ, Pozharitskaya ON, Makarov VG, Tikhonov VP, Hiltunen R. PMID: 19172666
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