Research is finding that ursolic acid may help in cancer, diabetes, muscle-building, weight loss, and much more. Naturally found in many of the foods we eat, ursolic acid’s effects seem promising. Read on to learn about the many health benefits as well as the potential risks.

What is Ursolic Acid?

Ursolic acid is a natural chemical compound found in a wide variety of plants, such as rosemary and apples. It is said to have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and anti-cancer effects.

Ursolic acid belongs to a class of compounds called triterpenes, which are naturally produced in plants and animals. Triterpenes have a number of biological effects, which make them exciting candidates for drug research [1].

And the research so far is promising.

A number of potential health benefits have been identified – including improvements to diabetes, weight loss, and cancer treatment to name a few [2].

Ursolic Acid Foods & Herbs

A wide variety of plants, fruits, and flowers contain varying amounts of ursolic acid. Certain parts of the plant (like the leaves, bark, and fruit skin) sometimes contain more ursolic acid [3, 4].

Some good sources of ursolic acid include [3, 4]:

  • Apple skin
  • Marjoram leaves
  • Rosemary leaves
  • Oregano leaves
  • Sage leaves
  • Thyme leaves
  • Lavender leaves and flowers
  • Hawthorn leaves and flowers
  • Eucalyptus leaves and bark
  • Coffee leaves

Snapshot

PROs

  • Naturally found in many plants and fruits
  • Has cancer-fighting potential
  • May help burn fat
  • May help build muscle
  • May help in diabetes
  • Is an antioxidant
  • Reduces inflammation
  • May help protect the heart, liver, and brain

CONs

  • Not well studied in humans
  • Poorly absorbed by the body
  • May cause damage to cells and DNA

Ursolic Acid Benefits

1) Cancer-Fighting Potential

Out of all the potential health benefits of ursolic acid, anti-cancer effects are among the most researched.

A number of studies suggest that ursolic acid may help prevent and treat a variety of cancer types, including [2].

Admittedly, all of this research was done in animals or cells. It remains to be seen if these benefits translate to humans, but the initial results are promising.

How does ursolic acid work in so many forms of cancer?

The answer is complex. Research has identified a wide array of functions that allow ursolic acid to influence cancer cells [2].

Some of these anti-cancer functions include:

  • Blocking signals that trigger cancer cell growth and division [19, 34]
  • Blocking the expression of cancer-promoting genes [8]
  • Promoting apoptosis (cell death) [35, 36, 37]
  • Reducing blood supply to tumors [38]
  • Reducing resistance to cancer drugs [39, 40, 41]

Although clinical trials are lacking, several phase I safety studies have been done in humans. These studies showed that ursolic acid as an anticancer compound is tolerable and non-toxic [42, 43, 44].

2) Protects the Heart

Ursolic acid may have several benefits to the cardiovascular system, which includes the heart, blood, and blood vessels.

One early study in rats found that ursolic acid prevents high blood pressure by reducing heart rate [45].

Ursolic acid may also improve blood pressure by relaxing blood vessels and improving blood flow. This is achieved through an increase in nitric oxide, a chemical that causes the walls of blood vessels to expand [46, 47].

On top of that, several animal studies show that ursolic acid helps restore enzyme function and prevents DNA damage after a heart attack [48, 49, 50].

However, there are some issues.

A mouse study has found that ursolic acid promotes plaque formation in the blood vessels, which can increase the risk of blood clots [51].

In addition to that, it may cause platelets in the blood to become stickier and form clumps. This could further increase the risk of forming dangerous blood clots [52].

All in all, ursolic activity shows some benefits for the cardiovascular system – such as expanding blood vessels and enhancing circulation. These would also be a big plus for endurance athletes.

But it also has the potential to do harm, especially if you already struggle with clogged arteries or heart disease.

3) Helps Burn Fat

One appealing health benefit is the fat-burning potential of ursolic acid.

Ursolic acid improves body weight, BMI, waist circumference, and insulin sensitivity. At least that’s what one clinical trial found in 24 people with metabolic syndrome. In the study, they compared ursolic acid at a dose of 150 mg/day to placebo for 12 weeks [53].

Similarly, a study in rats shows that ursolic acid reduces body weight and free fatty acids while also increasing energy use [54].

As it turns out, this fat-burning ability is achieved through several different pathways.

For instance, research shows that ursolic acid blocks the formation of fat cells [55].

It also improves energy use, free fatty acids burning, and muscle growth – all of which can cut body fat [56, 57, 58].

In addition to that, its effects on blood sugar and cholesterol also contribute to weight loss.

Studies show ursolic acid decreases fasting blood sugar levels and improves insulin sensitivity. It reduces cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well [59, 53, 60, 61].

Interestingly enough, ursolic acid seems to also increase brown fat tissue. Luckily, this special type of fat has benefits – it helps with insulin sensitivity and exposure to cold temperatures [58, 62].

4) Builds Muscle and Improves Exercise Performance

Ursolic acid may provide significant boosts to muscle growth and exercise performance [2].

Ursolic acid for bodybuilding has become popular as “a natural anabolic compound.”

Research in mice reveals that ursolic acid increases muscle mass, grip strength, and exercise capacity. Specifically, there was an increase in fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibers [58].

It gets better.

Other animal studies show improvements to endurance during low-intensity exercise. According to cell studies, it also provides a muscle rejuvenation effect [63, 64, 65].

Similar benefits are seen in humans. In a small study of 16 people, ursolic acid reduced lab markers that indicate muscle damage [66].

Another study, also with 16 people, found improvements to muscle strength and a decrease in body fat percentage [67].

How is ursolic acid building more muscle?

Research suggests it may increase growth hormone in the bloodstream. Ursolic acid also increases the number of satellite cells – which are precursors to muscle cells [57, 65].

5) Helps with Diabetes

For those struggling to control their diabetes, ursolic acid could potentially be an option [2].

Multiple studies, including one in humans, have uncovered several anti-diabetic effects, including:

  • Decreasing fasting blood glucose [53]
  • Improving insulin sensitivity [60, 59, 53, 68]
  • Reducing glucose intolerance [58, 68]
  • Protecting pancreas beta-cells [69]

Let’s not forget ursolic acid’s weight loss effects as well, which can have indirect benefits to diabetes. A clinical trial found that ursolic acid reduces body weight, BMI, and waist circumference [70, 53].

6) Promotes Bone Growth

Surprisingly enough, ursolic acid influences bone growth as well [2].

But first, let’s discuss bone cells for a moment.

Our skeleton is constantly remodeling itself, by growing new bone and removing the old. Osteoblasts are special cells that help create new bone. On the other hand, osteoclasts are cells that break down bone. Together they work to repair and maintain our skeleton [71].

One cell study found that ursolic acid stimulates the growth of osteoblasts [72].

A different study in mice shows that ursolic acid blocks the growth of osteoclasts [73].

This dual effect could potentially help in bone diseases, like osteoporosis [74, 75].

7) Reduces Inflammation

Many of ursolic acid’s health benefits actually stem from its anti-inflammatory effects [76].

Ursolic acid works by blocking several pathways and compounds involved in inflammation. These include factors like NFkB, TNF-alpha, and IL-1 beta [77, 78].

In addition, animal studies demonstrate reduced inflammation in specific organs, such as the brain and liver [78, 79, 60].

One study in mice compared topical ursolic acid with indomethacin, an NSAID drug. They found that ursolic acid was twice as effective at reducing inflammation [80].

8) Fights Against Bacteria

Ursolic acid might have important antibacterial effects [2].

In fact, cell studies show ursolic acid is effective in over a dozen different strains of common bacteria [81, 82, 83].

One study found that ursolic acid improves survival and reduces lung injury in rats with severe infection [84].

On top of that, ursolic acid may lower drug resistance, allowing antibiotic drugs to be more effective [81, 85].

9) Protects the Brain

The antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties of ursolic acid may help protect the brain [2].

Animals studies show that ursolic acid protects neurons against neurotoxins. This protection is due to an increase in antioxidant enzymes and a reduction of inflammation [86, 87, 88, 89].

Furthermore, the mice treated with ursolic acid went on to perform better in maze tests [88, 89].

Damage caused by brain hemorrhages and ischemia can be reduced with ursolic acid. For instance, mice experienced less brain swelling and cognitive deficits while on ursolic acid [90, 91].

10) Protects the Liver

Our liver is very good at repairing itself, but many diseases and substances can cause permanent damage.

One cell study found that ursolic acid reduces the toxic effects of alcohol by as much as 76% [92].

A different study found similar results in rats that were given alcohol. Researchers found an increase in antioxidants and a decrease in lab markers that indicate liver injury [93].

But that’s not all.

Research shows that ursolic acid can decrease the amount of fat in the liver. This is clinically important – fatty liver disease impairs liver function and can lead to serious complications [94, 95].

Other animal studies suggest that ursolic acid may also help regenerate the liver and even improve liver transplantation [96, 97].

11) Helps Reduce Anxiety

Ursolic acid can help with anxiety – at least in mice it can [76].

Mice studies show that ursolic acid improves anxiety when the animals perform various tests. In one of these studies, ursolic acid was just as effective as diazepam, a drug commonly used for anxiety [98, 99].

12) Helps with Depression

Several studies have revealed the antidepressant properties of ursolic acid [76].

Mice that are given ursolic acid perform better on tests that measure depression. In other words, ursolic acid boosts their mood [100, 101].

This antidepressant effect can be attributed to increases in dopamine and serotonin. Ursolic acid may also be able to bind to MAO-A, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters [101, 102, 103].

Limitations and Caveats

A huge limitation of ursolic acid is the lack of human studies. While research has revealed a host of potential health benefits, these were mostly performed in cells or animals.

This is especially important for cancer treatment. Cell and animal studies have revealed exciting results. But it’s difficult to know if these benefits translate to humans without further studies.

In addition to that, we know very little about the side effects and safety risks.

Mechanism of Action

How exactly does ursolic acid work?

The answer is fairly complicated – ursolic acid is able to have so many health benefits because it works in so many different ways.

One key mechanism is ursolic acid’s ability to block cell signaling pathways. By blocking certain pathways, like MAPK/ERK and PI3K/AKT/mTOR, ursolic can alter cell growth and replication. This mechanism is especially useful in cancer, but may also underlie its muscle-building potential [104, 2].

Ursolic acid is also able to inhibit a variety of transcription factors and enzymes. For example, it blocks COX-2, an enzyme involved in inflammation [105].

And another example – multiple studies show that ursolic acid blocks NF-κB, a transcription factor linked to cancer, inflammation, and the immune overactivation [106, 107].

It doesn’t stop there.

Studies show that ursolic acid promotes the activity of GLUT4, an important glucose transporter. This action lowers blood sugar and reduces insulin resistance [108].

Some other mechanisms include increasing the gene expression of bone cells and destroying the cell walls of bacteria [109, 72].

And that’s not the end, researchers are continually discovering new mechanisms of action for ursolic acid [2, 76].

Side Effects and Safety

Unfortunately, there is very little information available about the safety of ursolic acid.

Here is what we do know:

Three phase I safety studies have evaluated ursolic acid as an anti-cancer agent. In general, ursolic acid was tolerable and the toxicity was manageable [42, 43, 44].

Side effects were mild to moderate and included [43, 42]:

  • Nausea
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Trace amounts of blood in the urine
  • Elevated sodium levels
  • Skin rash

Researchers also found that diarrhea and liver damage are the two most common dose-limiting toxicities [43].

However, there’s more.

Studies indicate that ursolic acid causes apoptosis (cell death) and DNA damage. While this is beneficial when dealing with cancer cells, it could injure normal cells as well [110, 111].

Animal studies also suggest that ursolic acid can increase the risk of blood clots and negatively affect sperm movement [52, 51, 112].

The bottom line is more research needs to be done. Initial trials suggest it is mostly safe. But the fact that ursolic acid has so many different effects means it will take time to evaluate how safe it is.

Drug Interactions

The drug interactions of ursolic acid are not well researched, but we do know a few things.

One study found that ursolic acid blocks a cell transporter called OATP1B1. Some drugs need OATP1B1 to move into liver cells. By blocking this transporter, ursolic acid can potentially reduce the effects of certain drugs, including [113, 114]:

  • Statins (a class of cholesterol-lowering drugs)
  • Enalapril
  • Bosentan
  • Olmesartan
  • Ezetimibe
  • Valsartan

A cell study shows that ursolic acid also blocks an enzyme called UGT1A4. This enzyme metabolizes a variety of substances in the body. Most importantly, this enzyme metabolizes lamotrigine, a common anti-seizure medication. This means an interaction between lamotrigine and ursolic acid could exist [115, 116, 117].

Talk to your doctor first if you intend to use ursolic acid alongside prescription medication.

Supplement Formulations

Ursolic acid is available as a supplement.

It normally comes as a capsule with strengths that range from about 100 mg to 250 mg. Alternatively, it can be purchased as a powder.

Certain plant extract supplements can also contain ursolic acid.

For instance, rosemary extract supplements can contain different percentages of ursolic acid. Often these products will advertise the concentration, such as 90% ursolic acid.

Another example is holy basil supplements. Popular products typically include 2.5% ursolic acid.

If you’re wondering what the best ursolic acid supplement is, you don’t have to look far. Not many supplements with this compound are widely available.

Here’s what we suggest:

If you’re looking for specific muscle-building gains or seeking fat loss, go with a reputable brand that specifies the ursolic acid content.

Many people like to try out multi-ingredient formulations, but you can never tell exactly what’s helping and what’s not with such formulations. It’s often better to stick to single- or limited-ingredient formulations and track your response.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to tackle chronic health problems, you may wish to go with lower doses and an herbal formulation (such as holy basil supplements) for added antioxidant and anti-inflammatory support.

Ursolic Acid and Tomatidine Supplement

A different compound, called tomatidine, is sometimes combined with ursolic acid and used to enhance bodybuilding gains.

Tomatidine, as the name suggests, is found in the skins, stems, and leaves of tomatoes. Chemically, tomatidine is a plant steroid (steroidal alkaloid) [118].

In a 2015 study, researchers identified ursolic acid and tomatidine as small molecules that may greatly reduce age-related decline in muscle strength, quality, and mass. Both molecules could spark hundreds of similar miniscule muscle-protective changes in the activity of genes (mRNA levels) in aged muscle [118].

Since tomatidine is not well-researched, only a handful of supplements on the market contain it as an ingredient.

We couldn’t identify any reputable brands with both ursolic acid and tomatidine in their formulations. Several brands sell tomatidine- or ursolic acid-only products. One brand combines tomatidine with shilajit.

But is there any additional evidence to suggest tomatine could help you gain more muscle?

Two intriguing studies hint at this potential benefit.

Tomatidine Potential Benefits

In a recent study on muscle cells, tomatine could boost anabolic pathways (by increasing mTORC signaling) and muscle growth. It also reduced muscle wasting, enhanced the recovery from muscles wasting, stimulated muscle hypertrophy, and increased strength and exercise capacity [119].

Tomatidine also has some anti-aging potential.

In a study on fruit flies published a couple of years ago, tomatidine could increase lifespan and healthspan. And interestingly, it also enhanced muscle health and movement, while reducing the number of damaged muscle cells in the studied fruit flies [120].

All in all, this curious compound from tomatoes certainly shows a lot of promise for repairing damaged muscles, preventing muscle wasting, and boosting bodybuilding gains.

However, the research is very recent and currently limited to studies on cells and fruit flies. Its effects in humans are still unknown. Scientists are very interested in tomatidine, though, and we are expecting new studies in the coming years.

Dosage

How much ursolic acid should you take?

Unfortunately, we aren’t entirely sure. Research has yet to identify an optimal dose.

We do have an idea of what the upper limit is.

A safety study found that dose-limiting toxicities began at 74 mg/m2. It’s important to note that this dose was given by IV, so we can’t use it to determine the upper oral dosage [43].

Obesity and exercise studies also shed some light on safe and effective doses.

One study of 16 healthy men used a dose of 450 mg per day for 8 weeks [66].

A different study of people with metabolic syndrome used a dose of 150 mg per day for 12 weeks [53].

In both of these studies, the dose was effective and no safety concerns were reported [66, 53].

Ursolic supplements typically recommend about 150 mg taken 3 times a day, for a total of 450 mg per day.

Also be aware that ursolic acid has poor bioavailability, meaning very little is absorbed when ingested. In fact, researchers are developing new strategies, such as using nanocrystals, to improve its bioavailability [121, 122].

Reviews & User Experiences

Product reviews of ursolic acid supplements appear to be mixed for the most part.

Some users report increases in energy and muscle growth.

Others describe it as a “Lean Muscle Optimizer.” One user mentioned that they use ursolic acid to maintain hard-earned gains, explaining that they respond better to an anti-catabolic than to a muscle-growth supplement. And as a result, they could gain more mass and lean out a bit on ursolic acid.

At the same time, a similar number of users report seeing little to no effect.

Another common complaint is the unpleasant taste and smell of the supplements.

Buy Ursolic Acid

This section contains sponsored links, which means that we may receive a small percentage of profit from your purchase, while the price remains the same to you. The proceeds from your purchase support our research and work. Thank you for your support.

Takeaway

Ursolic acid is a chemical compound found in many plants and fruits.

Research is finding that ursolic acid may be effective in many conditions, including:

  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Obesity
  • Bacterial infection

It may also protect the heart, liver, and brain. It can boost blood flow and relax blood vessels, which may improve your cardio performance and endurance. On the downside, some studies indicate it may clog arteries or damage cells.

Studies in humans are lacking, however.

Initial cancer studies suggest that it may be safe, but further research is required.

As a supplement, many use ursolic acid to help burn fat and improve energy, but the reviews on its effectiveness tend to be mixed.

Those looking for natural bodybuilding gains combine it with tomatidine, another promising muscle-building compound from tomatoes that’s even less researched than ursolic acid.

About the Author

Mathew Eng, PharmD

PharmD

Mathew received his PharmD from the University of Hawaii and an undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Washington.

Mathew is a licensed pharmacist with clinical experience in oncology, infectious disease, and diabetes management. He has a passion for personalized patient care and believes that education is essential to living a healthy life. His goal is to motivate individuals to find ways to manage their chronic conditions.

Click here to subscribe

RATE THIS ARTICLE

1 Star2 Stars3 Stars4 Stars5 Stars
(4 votes, average: 4.50 out of 5)
Loading...

FDA Compliance

The information on this website has not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration or any other medical body. We do not aim to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any illness or disease. Information is shared for educational purposes only. You must consult your doctor before acting on any content on this website, especially if you are pregnant, nursing, taking medication, or have a medical condition.