Berries: Delicious Defenders
by Nancy T Angelini, LMT, Clinical Herbalist
My father’s family owns a twenty-one acre farm in Massachusetts that grows several types of berries. When we were younger, my six sisters, one brother and I worked on the farm during our summer “vacation.” I have the bramble bush scars on my forearms to prove it! I remember devouring red raspberries, sweet blueberries and tart black berries by the handful. Little did I know that not every child’s summer experience includes delicacies of this kind. I also had no inkling of the brilliant nutrition served up in every mouth-watering explosion of berry-liciousness. Regardless of the hard manual labor, I loved all the berries. Black berries, blueberries and red raspberries were my remedy to the hot sun, hard labor and drenching humidity.
I now realize the body of scientific research on all edible berries is supporting and enhancing human health and wellness. The more color and variety, the better.
The Best of Berries
Berries have extremely high concentrations of a group of chemistries called phenolics, many of which are simply classified as anti-oxidants. You can find some of these healthy compounds in health food stores, sporting names such as rutin, quercetin, pro-anthocyanins, pterostilbenes, flavonoids and isoflavonoids, on ingredient lists. Each berry has its strengths and variations in bioactive constituents. The earth has offered a vast array of compounds in the differing species and varieties of berries, all of which contribute to human health and longevity.
Studies show that the whole berry and whole berry extracts, not the pressed juice, are physiologically active. Most notable modes of activity for berries and whole berry extract are cholesterol balancing, urinary tract balancing, blood sugar balancing, microflora balancing, cell membrane balancing and vision support. It seems as if berries of all types have supportive effects on organs, as well as modes of action in the human body.
Each berry seems to have a specific task that it excels in and an affinity for aiding varying bodily systems and organs. For example, cranberries target the urinary tract, blueberries the brain, hawthorne berries the heart, aronia berries the liver and gallbladder, elderberries the white blood cells, sea buckthorne berry the skin, nails and hair, and bilberry the eyes. Although these simple categorizations have continuing support in scientific literature, the categories may actually be limiting the broader healthful attributes of each berry.
Your Brain on Berries
An explosion of berry research targeting brain and nervous system support
occurred when several studies showed the efficacy of berry consumption in treating brain and neurological disorders. In April 2010, a preliminary human clinical study was published, suggesting that daily blueberry consumption conferred some improvement in memory in older adults with mild signs of neuro-degeneration. Later that year, another study was published demonstrating blueberry extract’s protection against beta amyloid oxidation in neurons.
In September 2012, a study published in the Journal of Medical Food described the significant inhibition of two enzyme pathways relating to central neuropeptide stability. These enzyme pathways are emerging therapeutic targets in neurology and psychiatry drug research. A mixture of whole blueberry and cranberry extracts, which enhanced the anthocyanin concentration of the two kinds of berries, was effective in controlling enzyme targets. There is a potential relevance to managing inflammatory and neurological targets with a diet of daily berry consumption. Blueberry, blackberry, gogi berry and black currants rich in anthocyanin and proanthocyanin compounds took center stage in studies targeting operative mechanisms in Parkinson’s, Alzheimers and other neurodegenerative disorders. What might this mean to a person making food choices for his or her health and longevity? Well, the jury is still out on which berries, how much and what type of outcomes can be expected, but it looks promising that eating berries dark blue, purple or almost black in color may help reduce risks associated with aging brains and nervous systems.
Berries and Brawn
We do not usually classify foods that feed and protect our brains as the same foods that enhance our physical performance, but berries do double duty. They build both brain and brawn. A well-designed, human crossed over, placebo study on the effects of ingesting blueberries before and after strenuous exercise was conducted, looking at biomarkers of recovery and muscle strength. Thirty-six hours after ingestion, the “blueberry” group had significant increases in strength as well as decreases in muscle soreness compared to the placebo group. The blueberry smoothie study may benefit the fitness community, which is eternally looking for dietary interventions that enhance physical performance. Although blueberry seems to have the most current scientific support for exercise recovery, Lychii berry from Tibet has had a long tradition of being used to enhance physical excellence. A 2013 study published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology describes the significant anti-fatigue properties heralded with this berry, allowing for longer exercise time with faster recovery times.
Berries and Your Belly
The year 2013 produced three preliminary studies on the impact of blueberries on microflora in the colon. One study focused on fermenting the berries using beneficial bacteria. The blueberry “symbiotic,” as it was called, demonstrated promising activities on regulating and supporting gut flora. The interesting focus of these food studies on gut flora by blueberry points toward the importance of daily infusions of berries for the general health of the colon. The studies are in the early stages, looking at the potential of whole berries to modify gut microbiota. However, the implications for remediation of gut dysregulation are promising. Apparently berries are good for your belly.
Berries and the Bladder
There has long been a controversy as to whether cranberry is effective in treating the urinary tract. Recent research indicates that the controversy arises from the discrepancy between the results achieved by the whole cranberry, and those achieved by the pressed juice. A fascinating human study comparing the efficacy of the whole berries versus the juice of the cranberries in treating urinary tract infections was published in the prestigious Journal of Nutrition in October, 2013. It seems that the whole berry, but not the pressed juice of the cranberry, may have a positive effect on decreasing the recurrence of urinary tract infections in women who experience these types of frequent health issues. While the whole cranberry group showed a significant reduction in the recurrence of urinary tract infection, the researchers were at a loss to explain why. Scientists need to conduct more studies to find exactly what the mechanisms of action are for the recurrence reduction. Rest assured, the whole cran-berry, traditionally used for hundreds of years to balance urinary tract health, continues to demonstrate its prowess in scientific studies, as well as in the general population.
Lose your Bifocals with Berries
We may not understand how the process of healing and remodeling occurs, but that berries do indeed have compounds that make them unique and specialized in their effects on our biochemistry and organ function has been witnessed through hundreds of years and thousands of observed human and animal cases. Just as cranberry has an affinity for the urinary tract, so preliminary research is positive and promising in showing bill-berry’s affinity for the eyes. Billberry’s dark pigmentation, which it has in common with blueberries and black currents, is created by a special class of phenolics called anthocyanins. There has been a continuing upsurge of focused research on bilberry and its mechanism of action in an attempt to realize a deeper understanding of its effects on visual degenerative issues, such as macular degeneration and cataracts. It is important to remember that the eyes are an extension of the brain, and these types of tissues are slow to repair and remodel. Taking bilberry, or any other food or supplement for the eyes requires time to see changes and lasting results. The good news is that berries are safe and usually support your general health on the whole. So, there are only positive side effects from purposefully taking a berry such as bilberry for more extended periods of time.
Are you still wondering which berries you might consume for your health? Give yourself a delicious gift by choosing edible berries that you enjoy. Eat them whole in your oatmeal or blended into your smoothie. Any whole berry you decide to relish will ultimately serve your body for the good, deliciously defending your health into a ripe old age.
Nancy is a clinician of 27 years, and a 14-year educator and speaker in the Natural Products Industry.
Currently, National Science Educator for Source Naturals as well as the Owner and Clinician of Angel Clinic in Wenham, Massachusetts.
Compiles, writes and presents lectures on many health topics with a focus on alternative health using food, herbs and supplements to support wellness and longevity.