The Science Behind Superfoods: Blueberries

During Episode 2.10 of the Online Warriors podcast, we briefly discussed our feelings about some of the most popular superfoods like blueberries and kale. That conversation led me to do a bit of research on why such foods are considered “super.” I dug into some of the benefits behind blueberries specifically, and I’d like to share my findings on this blog… but first, beware. I’ve dug into some actual scientific studies to try to back up some of these claims. This is a long read – but hopefully, you’ll find some beneficial information!

Cancer-Fighting Properties

Blueberries contain two natural chemicals, resveratrol and flavonoids, that act as safe antioxidants and antibacterial agents in the body. However, these chemicals are also thought to be radiosensitizers – in other words, they make cancer cells more susceptible to traditional radiation therapy. Research is still in its early stages, but some recent studies seem to back up the claim that blueberries and blueberry extract can indeed help stave off cancer.

For example, a 2017 study published in the “Journal of Pathology & Oncology Research” tested the use of blueberry extract to treat human cervical cancer cells. Cells that were treated with traditional radiation therapy saw a decrease in cancer of about 20%, while treatment that paired radiation with the use of blueberry extract reduced cancer by nearly 70%. (1) That’s a massive jump in efficacy!

Blueberries also contain pterostilbene, another similar antioxidant that has been shown to have anti-cancerous properties. A 2007 study performed by scientists at Rutgers and the US Department of Agriculture observed two groups of rats induced with colon cancer. Both groups of rats were fed the same diet, but one group also received an additional pterostilbene supplement. The rats given the pterostilbene supplement had 57% fewer pre-cancerous lesions – and showed less inflammation of the colon, one of the risk factors for colon cancer. (2) Granted, more research on human cells must be performed, but those results seem to be optimistic!

It’s not yet evident how these chemicals might be released and interact with cancer cells through the normal digestive process, but ingesting blueberries certainly can’t hurt!

Protection Against Memory Loss

A 2012 study, published in the “Annals of Neurology,” posits that eating several servings of blueberries per week could delay cognitive degeneration for anywhere from 6 months to 2.5 years. The study analyzed the cognitive function and dietary habits of over 16,000 older women and found that the women who had the highest berry consumption actually slowed their memory decline. Apparently, the flavonoids in blueberries are able to concentrate in the parts of the brain that control your memory, where their antioxidant properties are beneficial in preserving brain function. (3)

A similar study presented in 2016 by scientists at the University of Cincinnati corroborated this evidence. A group of senior citizens displaying signs of cognitive impairment – often a precursor to Alzheimer’s – was given the equivalent of a cup of blueberries every day for 4 months. When compared against a control group, those who received the blueberry supplement experienced improved memory performance and even showed increased brain activity via an fMRI. (4)

Combatting PTSD

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that manifests after a distressing event and has been associated with all sorts of psychological and societal setbacks for the suffering individual. A team out of Louisiana State University studied the biochemical mechanisms behind PTSD back in 2016 and found that many PTSD sufferers have an abnormally low level of the gene SKA2. They studied this connection in rats and found that they were able to increase SKA2 levels in depreciated rats by feeding them the human equivalent of 2 cups of blueberries a day. A previous study of rats had also indicated that a blueberry-rich diet would also increase serotonin levels, which has been linked to feelings of happiness and well-being. (5)

While this relationship still needs to be studied further, this indicates that there could be some link between blueberries and the alleviation of PTSD, anxiety, and depression.

Cardiovascular Health

As I mentioned before, blueberries contain flavonoids, natural antioxidants, and antibacterials. Within the flavonoid class is a chemical called anthocyanin, which is contained in the skin of blueberries and is responsible for the color of the fruit.

A study published in 2016 followed a group of younger-to-middle-aged women for almost two decades, comparing their anthocyanin intake with their cardiovascular health. At the end of the study, it was determined that women who consumed a minimum of 3 servings of blueberries a week cut their risk for heart attack by about 32%. The study did note, however, that it is impossible to isolate the impact of anthocyanin alone. Blueberries also contain other vitamins and minerals, like potassium and folate, that could also have contributed to increased heart health. (6)

There’s still a lot of science to be done, but at the end of the day one thing is clear: there may be a bevy of benefits in your bushel of blueberries! Does this make you want to incorporate more blueberries into your diet? If you already regularly consume blueberries, what sort of recipes do you recommend? Let me know down in the comments, and thanks for sticking with this long article!


Citations

(1) University of Missouri-Columbia. “Berry gives boost to cervical cancer therapy: In vitro study combines radiation therapy, blueberry extract to improve treatment.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 29 December 2017. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171229135254.htm>.

(2) American Chemical Society. “Blueberries Contain Chemical That May Help Prevent Colon Cancer.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 26 March 2007. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/03/070325111552.htm>.

(3) Pearson, Catherine. “Cognitive Impairment Study Shows Berries Significantly Slow Degeneration.” HuffPost, 26 Apr. 2012, http://www.huffpost.com/entry/cognitive-impairment-study-berries_n_1453557.

(4) American Chemical Society. “Blueberries, the well-known ‘super fruit,’ could help fight Alzheimer’s.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 14 March 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160314084821.htm>.

(5) Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). “Blueberries may offer benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 5 April 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/04/160405175653.htm>.

(6) Cassidy, Aedín et al. “A High Anthocyanin Intake Is Associated with a Reduced Risk of Myocardial Infarction in Young and Middle-Aged Women.” Circulation 127.2 (2013): 188–196. PMC. Web. 14 Aug. 2018.

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