Why cilantro (coriander) is good for your health

Researchers at the University of California–Irvine have made an important discovery about cilantro exerts its medicinal effects.

Principal investigator Geoffrey Abbot and colleague Rian Manville have uncovered the molecular action through which cilantro delays the onset of certain seizures in epilepsy and other diseases. The discovery could pave the way for the development of more effective drugs.

Cilantro, or coriander, on a work top in a kitchenAfrica Studio | Shutterstock

The herb cilantro is a member of the Apiaceae family, which is made up of around 3,700 species including celery, parsley and carrots. It contains nutrients that offer various health benefits including anti-cancer effects and improved skin health. The herb is a good source of antioxidants and also helps to cut down sodium intake.

Cilantro has been consumed by humans for thousands of years, but the mechanisms underlying the herb’s beneficial effects had not been known.

As recently reported in FASEB journal, Manville and Abbot have now shown that cilantro is a highly potent activator of the neuronal voltage-gated potassium channel subfamily Q (KCNQ) channel. KCNQ dysfunction can cause severe epileptic encephalopathies that do not respond to current anticonvulsant medications.

We discovered that cilantro, which has been used as a traditional anticonvulsant medicine, activates a class of potassium channels in the brain to reduce seizure activity.”

Geoffrey Abbot, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology and Biophysics

Cilantro as an anti-convulsant

More specifically, the researchers found that a component of cilantro called dodecenal binds to a specific part of the potassium channels to open them, thereby reducing cellular excitability.

“This specific discovery is important as it may lead to more effective use of cilantro as an anti-convulsant, or to modifications of dodecenal to develop safer and more effective anticonvulsant drugs," says Abbott.

On screening cilantro leaf metabolites, the researchers discovered that the long-chain fatty aldehyde (E)-2-dodecenal activated multiple KCNQ channels including the predominant neuronal isoform and the predominant cardiac isoform, which regulate electrical activity in the brain and heart. This dodecanal recapitulated the herb’s anticonvulsant effect and delayed certain chemically-induced seizures.

“The results provide a molecular basis for the therapeutic actions of cilantro and indicate that this ubiquitous culinary herb is surprisingly influential upon clinically important KCNQ channels,” write the researchers.

Herbs such as cilantro have a long history of use as botanical folk medicines, with DNA evidence showing it dates back as far as 48,000 years. Archaeological evidence stretching as far back as 800,000 years also points to a non-food use of plants by Homo erectus.

Often also referred to as coriander, cilantro refers to the leaves of the Cariandrum sativum plant. In traditional medicine, coriander was used to relieve gastrointestinal problems and as an antibiotic, a treatment for appetite or memory loss, an analgesic, and an aphrodisiac. Currently, it is being studied for its antimicrobial, antioxidant, neurological and diabetes-regulating effects.

In addition to the anticonvulsant properties, cilantro also has reported anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, antibacterial, cardioprotective, gastric health and analgesic effects. And, the best part is it tastes good!"

Geoffrey Abbot, Ph.D., Professor of Physiology and Biophysics

What are the health benefits of consuming cilantro?

Research suggests that consuming cilantro may reduce the risk for obesity, diabetes, heart disease and overall mortality, as well as promoting healthy skin and hair, increasing energy levels and decreasing weight.

Cooking with coriander

One study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition suggested that coriander can prevent the formation of heterocyclic amines (HCAs) when meat is cooked at high temperatures. Consumed in high amounts, these chemicals are associated with an increased risk for cancer.

Another study published in the Journal of Food Science found that meats cooked with coriander significantly reduced HCA content.

Pain and inflammation

A growing body of evidence suggest that coriander may have analgesic and anti-inflammatory effects. A 2015 study demonstrated analgesic effects of coriander in mice and showed that a drug that blocks the effect of opioids reduced this analgesic effect, suggesting that coriander may work on the body’s opioid system.

Antioxidant effects

Carotenoids such as beta-carotene and lutein are known for their antioxidant properties and a study published in the journal Plant Foods for Human Nutrition showed that coriander and basil contain the highest levels of these antioxidants. These carotenoids can reduce the risk for a number of health conditions including certain cancers and eye disease.

Another 2015 study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed that cilantro protects skin cells from the damage and aging that ultraviolet light can cause.

Antimicrobial properties

A study published in PLOS One found that a coriander-based essential oil against Candida albicans (thrush) exerted antifungal properties, which prompted the authors to recommend further studies.

Dodecenal has also demonstrated an antibacterial effect against Salmonella, with tests showing it was twice as effective at destroying the bacteria than a widely used antibiotic.

Nutritional content

A quarter of a cup of cilantro, or around 4 grams, contains the following:

  • 2% daily value of vitamin C
  • 5% daily value of vitamin A
  • 1 calorie
  • No fat, protein or carbohydrates

Other cilantro constituents include vitamin K and small amounts of potassium, folate, choline, manganese and the antioxidants lutein, zeaxanthin, beta-carotene and beta-cryptoxanthin.

Journal references:
Sally Robertson

Written by

Sally Robertson

Sally first developed an interest in medical communications when she took on the role of Journal Development Editor for BioMed Central (BMC), after having graduated with a degree in biomedical science from Greenwich University.


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