Humans have long held a fascination with pine trees and their roles in the natural world around us. They are mysterious, beautiful, and ancient trees that can live to be hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years old.
There are around 125 different pine species that have been identified. Among them are some of the longest-living trees and organisms in the world.
In fact, some trees from the Bristlecone Pine species (Pinus longaeva) have can live to be around 5,000 years old.
And while the human genome has over three billion base pairs, the Loblolly pine species has been shown to have 22 billion base pairs—more than seven times the amount of genetic material in us humans.
History of Pine Needle Benefits and Compounds
Indigenous peoples have long used pine needles and various compounds from certain pine trees for at least hundreds of years. The consumption of certain pine needles impacts our immune, respiratory, and cardiovascular and neurological systems.
Interestingly, it was the bark and needles from pines that the Iroquois gave to Jacques Cartier’s critically ill crew back in 1536, which helped to provide the vitamin C the crew needed at that time to treat their scurvy.
In more recent times, pine needles and tea from pine needles have garnered significant attention from scientists, doctors, and those within the health and wellness fields, due to the many compounds found in certain species.
Pine needles from eastern white pines (Pinus strobus), for example are known to provide nutrients, antioxidants, vitamin C, essential oils, amino acids, and flavonoids.
One of the most fascinating compounds that scientists began re-discussing in 2021 is the naturally-occurring shikimic acid found within some pine species—like the eastern white pines.
Pine Needles and Shikimic Acid
Researchers at the University of Maine found that steeping pine needles in hot water released shikimic acid.
Shikimic acid is a naturally-occurring compound known to induce several different physiological effects within the body. Some might be familiar with it due to the fact that it is the main constituent within the antiviral drug Oseltamivir, also known commercially as Tamiflu.
Shikimic acid is a metabolite that helps plants metabolize important compounds. It is a critical element in the shikimate pathway, which was discovered first by Dutch chemist Johan Fredrik Eykman in 1885.
The shikimate pathway is crucial for life and is a seven-step pathway used by bacteria, fungi, archaea, algae, some protozoans, and plants for the biosynthesis of vitamins, folates, and the aromatic amino acids phenylalanine, tryptophan, and tyrosine. The first two are counted as essential amino acids, meaning human beings require them and cannot synthesize them in the body like we can with many other amino acids. Tyrosine is considered conditionally essential because its synthesis can be limited for some people.
These amino acids are important to humans and help produce our bodies neurotransmitters and compounds like serotonin, melatonin, epinephrine, dopamine, CoQ10, and thyroid hormone—specifically through the help of beneficial gut bacteria.
In other words, for human beings, shikimic acid plays an essential role in a long biochemical process that sustains our health and longevity.
Shikimic acid has been shown to support healthy platelet function and support healthy cardiovascular function in humans.
It has also been shown to help support the function of the gut and digestive system, as well as the myelin sheath in animal studies. The myelin sheath is the fatty substance that surrounds neurons and acts as “insulation” for all of the electrical communication that takes place between these neurons.
Shikimic acid is also known to exert anti-bacterial, anti-fungal, anti-viral, and anti-inflammatory properties, amongst other important properties. One study found it was effective in controlling several pathogenic food bacteria, including Escherichia coli, Proteus vulgaris, Staphylococcus aureus, Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus cereus.
Shikimic Acid, Herbicides, and Digestive Functioning
As detailed earlier, shikimic acid is the end result of the seven-step metabolic process known as the shikimate pathway. This pathway is known to be negatively impacted by different herbicides, including glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup.
Glyphosate has been one of the most heavily used herbicides in the world and many studies and lawsuits have detailed the controversial use of it over recent years, with the World Health Organization classifying it as a class 2A probable human carcinogen.
The herbicide creates a few different harmful and noteworthy effects, such as inhibiting the crucial cytochrome p450 enzymes as well as suppressing the function of the p53 gene. This particular gene is known loosely by scientists as the “Guardian of the Genome.”
With respect to the shikimate pathway, glyphosate targets this seven-step process by inhibiting a key enzyme known as EPSPS (5-enolpyruvylshikimate-3-phosphate synthase). When EPSPS is inhibited, the building of the amino acids necessary for the production of proteins is blocked and the plant dies.
Although we humans do not contain the shikimate pathway directly, glyphosate still affects us because of its damaging effects on our beneficial bacteria.
In 2021, the first-ever bioinformatics method was able to classify sequences from about 90 percent of eukaryotes and greater than 80 percent of prokaryotes in the human microbiome.
The scientists found that an astonishing 54 percent of the species in the core human gut microbiome are sensitive to glyphosate, but said that figure was conservative, suggesting many more could be affected.
Since glyphosate harms many beneficial bacteria in the gut, it is no surprise that health conditions like cancer, depression, obesity, diabetes, and digestive dysfunction have risen over the years and have been linked to the widespread use of glyphosate.
Pine Needles and Herbicide-Free Farming
Shikimic acid and the shikimic acid pathway are important because of their essential role sustaining life on this planet and how they affect the human microbiome and our overall health.
Synthetic herbicides like glyphosate have dramatically affected humans in several ways, as well as pollinators like bees and butterflies.
With our food, water, lawns, and grasslands now contaminated by this substance, it is important we understand what it is and what roles it plays beyond its intended use as weed control in industrial agriculture.
Choosing organically grown or sustainably wild-harvested foods, when possible, is one way to reduce consumption of synthetic herbicide-sprayed foods and help support the health of the microbiome.
Another way to support the microbiome, gut, immune, and respiratory functioning is the consumption of pine needles and the active constituents found within.