Heart disease and cancer are respectively the first and second leading causes of death in the United States, while the rate of Alzheimer’s disease – currently the eighth leading cause of mortality – continuing to rise steadily. Thankfully, with the right information, we can avoid these health problems.
For example, research into anthocyanins, a group of phytochemicals found in berries, may hold the key to preventing, treating and even helping to reverse this deadly trio of chronic disease conditions.
Vivid coloration hints at major health benefits
A group of natural pigments, anthocyanins are responsible for giving berries their vibrant purples, blues, and reds. Because it is antioxidants that give berries their refreshing tartness, they contribute flavor as well.
But their most significant asset, from a medical standpoint, is their ability to provide protection from cancer, heart disease and cognitive decline. Anthocyanins are potent antioxidants, scavenging free radicals and reducing destructive oxidative stress. They also inhibit inflammation – which is at the root of many chronic degenerative diseases.
Anthocyanins fight disease by a multitude of actions
In addition to general antioxidant and anti-inflammatory tasks, anthocyanins in berries target heart disease, cancer and the cognitive decline of Alzheimer’s disease in very specific ways. They guard against heart disease by making capillaries stronger and more flexible, while reducing the adhesion, or “stickiness,” of red blood cells, making them less likely to form atherosclerotic plaque.
By reducing production of damaging amyloid proteins in the brains, anthocyanins can help reduce cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia. And, anthocyanins also trigger apoptosis – or cell suicide – in several different types of cancer cells. By interfering with the ability of tumors to resist chemotherapeutic medications, anthocyanins can help them work better.
Continue reading to discover six potent berries that you can enlist as powerful allies against life-threatening degenerative disease.
Dramatically reduce the risk of cancer cell growth with Acai berries
Acai berries, one of the highest-ranking berries when it comes antioxidant content, have been shown in laboratory studies to inhibit cancer. In a recent study published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, acai suppressed the growth and reproduction of human colon cancer cells by an astonishing 90 percent.
Acai berries also protect against heart disease by causing relaxation of the arterial walls and reducing LDL cholesterol. Their protective abilities extend to the brain as well – brain tissue treated with acai shows that anthocyanins can limit the ability of reactive oxygen species to damage essential brain lipids and proteins.
Strawberries offer surprising cardiovascular and cognitive benefits
In studies, ordinary strawberries protected against heart disease by reducing the formation of blood clots, lowering levels of harmful LDL cholesterol, and reducing levels of malondialdehyde and adhesion molecules – chemicals strongly associated with atherosclerosis.
In an animal study, a diet rich in strawberries helped to ward off age-related cognitive deficits and improve memory. And research on humans confirmed this finding. In a study published in American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias, researchers found that, although all berries imparted health benefits, strawberries and blueberries were the most effective in reducing cognitive decline.
Bilberries reduce blood pressure using the same mechanism as pharmaceutical ACE inhibitors
Bilberries, scientifically known as Vaccinium myrtillus, are closely related to blueberries. In a recent study published in Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, researchers noted that bilberries significantly inhibited angiotensin-converting enzyme, which narrows the arteries and contributes to high blood pressure.
Animal studies have shown that bilberries enhance short-term memory, making them a promising potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. Rounding out the life-prolonging trifecta is the ability of bilberries to cause apoptosis in breast and intestinal cancer cells.
Raspberries pack a one-two punch of protective compounds
Raspberries are rich in both anthocyanins and ellagitannins, which are powerful natural antioxidants. In laboratory studies, raspberries limited the invasiveness of colon cancer cells, while animal studies showed that they could cause apoptosis in oral, breast, cervical and prostate cancers.
By reducing fats in the blood, raspberry juice helps protect against atherosclerosis.
Blueberries improve memory and reduce inflammation
When it comes to enhancing cognitive performance and helping to protect against age-related decline of memory and thought processes, blueberries may be the superstar of the berry family. In a study of older adults published in Annals of Neurology, blueberries enhanced the removal of amyloid beta plaques in the brain, delaying cognitive aging by up to two and a half years.
Blueberries also are strongly anti-inflammatory, and can limit the harmful peroxidation of fats. Like bilberries, they can significantly lower blood pressure.
Chokeberries are lethal to malignant cancer cells
Although not as well-known as blueberries and strawberries, chokeberries – or Aronia melanocarpa – may be the ultimate over-achiever of the disease-fighting berries. These versatile berries decrease the peroxidation of lipids, reduce oxidative stress, lower LDL cholesterol and protect the heart with anti-clotting factors.
But the biggest news about chokeberries might be their cancer-destroying effects. In a laboratory study published in 2012 in Oncology Reports, chokeberries caused the death of malignant brain tumor cells.
In this striking study, researchers were exploring the cancer-fighting powers of a combination of curcumin and aronia. The team reported that while curcumin effectively induced apoptosis, aronia went even farther – it was “necrotic” – or absolutely lethal – to cancer cells. In addition, aronia inhibited the gene expression that helps cancer spread.
How can I use berries to fight disease?
Extensive studies have shown dramatic disease-fighting effects from both fresh and powdered berries, as well as some berry juices. However, in some studies, purified anthocyanin extracts – which are more bioavailable to the body – provided benefits that whole, powdered berries did not. Although eating fresh berries is a boon to your health, you may want to consider using standardized berry extracts to get the maximum benefit.
A note of caution: Due to the levels of astringent tannins in berries, taking large amounts of berry extracts can be harmful over time. Before trying berry extracts, discuss the matter with a naturopathic physician or trusted herbal prescriber to custom-design a program that is right for you.