It’s too late to pick blueberries this year. But given all of the impressive research that has been published recently on the health benefits of this tiny fruit, it’s well worth seeking out a high-quality blueberry supplement. (Indeed, blueberry extracts, supplements, and water-soluble powders are now available year round.)
We already know blueberries are helpful for memory and cognition, and research shows they also help protect against cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity. Research has even uncovered the beneficial effects of blueberries on dental health and reducing the use of antibiotics.
It’s quite an extensive array of benefits, considering this berry has only recently come under scientific scrutiny. So today, let’s review some of the basics about blueberries—as well as the latest findings.
Wild blueberries are three times better for you than farm-grown fruit
There are two major types of blueberries that grow in the U.S. The low-bush blueberry, which is the wild variety (Vaccinium angustifolium) and a high-bush variety. High bush blueberries have been cultivated to grow at a higher elevation than wild blueberries would typically grow in their rocky native soil.
Blueberries are rich sources of phenolic acids, which have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.
Using the kind of HPLC-MS analytical technology that I helped develop for the NASA astrobiology program in the last 1970s, eight major phenolic acids have been found among the two species of blueberries.
Of course, the reason that plants produce bioactive phenols and other constituents is to protect them under the strenuous conditions of the wild. Cultivated plants have it “easy” by comparison and need to produce far fewer phenolic and other bioactive compounds for their growth and protection, as demonstrated by the contrasting amounts of chlorogenic acid in these two varieties of blueberries.
Research shows that total phenolic content is over three times higher in the wild compared to the cultivated varieties. Which means wild blueberries are three times better for your health.
Beyond phenols, there are many other constituents in blueberries that contribute to their total antioxidant capacity.
For instance, blueberries also have abundant anthocyanins, which give them their characteristic dark blue color. Like phenols, anthocyanins have anti-inflammatory properties and act as natural antioxidants.
Heart benefits that rival pharmaceutical drugs
One study looked at the benefits of blueberry anthocyanins at protecting the linings of blood vessels from damage.
Blueberries have also been studied for their ability to prevent atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries.
One study looked at the effects of wild blueberry powder on fat accumulation in white blood cells—which is one of the culprits in atherosclerosis. The researchers found that even low concentrations of blueberry anthocyanins reduced fat accumulation. And two other blueberry components—syringic and gallic acid—were also found to be effective at lowering fat accumulation in white blood cells. (As I wrote in an April 2013 Insiders’ Cures article, gallic acid is a common, natural compound that has many beneficial health effects).
Best of all, the concentrations of blueberry anthocyanins found to be effective in these studies are readily achievable in your everyday diet with proper supplementation.
Another clinical trial showed that daily blueberry consumption improved blood pressure and arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women suffering from early-stage high blood pressure.
The study involved 48 participants who received either 22 grams of freeze-dried blueberry powder or 22 grams of a placebo powder daily. After eight weeks, the blueberry group’s blood pressure was significantly lower. Systolic pressure dropped from 138 to 131 mmHg, and diastolic pressure dropped from 80 to 75 mmHg.
An effect that significant may very well allow older individuals to opt for blueberry supplements instead of blood pressure drugs to treat hypertension.
Biochemical measurements were also done on the study participants. The women who ate blueberries had increased production of nitrous oxide, a very powerful relaxant of blood vessels. Basically, nitrous oxide widens the vessels and reduces blood pressure, while supplying good blood circulation to the brain and other tissues.
To recap, in terms of cardiovascular benefits, research shows that blueberries do it all—reducing the oxidation and inflammation that damage blood vessels, curtailing the accumulation of fats that causes atherosclerosis in damaged arteries, and lowering blood pressure and arterial stiffness—which are both major factors for heart disease.
But the benefits of blueberries don’t stop with the heart.
The new “brain food”
Other research shows that whole, fresh, high-bush blueberries (Vaccinium corymbosum) help reduce the oxidative stress that can lead to age-related brain damage.
In one study, lab animals that ate blueberries were protected from oxidation and destruction of brain cells. And their brain tissue was actually able to repair damage due to age-related changes.
Biochemical measurements also demonstrated that blueberries supported antioxidant activity in a number of the animals’ cellular functions. In addition, key neurotransmitter activity was increased in the animals’ brain and nervous tissues.
Tiny berries offer big immune benefits
For the immune system, one study showed that six weeks of daily ingestion of blueberry powder increased natural killer cells (T cell counts) in sedentary men and women. These white blood cells are key to protecting the body from infections, cancer, and other diseases. My colleague Dr. Jerry Thornthwaite discovered natural killer cells back in the 1970s, and their importance continues to be uncovered.
An unexpected weapon in the war against obesity and diabetes
Based on the research I reported above about reducing fat accumulation, you might be wondering if blueberries have a role in preventing obesity. Indeed, scientific research shows blueberry anthocyanins can help prevent weight gain, support weight loss, and help prevent the metabolic complications of obesity like diabetes.
When certain white blood cells (macrophages) infiltrate fat tissue, they contribute to complications like type 2 diabetes. But anthocyanin-rich fractions from blueberries were found to reduce inflammation and fat tissue formation in one study.
These compounds also restored insulin and glucose uptake of fat tissue.
Wild blueberry consumption also showed benefits regarding glucose metabolism in a lab animal model of metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
The important advice your dentist won’t give you
The latest research demonstrates how blueberries can help fight gum disease (periodontitis) and also reduce the use of antibiotics.
Gum disease can result when dental bacteria build up plaque on teeth, causing the gums to become inflamed. Researchers found that wild blueberry extract (remember, wild blueberry is about three times more potent than domestic) helps prevent dental plaque formation, providing a new natural therapy for periodontitis and reducing the need for antibiotics.
Blueberry polyphenols have already been shown to work against foodborne disease-causing bacteria, so the scientists tested whether they also fight a microbe called Fusobacterium, which is one of the main culprits in periodontitis.
In the lab, they tested extracts from the wild, low-bush blueberry and found they inhibit growth of this bacteria and its ability to form plaque. The blueberry extracts also blocked a molecular pathway involved in causing inflammation.
The researchers believe the best approach would be to develop a special oral device to slowly release blueberry extract into the mouth and onto the teeth after deep dental cleaning. But you don’t necessarily have to wait for development and FDA approval of expensive treatments with new device, or a trip to the dentist for an unpleasant deep cleaning.
Blueberry extract is available in a water-soluble, powdered form that can be added to any beverage. It’s designed to be swallowed so it can be absorbed in the blood and tissues. But you can also hold the beverage in your mouth for a while to savor the flavor before swallowing—and do some good for your teeth and gums too.
Look for a dietary supplement or water-soluble powder containing 400 mg of blueberry extract.
“Phenolic acids of the two major blueberry species in the US Market and their antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities.” Plant Foods Hum Nutr. 2015 Mar;70(1):56-62.
“Anti-inflammatory effect of the blueberry anthocyanins malvidin-3-glucoside and malvidin-3-galactoside in endothelial cells.” Molecules. 2014 Aug 21;19(8):12827-41.
“Anthocyanins and phenolic acids from a wild blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium) powder counteract lipid accumulation in THP-1-derived macrophages.” Eur J Nutr. 2015 Jan 17.
“Daily blueberry consumption improves blood pressure and arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women with pre- and stage 1-hypertension: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial.” J Acad Nutr Diet. 2015 Mar;115(3):369-77.
“Blueberry treatment decreased D-galactose-induced oxidative stress and brain damage in rats.” Metab Brain Dis. 2015 Jun;30(3):793-802.
“Six weeks daily ingestion of whole blueberry powder increases natural killer cell counts and reduces arterial stiffness in sedentary males and females.” Nutr Res. 2014 Jul;34(7):577-84.
“Anthocyanins from fermented berry beverages inhibit inflammation-related adiposity response in vitro.” J Med Food. 2015 Apr;18(4):489-96.
“The Effects of Wild Blueberry Consumption on Plasma Markers and Gene Expression Related to Glucose Metabolism in the Obese Zucker Rat.” J Med Food. 2014 Nov 10. [Epub ahead of print].
“Wild Blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium Ait.) Polyphenols Target Fusobacterium nucleatum and the Host Inflammatory Response: Potential Innovative Molecules for Treating Periodontal Diseases.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2015; 63 (31): 6999.