For the past few months, my family and I have been enjoying the uplifting, sweet, and spicy aromas of some of our favorite genuine essential oils. Due to the fact that the sense of smell can modulate emotions, diffusing these oils is a sneaky and pleasant way for me to positively “biochemically manipulate” any holiday stress responses while promoting our brain health. Furthermore, during these damp, moldy, Northeastern winter days, dispersing these essential oils into our environment also helps to support our immune system while promoting a healthy living environment.
Recently, I’ve been lovin’ on the Christmas Spirit blend which is a combination of cinnamon, orange, and black spruce. As I was dropping some of this oil into my diffuser this afternoon, it hit me that it was time for another essential oil “geek-out” blog. This time, my focus was going to be on Picea mariana (black spruce).
So, after some family holiday bonding time, I sat down with my laptop and escaped into cyberspace with Dr. Google and PubMed. I was very happy with what I found.
(As always, I’ve included abstracts due to FDA regulations. Feel free to read or skim. )
5 Big Reasons Why I’m Wowed By Black Spruce
1. Black Spruce is Packed with Polyphenols and Is a “Novel” Source of Resveratrol
According to a study I dug up on PubMed, black spruce contains a wide variety of compounds that have been shown to modulate health in various ways. Amongst its wellness promoting phenolics and flavonoids (1) is the stillbenoid, resveratrol. This study specifically focused on the antioxidant and inflammatory modulation of black spruce in relation to this compound:
The ethyl acetate soluble fraction obtained from the hot water extract of Picea mariana bark (BS-EAc(f)) has been demonstrated to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. Thus, in the current study, we isolated and characterised major compounds of this fraction by HPLC, NMR and MS analyses. On the whole, 28 compounds were identified, among which were five neolignans, seven lignans, trans-resveratrol, three phenolic acids and four flavonoids. To the best of our knowledge, 2,3-dihydro-3-(4-hydroxy-3-methoxyphenyl)-2-(hydroxymethyl)-(2S,3S)-1,4-benzodioxin-6-propanol, threo and erythro 3-methoxy-8,4′-oxyneolignan-3′,4,7,9,9′-pentol, pallasiin, (±) epi-taxifolin, homovanillyl alcohol, orcinol and 2-[4-(3-hydroxypropyl)-2-methoxyphenoxy]-1,3-propanediol are reported for the first time in the Picea genus. P. mariana dry bark contains at least 104?gg(-1)dw of trans-resveratrol and it could be therefore considered as a new accessible source of this molecule. This study provides novel information about the identity of major compounds present in BS-EAc(f), which is essential for the understanding of the anti-inflammatory and nutraceutical potential of this extract. (2)
Why “Wine” About Resveratrol in Essential Oils?
I wrote in the past how polyphenols can have low bioavailability and how using essential oils may assist with this. So instead of thinking of just grapes and red wine when you think of resveratrol, think “black spruce, baby!” Here’s why:
In the past decade, the small polyphenol resveratrol has received widespread attention as either a potential therapy or as a preventive agent for numerous diseases. Studies using purified enzymes, cultured cells, and laboratory animals have suggested that resveratrol has anti-aging, anti-carcinogenic, anti-inflammatory, and anti-oxidant properties that might be relevant to chronic diseases and/or longevity in humans. Although the supporting research in laboratory models is quite substantial, only recently data has emerged to describe the effects of resveratrol supplementation on physiological responses in humans. The limited number of human clinical trials that are available has largely described various aspects of resveratrol’s safety and bioavailability, reaching a consensus that it is generally well-tolerated, but have poor bioavailability. Very few published human studies have explored the ability of resveratrol to achieve the physiological benefits that have been observed in laboratory models, although many clinical trials have recently been initiated. This review aims to examine the current state of knowledge on the effects of resveratrol on humans and to utilize this information to develop further guidelines for the implementation of human clinical trials. (3)
Due to this issue of absortpion, resveratrol’s role beyond in vitro studies and animal models was questioned. (4-5) However, recently more research is demonstrating that including resveratrol in our diet and supplement regime may be more than just a good idea. (4, 6-8) For example, I found studies supporting its benefits in cardiovascular health (4) and even one study that suggested it may be a potential modulator in pancreatic cancer cells. (6) Finally, I was impressed with several human clinical trials that positively effected several markers in type 2 diabetics. (7-8)
So, what if we combined eating resveratrol with rubbing black spruce on our bodies? Can you imagine the potential!?
2. Black Spruce and Skin Health
You may think of lavender first regarding skin health and essential oils, but you may want to consider black spruce. It has been studied for its ability to modulate mechanisms involved in psoriasis vulgaris using human keratinocytes (skin cells) (9-10):
Picea mariana ((Miller) Britton, Sterns, and Poggenburg; Pinaceae) bark has been traditionally used by North American natives for treating topical inflammations. It has been also suggested to improve various inflammatory skin disorders like Psoriasis vulgaris. Extracts from this bark storage protein contain polyphenolic compounds which have well-known antiinflammatory activities. Based on the capacity of polyphenolic compounds to modulate functions of normal human keratinocytes, this study was set up to decipher the mechanisms of action of a chemically characterized polyphenolic extract from Picea mariana bark (BS-EAcf) on lesional keratinocytes of skin with psoriasis vulgaris, a disease driven by the immune system in which TNF-a plays a significant role.
MATERIALS AND METHODS: BS-EAcf corresponds to the ethyl acetate soluble fraction from the hot water extract of Picea mariana bark. BS-EAcf effects were evaluated in normal human (NHK) and psoriatic (PK) keratinocytes stimulated by TNF-a. Cell viability was assessed by lactate deshydrogenase release and propidium iodide (PI) staining. The mechanisms of action of BS-EAcf in keratinocytes were investigated by flow cytometry, ELISAs, RT-PCR and western blot analyses.
RESULTS: PK exhibited a higher response to TNF-a than NHK regarding the ICAM-1 expression and the production of NO, IL-6, IL-8, fractalkine and PGE2, whereas BS-EAcf significantly inhibited this TNF-?-induced increase at concentrations without causing keratinocyte toxicity. Additionally, this extract significantly inhibited the TNF-a-induced release of elafin and VEGF by PK and NHK. Since TNF-a activation of most of these factors is dependent on the NF-?B pathway, this latter was studied in TNF-a-activated PK. BS-EAcf inhibited the TNF-a-induced phosphorylation and degradation of total InBa as well as phosphorylation of NF-KB p65.
CONCLUSIONS: The ethyl acetate fraction from Picea mariana bark extract showed inhibitory effects of cytokines, chemokines, adhesion molecules, nitric oxide and prostaglandins produced by keratinocytes under TNF-a activation through down-regulating the NF-KB pathway. This study demontrated that this extract could be a potential antiinflammatory agent capable of improving psoriatic skin. (9)
Lactate deshydrogenase is found in body tissues, such as blood cells and heart muscle and released during tissue damage, making it a marker of common injuries and disease.
Propidium iodine is a dye to quantitatively assess DNA content.
NHK: normal human keratinocytes
3. EPIGENETIC Overload- Studies Demonstrate the Wide Array of Biological Modulation of “Spruce Genes”
In my research, I found some interesting classification studies on the genetics of several spruce species. (11-12) For example, black spruce has biological functions and cellular properties that are known to modulate various biochemical pathways including those involved in metal binding, the stress response, anti-oxidant properties, and other protective mechanisms. The abstract that summarizes this is below:
Gene Ontology (GO) results were assigned to describe the functional distribution within the EST unique sequences derived from P. mariana needle tissue (Figures 3A and B; Additional file 1: Table S1). A total of 533 unique sequences were associated with at least one molecular function term and 572 sequences were associated with at least one biological process term (Figures 3A and B; Additional file 1: Table S1). Molecular function assignment revealed that oxidoreductase activity, transferase activity, ion binding and nucleic acid/nucleotide binding accounted for the largest portion of the P. mariana unique genes identified (~47% combined). Among the ion binding proteins, the majority were small metal ion binding proteins such as metallotheonins, zinc and calcium binding proteins. These genes are involved in stress response  and protect cells from toxic metal and assist in metal transport [42,43]. Metallothioneins are able to sequester excess amounts of metal ions, and participate in homeostasis and antioxidant functions . Various nucleic acid binding proteins were also targeted with high frequency as they are important components of transcriptional machinery of cells . Previous study involving Quercus spp. contigs also reported nucleotide binding as abundant GO term in terms of molecular function . Other significant categories included hydrolase activity, small molecule binding and organic cyclic compound binding (~10% each) (Figure 3A). It is worth noting that although the EST number in our study is relatively small, genes involved in 36 molecular functions could be identified.
4. Stilbenes in Black Spruce May Inhibit Fungus
Various other stilbenes present in black spruce (13) have been studied to inhibit fungal growth in vitro (14):
Stilbenes are dibenzyl polyphenolic compounds produced in several unrelated plant families that appear to protect against various biotic and abiotic stresses. Stilbene biosynthesis has been well described in economically important plants, such as grape (Vitis vinifera), peanut (Arachis hypogaea), and pine (Pinus species). However, very little is known about the biosynthesis and ecological role of stilbenes in spruce (Picea), an important gymnosperm tree genus in temperate and boreal forests. To investigate the biosynthesis of stilbenes in spruce, we identified two similar stilbene synthase (STS) genes in Norway spruce (Picea abies), PaSTS1 and PaSTS2, which had orthologs with high sequence identity in sitka (Picea sitchensis) and white (Picea glauca) spruce. Despite the conservation of STS sequences in these three spruce species, they differed substantially from angiosperm STSs. Several types of in vitro and in vivo assays revealed that the P. abies STSs catalyze the condensation of p-coumaroyl-coenzyme A and three molecules of malonyl-coenzyme A to yield the trihydroxystilbene resveratrol but do not directly form the dominant spruce stilbenes, which are tetrahydroxylated. However, in transgenic Norway spruce overexpressing PaSTS1, significantly higher amounts of the tetrahydroxystilbene glycosides, astringin and isorhapontin, were produced. This result suggests that the first step of stilbene biosynthesis in spruce is the formation of resveratrol, which is further modified by hydroxylation, O-methylation, and O-glucosylation to yield astringin and isorhapontin. Inoculating spruce with fungal mycelium increased STS transcript abundance and tetrahydroxystilbene glycoside production. Extracts from STS-overexpressing lines significantly inhibited fungal growth in vitro compared with extracts from control lines, suggesting that spruce stilbenes have a role in antifungal defense. (14)
5. Move Over Tea-Black Spruce Contains Tannins Too (15)
Although certain forms of tannins can be toxic, most are known for modulating the immune system , inhibiting microbial growth, and providing antioxidant protection. Black spruce has tannins too and look at what they can do:
ABSTRACT Tannins (commonly referred to as tannic acid) are water-soluble polyphenols that are present in many plant foods. They have been reported to be responsible for decreases in feed intake, growth rate, feed efficiency, net metabolizable energy, and protein digestibility in experimental animals. Therefore, foods rich in tannins are considered to be of low nutritional value. However, recent findings indicate that the major effect of tannins was not due to their inhibition on food consumption or digestion but rather the decreased efficiency in converting the absorbed nutrients to new body substances. Incidences of certain cancers, such as esophageal cancer, have been reported to be related to consumption of tannins-rich foods such as betel nuts and herbal teas, suggesting that tannins might be carcinogenic. However, other reports indicated that the carcinogenic activity of tannins might be related to components associated with tannins rather than tannins themselves. Interestingly, many reports indicated negative association between tea consumption and incidences of cancers. Tea polyphenols and many tannin components were suggested to be anticarcinogenic. Many tannin molecules have also been shown to reduce the mutagenic activity of a number of mutagens. Many carcinogens and/or mutagens produce oxygen-free radicals for interaction with cellular macromolecules. The anticarcinogenic and antimutagenic potentials of tannins may be related to their antioxidative property, which is important in protecting cellular oxidative damage, including lipid peroxidation. The generation of superoxide radicals was reported to be inhibited by tannins and related compounds. The antimicrobial activities of tannins are well documented. The growth of many fungi, yeasts, bacteria, and viruses was inhibited by tannins. We have also found that tannic acid and propyl gallate, but not gallic acid, were inhibitory to foodborne bacteria, aquatic bacteria, and off-flavor-producing microorganisms. Their antimicrobial properties seemed to be associated with the hydrolysis of ester linkage between gallic acid and polyols hydrolyzed after ripening of many edible fruits. Tannins in these fruits thus serve as a natural defense mechanism against microbial infections. The antimicrobial property of tannic acid can also be used in food processing to increase the shelf-life of certain foods, such as catfish fillets. Tannins have also been reported to exert other physiological effects, such as to accelerate blood clotting, reduce blood pressure, decrease the serum lipid level, produce liver necrosis, and modulate immunoresponses. The dosage and kind of tannins are critical to these effects. The aim of this review is to summarize and analyze the vast and sometimes conflicting literature on tannins and to provide as accurately as possible the needed information for assessment of the overall effects of tannins on human health. (16)
So, ‘tis many reasons to celebrate the holiday season with black spruce. Now that you know that inhaling and rubbing in black spruce could provide you with all the benefits of resveratrol and tannins, and can modulate biochemical pathways involved in a variety of functions, are you in the holiday spirit as much as I am?
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Disclaimer: This information is applicable ONLY for therapeutic, Grade A essential oils. This information DOES NOT apply to essential oils that have not been AFNOR and ISO standardized. There is no quality control in the United States and oils labeled as “100% pure” need only contain 5% of the actual oil. The rest of the bottle can be filled with fillers and sometimes toxic ingredients that can irritate the skin. This information is for information purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or prescribe for any illness.
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(9) Picea mariana polyphenolic extract inhibits phlogogenic mediators produced by TNF-?-activated psoriatic keratinocytes: Impact on NF-?B pathway. J Ethnopharmacol. 2014;151(1):265-78. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2013.10.034. Epub 2013 Nov 1.
(10) Promising New Treatments for Psoriasis.Scientific World Journal. 2013; 2013: 980419. Published online Jul 1, 2013. doi: 10.1155/2013/980419
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(12) Highly Informative Single-Copy Nuclear Microsatellite DNA Markers Developed Using an AFLP-SSR Approach in Black Spruce (Picea mariana) and Red Spruce (P. rubens). PLoS One. 2014; 9(8): e103789. Published online Aug 15, 2014. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0103789
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