Since the Middle Ages, chamomile has produced an array of health benefits. Medieval monks, for instance, prescribed people to lie down on chamomile flower beds to reduce their depression and stimulate relaxation. The more popular chamomile tea also helps fuel appetite before meals and relax the stomach afterward.

Relaxation alone has boosted health in heart patients, but what is it inside the chamomile tea that could play a major role in fighting cancer?

A chemical called apigenin, researchers from Ohio State University found, is capable of shortening the lifespan of breast cancer cells, thereby stopping further spread and aiding cancer treatment.

This secret ingredient is found in Mediterranean diets and in foods such as parsley, celery, and of course chamomile tea. 

"We know we need to eat healthfully, but in most cases we don't know the actual mechanistic reasons for why we need to do that," said Andrea Doseff, co-author of the study and associate professor of internal medicine and molecular genetics at Ohio State. "We see here that the beneficial effect on health is attributed to this dietary nutrient affecting many proteins. In its relationship with a set of specific proteins, apigenin re-establishes the normal profile in cancer cells. We think this can have great value clinically as a potential cancer-prevention strategy."

Apigenin is capable of removing a cancer cell's "superpower" to cheat death. Specifically, this chemical makes a change in the cancer cell's gene regulation to follow normal cell protocols and die at a timely point.

Researchers showed that apigenin binds to other proteins. One major protein it attaches to, called hnRNPA2, is responsible for the functions of mRNA, the genetic instructions that are needed to produce other proteins.

Eighty percent of all cancers arise due to the abnormal production of mRNA. Apigenin, therefore, works by correcting hnRNPA2 to restore mRNA functions, meaning that apigenin can halt breast cancer cells from preventing their own death.

"So by applying this nutrient, we can activate that killing machinery," Doseff added.

The investigators also estimated that apigenin binds to 160 proteins in the body, a far better reach than pharmaceutical drugs that target one molecule. They believe there are other compounds like apigenin called "nutraceuticals" that offer more health benefits.

The study was published this week online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.