Nutrient in birch bark may reduce type 2 diabetes risk

Birch bark may not be a staple of many people's diets. However, a new study from Chinese researchers has found that a nutrient in it may be able to improve metabolic function and limit the risk of type 2 diabetes.

The nutrient at the center of the study, which was published in the journal Cell Metabolism, is called betulin. It has been used as an herbal remedy for a wide range of conditions going back hundreds of years. American Indians used the nutrient to cure a number of skin irritation. More recently scientists from the Belarussian Research Institute for Epidemiology and Microbiology found that betulin is an effective antiviral compound that fights many infections, including herpes simplex.

For the current study, researchers from the Shanghai Institute for Biological Sciences found that betulin works by boosting the activity of sterol regulatory element-binding proteins, which has been shown to play an important role in the processing of cholesterol and fatty acids.

The researchers observed that mice that were given supplements containing betulin were able to reduce their cholesterol levels, cut their obesity risk and improve insulin sensitivity. These three factors contributed to a lower chance of developing type 2 diabetes.

Additionally, when compared to mice that were given the cholesterol lowering medications statins, the mice given betulin supplements showed similar results.

While the researchers said that more studies need to be conducted to ensure the safety of taking supplements containing the nutrient, they are cautiously optimistic about betulin's ability to reduce metabolic risk factors.

"We identify a leading compound," said Bao-Liang Song, who led the study. "Betulin has several major metabolic effects."
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