The doctor paused. “Well, I’m also an Ayurvedic practitioner,” he said. “Rosie O’Donnell is one of my best clients. I think you could really benefit from a 30-day blood cleanse with neem.” He took out a pen and notecard, onto which he scrawled the words “neem tablets — 30 days — The Vitamin Shoppe.” He handed it to me. “Don’t forget: neem. To cleanse the blood,” he repeated before walking out. I left feeling perplexed. I had no idea what the hell neem was, and could not for the life of me understand how Rosie O’Donnell and blood cleanses had gotten involved in my routine dermatologist appointment.
Neem, as the internet informed me, is a tree. It's also the subject of a report titled Neem: A Tree for Solving Global Problems
published by the National Academy of Sciences in 1992. Neem is native to India and South Asia, where its products have been used for their medicinal properties in the Ayurvedic tradition for thousands of years. According to those schools of thought, it’s an effective antifungal, antibacterial, and disinfectant. It's also believed to improve liver function, balance blood sugar, and treat skin diseases, particularly eczema and psoriasis, though thousands of all-caps Amazon reviews attest to supposedly transformative experiences after taking neem-leaf tablets to treat cystic acne. Convinced that a good blood cleanse would cure me of all my ills, I ordered a family-size bottle of capsules comprised of neem leaves, soft twigs, and flowers.
I’m no stranger to a variety of pills and supplements, but I still found the neem tablets to be a little more off-putting than I would have liked. For one thing, they’re sizable — about the size of the average human thumbnail, I’d say — and the clear gelatin capsule means you get a clear view of what’s inside. And what's inside is crushed-up leaves. Then, there’s the taste, which is comparable to that of omega-3 fish-oil pills, which, coincidentally, is the reason I stopped taking fish-oil pills. Still, I soldiered on, holding my nose and trying not to choke. I took one of the tablets each day with food and water for 30 days as recommended, then
consulted a physician.
“‘Blood cleanse’ is an old term given to herbs that are typically used to clear skin conditions,” explained Daniela Turley
, a licensed medical herbalist. “Realistically, though, herbs that are given this term are likely to work through multiple means. Most ‘blood purifiers’ have anti-inflammatory properties, stimulate the liver and gallbladder, fight off bad bacteria and fungus in the gut, and increase digestive enzyme production.” Of neem in particular, Turley said that while she personally doesn’t use it to treat acne — in fact, she’s used the oil as a topical antiseptic and to treat her houseplants for funguses — it does have a traditional use in addressing skin conditions.
“Neem is such a rich source of bioactive compounds,” dermatologist Kenneth Howe
, MD, told me. “It seems to have a lot of effects as an anti-inflammatory and antibiotic, which could potentially help acne a lot.”
But as for prescribing herbal treatments to his patients with skin disorders, Dr. Howe said, “I’m very interested in the use of Ayurvedic therapy for acne. If my patients are interested in it, I’ll refer them to an Ayurvedic practitioner. I don’t do it myself, because you can’t just take one herb and administer it in a Western way, say, as a single pill. They really need to be used in context.”