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Berries as Disease Fighters

If you have or (are at risk for developing) diabetes, hypertension, cancer, or dementia, frequent consumption of berries may improve your health. Here’s why!

Cardiovascular Protection

Harvard researchers followed 100,000 young and middle-aged women for 20 years and found that those who ate more than 3 servings of strawberries or blueberries a week reduced their risk for heart disease by 32%.

Cardiovascular diseases–atherosclerosis, coronary artery disease, vascular dementia, and hypertension– are caused by much more than accumulated cholesterol and fats in arteries. Oxidation, inflammation, sticky platelets, and reduced ability of the blood vessels to dilate, all contribute to these disease processes. The flavonoids and other compounds in berries target each of these problems. As antioxidants, they inhibit the oxidation of cholesterol. This is important because oxidized cholesterol triggers inflammation inside the arteries.

Not only that, their red, purple, and blue pigments (anthocyanins) help to reduce cholesterol synthesis in the body. By inhibiting platelet clumping, they also lower the risk for undesirable clotting and consequently heart attacks and strokes. Plus, the soluble fiber in berries reduces the body’s production of cholesterol, decreases its absorption, and removes it from the body.

Berries Help Your Blood Vessels!

Some experts consider the dysfunction of the vascular endothelium as the prime driver of cardiovascular disease. Endothelial cells composing the inner lining of the blood vessels release substances that control the relaxation and contraction of the blood vessels. These cells also produce enzymes and molecules that regulate blood clotting, immune function, and the platelets’ ability to accumulate. The anthocyanins and procyanidins in berries help to improve vascular endothelial functioning and hypertension.

In an 8-week, randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trialdaily consumption of blueberry powder significantly reduced artery stiffness and systolic and diastolic pressures in forty-eight postmenopausal women with pre-hypertension and stage 1-hypertension.

Diabetes Prevention

During 3,645,585 person-years of follow-up, higher intakes of anthocyanins were significantly associated with a lower risk of type 2 diabetes. How?

Berries are low on the glycemic index. The glycemic index measures how fast and how much a food raises blood glucose levels. Since berries rate low on the index, they make an ideal food for individuals who are obese or have either prediabetes or diabetes. Their soluble fiber slows down the absorption of glucose. The polyphenols in blueberries inhibit the enzymes that break down sucrose. Berries also reduce the natural inflammation that occurs after consuming a high fat, high carb diet in overweight individuals.

Berries Help Individuals With Diabetes

Evidence suggests that regular consumption of blueberries improves insulin sensitivity (the cells’ ability to respond to insulin). Participants were randomized to consume either a smoothie containing 22.5 g of blueberry phytochemicals or a smoothie of equal nutritional value without adding blueberry bioactives twice daily for six weeks. The blueberry group at the end of the study experienced greater insulin sensitivity.

As previously mentioned, blueberries contain pterostilbene and resveratrol. These phytochemicals inhibit inflammation. This is important because inflammation fuels the many complications of diabetes. Accumulating studies indicate that resveratrol helps to protect diabetic individuals from the many complications of diabetes while other studies show that pterostilbene itself produced a substantial decrease in plasma glucose levels and glycated hemoglobin (hemoglobin A1c). This test provides the average of your glucose levels for the last six to twelve week period. When the blood sugar (glucose) is too high, it builds up in the blood and combines with the hemoglobin, becoming “glycated”. Elevated hemoglobin A1c increases the risk for diabetic complications.

Cancer Protection

The ellagic acid in strawberries and raspberries helps to protect from cancers of the breast, esophagus, skin, colon, prostate, bladder, and pancreas. Ellagic acid:

activates DNA repair
increases the liver’s carcinogen-detoxification
arrests proliferation of cancer cells
inhibits tumor angiogenesis (a mechanism in which new blood vessels are created to feed the tumor)
induces apoptosis (cell suicide) of cancer cells

When consumed daily, blueberries help to protect genomic DNA integrity and can stimulate natural killer cell activity. Blueberries help to protect us from breast, prostate, stomach, colon, and pancreatic cancers. Blueberries exert cancer-protecting activity (to name just a few) by:

inhibiting inflammation
protecting DNA from free radical damage
inhibiting proliferation of cancer cells
increasing the suicide of the cancer cells

Blueberries also have the phytochemical pterostilbene which inhibits two enzymes (MMP-2 and MMP-9) that help cancer cells to invade tissues and spread. This phytochemical also inhibits inflammation, a key player in cancer development.

Brain Protection

Accumulating evidence suggests that frequent consumption of blueberries slows down brain aging. The polyphenolic compounds found in blueberries exert their beneficial effects by reducing free radical damage, protecting brain cells from neurotoxins, and inhibiting inflammation inside the brain—all of which contribute to brain aging and brain disease. By improving signaling and communication between nerve cells, memory is improved. Flavonoids in blueberries have actually been shown to reverse age-associated memory and learning deficits in aged animals. Blueberry supplementation prevents behavioral deficits in an Alzheimer disease model.

With so many health benefits, why not include them as a staple in your diet? Not in season? Unsweetened, frozen berries will do!

Disclaimer: The information in this article is helpful and is educational. It is not the author’s or authors’ or Wildwood Health Institute’s intent to substitute the blog article for diagnosis, counseling, or treatment by a qualified health professional.

For references: Look below the photos.

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