This is the perfect time of year to pick blueberries—either in the forests of New England or in the aisles of your local farmers’ market.
Not only are blueberries good for your taste buds, but they’re also good for your heart, brain, and immune system. And research shows this tiny fruit may have a big impact on diabetes and obesity as well.
I’ll tell you more about that in a moment, but first, let’s look at what makes blueberries one of nature’s most potent superfruits.
Stalking the wild blueberry
Blueberries usually grow where glaciers once flourished. When the Ice Age glaciers that covered the northern U.S. receded 10,000 years ago, they left behind exposed granite; rocky crevices; and thin, scoured soil.
Blueberry bushes are one of the few plants that love to grow in this rough environment. In fact, sometimes it seems as if the most common plants growing in the undergrowth of New England’s deciduous forests during the summer are blueberries. Between the granite rocks, and green-grey mosses on the rocks.
There are two major types of blueberries that grow in the U.S. The lowbush blueberry is the wild variety. A highbush variety has also been cultivated to grow, well, higher than a lowbush—and produce larger fruit.
Both varieties are rich sources of anthocyanins and phenolic acids—compounds that have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (Anthocyanins also give blueberries their characteristic color). But you’ll find more polyphenols in wild rather than domestic blueberries.
Using the same type of analytical testing I helped develop for the NASA astrobiology program in the late 1970s, scientists have discovered eight major phenolic acids in both wild and cultivated blueberries. But the wild berries had three times as much of these disease-fighting compounds as their domestic cousins.1
This makes sense because, as I have often pointed out, the reason plants produce phenols and other compounds is to protect them from the strenuous conditions of the wild. Cultivated plants have it “easy” by comparison, and need to produce far fewer phenols and other phytochemicals for protection.
You won’t be singing the healthcare blues if you eat blueberries
There’s plenty of scientific evidence showing how blueberries help fight disease. Let’s take a look at the newest findings.
Heart disease. Blueberries offer a one-two-three punch to the major risk factors for heart disease.
First of all, blueberry anthocyanins can protect the linings of blood vessels from damage.2 And, of course, healthy blood vessels keep blood flowing freely to the heart and other organs—lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease.
Another study found that a powder made from wild blueberries reduced fat accumulation in white blood cells—which can help prevent hardening of the arteries.3
And a third study showed that daily blueberry consumption significantly improved blood pressure and arterial stiffness in postmenopausal women suffering from early-stage high blood pressure.4 After just eight weeks of eating blueberries, the women’s blood pressure dropped from 138/80 to 131/75. That should be enough to convince even the most mainstream cardiologist to take a patient off of blood-pressure drugs.
Brain diseases. Research shows that whole, fresh blueberries helps lower the oxidative stress that is a culprit behind age-related brain damage. Lab animals that ate blueberries not only had less destruction of brain cells, but their brain tissue actually repaired itself.5
In another study, just four months of blueberry supplementation improved the memory of middle-aged mice fed a high-fat diet. This is impressive because high-fat diets have been linked to memory loss and Alzheimer’s disease.6
Other research shows that the anthocyanin in blueberries can help fight Parkinson’s disease by reducing degeneration of brain neurons.7
And a new study shows that dementia-prone lab animals that ate a blueberry extract for eight weeks had improved memory. The researchers concluded that the antioxidants in blueberry extracts may reverse age-related declines of the brains’ behavioral and cognitive functions.8
Immunity. Researchers have discovered 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.9
My colleague Dr. Jerry Thornthwaite discovered the existence of these natural killer cells back in the 1970s. And we keep learning more about their importance—including how they can be activated by natural substances like blueberry anthocyanins.
Diabetes. Wild blueberry consumption has been shown to improve glucose metabolism in lab animals.10 And that’s important because poor glucose metabolism is one of the hallmarks of diabetes.
Obesity. Anthocyanin-rich extracts from blueberries and blackberries were found to reduce inflammation and fat tissue formation in one study. And they restored insulin and glucose uptake of fat tissue.11
So blueberries can not only help you lose weight, but actually prevent you from gaining weight in the first place. And they can help stave off obesity-related diseases like diabetes.
You can eat ’em or drink ’em
Brain and heart benefits, together with anti-obesity effects and metabolic support, add up to some “blue ribbon” rewards from blueberries.
And best of all, you can easily get the concentrations of blueberry anthocyanins found to be effective in these studies by either eating blueberries daily, supplementing with blueberry extract, or mixing blueberry powder in water or tea.
When blueberries are in season, I recommend eating at least a handful per day. You can also add them to fruit salads, or use blueberry compote as a side relish with meals.
And when the summer wanes, supplements are a great option. I recommend 500-1,000 mg per day.
So now you know. When it comes to good health, you can get your thrill on “Blueberry Hill”—recorded by Gene Autry in 1940, Louis Armstrong in 1949, Fats Domino (as his signature song) in 1956, Elvis Presley in 1957, and many others:
“I found my thrill on blueberry hill
On blueberry hill, when I found you
Though we’re apart, you’re part of me still
For you were my thrill, on blueberry hill”
1“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.
2“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.
3“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.
4“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.
5“Blueberry treatment decreased D-galactose-induced oxidative stress and brain damage in rats.” Metab Brain Dis. 2015 Jun;30(3):793-802.
6 “Blueberry supplementation improves memory in middle-aged mice fed a high-fat diet.” J Agric Food Chem. 2014 May 7;62(18):3972-8.
7 “Neuroprotective effects of anthocyanin- and proanthocyanidin-rich extracts in cellular models of Parkinson׳s disease.” Brain Res. 2014 Mar 25;1555:60-77.
8 “Cyanidin-3-O-galactoside and blueberry extracts supplementation improves spatial memory and regulates hippocampal ERK expression in senescence-accelerated mice.” Biomed Environ Sci. 2014 Mar;27(3):186-96.
9“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.
10“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].
11“Anthocyanins from fermented berry beverages inhibit inflammation-related adiposity response in vitro.” J Med Food. 2015 Apr;18(4):489-96.