Berry good berries: The new super food
Has modern nutritional science now identified every food compound that is essential for optimum health? Could we now live off our nutritional supplement pill along with a source of protein and generic carbohydrates?
Obviously, the answer is “no,” and that’s why all health experts recommend that you eat a diet containing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. These foods contain great mysteries that are still being uncovered. Indeed, it seems that every month some new plant constituent—i.e. a phytochemical—is discovered and characterized that has a remarkable health benefit.
And, of all the fruit and vegetables that you can eat, berries beat them all. Berries, more than any other food, are associated with a remarkably long list of health benefits.
Considering their size, berries contain a giant portion of phytochemicals, in addition to vitamins, minerals and fiber that provide numerous health benefits.
Here are just a few examples of the various types of berries and the health benefits they provide :
- Dark berries like blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and goji berries all contain powerful antioxidants.
- Blueberries, bilberries and raspberries contain lutein, which is important for healthy vision.
- Raspberries are rich in anthocyanins and cancer-fighting phytochemicals such as ellagic, coumaric and ferulic acid.
- Pomegranate fruit extract (yes, it is considered a berry) has strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and has been found to be particularly beneficial in inhibiting the growth of cancer cells23–35, and improving symptoms of coronary heart disease15–21 and periodontitis (gum disease).22
- Raspberry, strawberry, cranberry, elderberry, blueberry and bilberry extracts have all been found to significantly inhibit H. pylori bacteria, when compared with the controls.1
Blueberries come out on top
In a test that measures the antioxidant potency of a variety of foods—the Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity (ORAC) test—blueberries came out on top.2
This tiny, magnificent berry contains a huge serving of antioxidants that have been demonstrated to benefit numerous health conditions, including the prevention of oxidative and inflammatory stress on the lining of blood vessels and red blood cells.34
Berries as Smart Nutrients
In a landmark study in 1999, researchers at Tufts University discovered just how powerful this berry is by feeding old rats the equivalent of one cup of blueberries a day. The results were dramatic. The old rats that were fed the blueberries:
- learned faster than the young rats
- were more coordinated
- showed improved motor skills
- outperformed the young rats in memory tests
In one test, 6-month-old rats were able to run on a rod an average of 14 seconds, when compared to old rats, which fell off after six seconds. But remarkably, the old rats that were fed a blueberry supplement could stay on the rod for 10 seconds. Although the rats didn’t become young again, their skills improved tremendously. When the researchers examined the rats’ brains, they found that the brain neurons of the rats that ate the blueberries were able to communicate better.
The study was significant because the researchers discovered blueberry’s potential for reversing some age-related impairments in both memory and motor coordination. The researchers concluded that these findings suggest that, in addition to their known beneficial effects on cancer and heart disease, the phytochemicals present in antioxidant-rich foods may be beneficial in reversing the course of neuronal and behavioral aging.5
Since then, hundreds of studies have been done showing that all kinds of berries exert a protective effect against oxidation—a principal cause of cellular damage and death—which ultimately results in illness and disease. Recently, researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University published research showing that nutritional antioxidants, such as the phytochemicals found in blueberries, can reverse age-related declines in brain function, namely the cognitive and motor deficits associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.6
Protects against brain damage
Among blueberry varieties, wild or low bush blueberry contains the highest antioxidant power7, which were shown to protect laboratory animals from brain damage from an induced stroke, after they ate blueberries for six weeks.8
Inhibits growth of cancer cells
In animal studies done at Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, University of Illinois, wild blueberry extracts inhibited an enzyme called ornithine decarboxylase, which is responsible for tumor progression.9
Bilberry extract is rich in anthocyanins
Anthocyanins are a class of flavonoids—a type of phytochemical—which often occur together with proanthocyanidins. Proanthocyanidins are the precursors of anthocyanins, and also excellent antioxidants in their own right.
Long known for its beneficial effect on vision and eye health, bilberry contains five anthocyanins which have also been shown to inhibit the growth of human leukemia cells10 and human colon cancer cells in vitro.10,11 One anthocyanin was also found to support the gastrointestinal mucosa in laboratory animals, indicating that it could be a protectant against ulcers.12
Although we usually don’t think of pomegranates as berries, technically, the fruit is called a many-seeded berry that is surrounded by a juicy, fleshy outer layer. The pomegranate tree is native to Africa and the Near East, and is one of the first fruits cultivated in the world. In ancient times, the fruit was a symbol of fertility and abundance that was broken open on a newlywed’s bedroom floor so the red seeds would scatter. This practice was believed to insure the procreation of lots of children. Interestingly, the French word for pomegranate is “grenade”—a hand-thrown bomb that scatters shrapnel (pieces of metal) instead of seeds.13
Pomegranate extract has been studied extensively at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, where human, animal and cell culture models have shown benefits in several areas.
Many berries, such as raspberries, blackberries, cranberries, and strawberries contain ellagic acid, which preliminary research suggests may help to prevent certain types of cancer.
In the past several years, inflammation has become a buzzword in the medical community, as a major cause of diseases ranging from arthritis to Alzheimer’s. Pomegranate seeds possess anti-inflammatory properties because they inhibit cyclooxygenase and lipoxgenase enzymes, which are responsible for inflammation.
In fact, scientists at the Laboratories of Food Engineering and Biotechnology, Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, showed that fermented pomegranate juice and cold pressed pomegranate seed oil have antioxidant activity close to that of green tea, and significantly greater than that of red wine.14
Protects against cardiovascular disease
Pomegranate juice offers wide protection against cardiovascular disease by reducing:
- macrophage lipid peroxidation15
- cholesterol accumulation1617
- the development of atherosclerosis1820
- stress-induced myocardial ischemia in patients who have CHD19
- systolic blood pressure2021
- thickening of the carotid artery20
A 2004 study that appeared in Clinical Nutrition found that 19 patients with severe atherosclerosis of the carotid arteries who drank about two ounces of pomegranate juice each day for three years had remarkable results. Ultrasound tests showed that narrowing of the arteries decreased by 35% on average in the pomegranate group, while the condition worsened by nearly 10% in the control group. The average systolic blood pressure was also significantly lowered in the group that drank pomegranate juice.20
Anthocyanins—the pigment that gives blueberries their color—act as antioxidants and play an important role in preventing disease.
It is interesting to note that pomegranate juice extract has also been found to improve signs of clinical gum disease22, which is considered by some to be a precursor and/or indication of cardiovascular disease.
Recent studies have also shown the anti-cancer effects that pomegranate juice has on human breast23 and prostate cells24, and human skin cells damaged by ultraviolet radiation.25
Pomegranate juice reduces oxidative stress
One specific measure of oxidative stress is TBARS (thiobarbituric acid-reactive substances), harmful products of lipid (fat) oxidation found in our blood that are created when cells are damaged by oxidation. Lower levels of TBARS are seen in healthy and younger individuals, and higher levels are found in unhealthy individuals. As we age, the amount of TBARS increases in our blood—and is a marker of oxidative stress.
Pomegranate juice has been found to reduce oxidative stress in a number of studies2627 and in a recent study at the Herbal Medicines Research and Education Centre, The University of Sydney, Australia, it reduced TBARS in diabetic patients, without affecting insulin levels.28
Diabetes is associated with increased oxidative stress and the development of atherosclerosis. Researchers at the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Israel, recently investigated the effects of pomegranate juice on diabetic blood parameters and oxidative stress levels in diabetic patients. After 3 months of drinking 50 ml of pomegranate juice per day, the 10 non-insulin dependent diabetes II patients had a 350% reduction in serum levels of lipid peroxides and a 51% reduction in TBARS, when compared to the 10 healthy control subjects. And although pomegranate juice contains sugars, it did not affect the patients’ serum glucose, cholesterol or triglyceride levels. The researchers concluded that pomegranate juice can help prevent the development of atherosclerosis in diabetic patients.29
The wonders of Goji Berry
Also known as Lycium barbarum fruit or wolfberry, goji berry grows on a bush and is native to northwestern China. It has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for thousands of years as a health tonic to promote healthy eyesight and overall health, as well as a remedy for diabetes, anemia, tinnitus, and lung diseases.
Goji Berry is rich in polysaccharides (complex carbohydrates, made up of multiple sugar molecules), and phytochemicals, particularly carotenoids, riboflavin, ascorbic acid, thiamine and nicotinic acid.30 Most of the research on goji berry over the past 30 years has come out of China, but international awareness about its health benefits is growing.
A Taiwanese investigation of the antioxidant activity of goji berry and two other Chinese herbs found goji berry to be the strongest inhibitor of lipid peroxidation (a major factor in cardiovascular disease) in animal models.31
Reduces blood glucose and lipids in animal models
After three weeks of eating a diet supplemented with goji berry, laboratory animals with non-insulin dependent diabetes II showed a significant decrease in weight, cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin levels, leading the researchers to conclude that goji berry may be helpful in improving insulin resistance.32
A second study found that gogi berry contains potent antioxidants that reduced blood glucose levels and total cholesterol and triglyceride concentrations in rabbits, while increasing high density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL)—”good cholesterol” levels after 10 days of treatment.30
Supports brain health
Alzheimer’s disease is predicted to become an epidemic for baby boomers, and there are currently about 70,000 scientists working around the world to find a cure. In a recent study at the University of Hong Kong, researchers theorized that since goji berry extract has anti-aging effects, it probably also has neuroprotective effects against toxins in neurodegenerative diseases, namely Alzheimer’s disease. They were right. Goji berry extract protected the brain neurons of laboratory animals from the toxic effects of beta amyloid protein—a culprit in Alzheimer’s disease. The researchers concluded that studies on anti-aging herbal medicine like goji berry might open up a new therapeutic window for the prevention of Alzheimer’s disease.33
More health benefits
Goji berry has also been found to:
It should be noted that in a study of herbal medicines on pharmaceutical drugs goji berry was found to increase the anti-coagulation effect of warfarin.37
How does cranberry extract work?
Cranberry extract is an extract of the red acidic fruit of the shrubby viburnum of North America and Europe. It contains phytochemicals that include flavonol glycosides, anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins (condensed tannins), and organic and phenolic acids. But it is the proanthocyanidins that exhibit potent bacterial anti-adhesion activity.38 The proanthocyanidins found in cranberry differ from those found in other plants by their unique structures and very potent antibacterial activity. In the case of UTIs, these proanthocyanidins prevent E. coli from adhering to the urethra and bladder.39
Here’s how: The cell wall of E. coli bacteria has tiny finger-like projections that contain complex molecules called lectins on their surfaces. These lectins are cellular glue that binds the bacteria to the bladder wall so they cannot be easily rinsed out by urination. But because proanthocyanidin molecules attach themselves to these lectins and fill up all of the bacterial anchoring sites, the bacteria can no longer stick to the bladder wall and are flushed away.
The likelihood of infection is significantly reduced because bacteria must first adhere to the mucosal lining before they can proliferate—and without the ability to stick, the bacteria cannot infect.
- In a study of 153 elderly women, those who drank 10 oz of commercial cranberry drink each day had less than half the risk of developing an infection and were more likely to clear an already present infection.40
- A study of 10 young women with recurrent bladder infections found that, compared with placebo, taking a capsule containing 400 mg of cranberry extract daily for three months significantly reduced new infections. Of the 21 bladder infections that arose, only six occurred among women taking Cranberry.41
- A year-long Canadian study of 150 sexually active women found that cranberry juice and tablets significantly decreased the number of patients experiencing at least 1 symptomatic UTI/year compared with placebo. The study also found that taking cranberry was much more cost effective than taking antibiotics.42
- In February 2004, France allowed food, drink, and dietary supplement manufacturers a “function use claim” to highlight the health benefits of products containing cranberry to consumers. In turn, this will permit the claim that the North American cranberry VM (Vaccinium macrocarpon) can ‘help reduce the adhesion of certain E. coli bacteria to the urinary tract walls.’
How safe is cranberry extract?
Very. It has not been reported to cause side effects and can be used safely during pregnancy and breastfeeding. Individuals with a history of kidney stones should consult a medical professional before using cranberry extract for long periods of time, since there is some indication long term use might increase the risk of developing a kidney stone.43
Berries help control blood glucose
Two of the nutrients in berries—chlorogenic acid and caffeic acid—help control blood sugar, thus offering protection against insulin resistance, Syndrome X and diabetes.
In an in-vitro study, scientists at the National Cheng Kung University in Taiwan, found that caffeic acid increases glucose uptake into cells, helping to remove it from the bloodstream.44
When researchers at nearby Taipei Medical College injected caffeic acid into diabetic rats, they observed a dose-dependent reduction in plasma glucose.36 However, a similar effect was not observed in normal rats, suggesting that insulin is not involved in this action. In a related experiment, the researchers observed that caffeic acid reduced elevated plasma glucose in insulin-resistant rats that received a glucose challenge test.45
Chlorogenic acid has been shown to inhibit the glucose-6-phosphatase enzyme—an enzyme essential to the regulation of blood sugar. Glucose production from glycogen stored in the liver is usually overactive in people with high blood sugar,46 so by reducing the activity of the glucose-6-phosphatase enzyme blood sugar levels decrease, ultimately resulting in better health.47
There are thousands of health-promoting phytochemicals in plants—which is why it’s so important to eat a wide variety of colorful fruits and vegetables every day. Berries contain numerous phytochemicals (including anthocyanins, lutein, carotenoids, ellagic acid, chlorogenic acid, and caffeic acid) that have potent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects—that have specifically been shown to protect us from numerous health ailments and diseases.
But most Americans do not meet the Recommended Daily Allowance of five to eight fruits and vegetables a day. The good news is that taking a daily nutritional supplement containing a mixture of berry extracts is an excellent way to get a variety of unique phytochemicals, and cover your antioxidant protection needs.
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