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Berries Reduce Disease Risk

February 2017

By Alma Stenton

Researchers continue to discover a wide variety of health benefits provided by berries.

Berries contain bioactive natural pigments called anthocyanins.

Used for thousands of years in traditional medicine,1 these water-soluble plant pigments are what give plants their wide range of colors, from blue and purple, to red and orange.2

Anthocyanins have a broad spectrum of biological effects, exerting antimicrobial, cell-protective, antitumor, lipid-lowering, and neuroprotective properties—all of which have implications for disease prevention and promotion of good health.1,3,4 Despite these impressive benefits, the therapeutic opportunities for using anthocyanins have been largely overlooked.1

Three new studies provide further insight on the potential of anthocyanins to help reduce risks of type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegeneration.

Anthocyanins Lower Risk for Chronic Disease

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A large proportion of deaths in the modern world are caused by type II diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegenerative disorders (such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s).

Studies have linked the rising incidence of these conditions in large part to our access to excess calories, which disrupts natural protective processes and causes us to gain weight, increases chronic levels of inflammation, and contributes to cellular aging.5-10 Three new studies on anthocyanins are of particular interest to those afflicted by these degenerative illnesses.

One of these was a large meta-analysis showing that anthocyanin intake was linked to a reduced risk of type II diabetes. (A meta-analysis provides statistical power because it condenses data from smaller studies, and then analyzes the larger group as a whole.) This study involved a total of nearly 400,000 participants in which anthocyanin intake was recorded.11 It found that subjects with the highest anthocyanin intake were at a significant 15% reduced risk for developing type II diabetes.11

Just preventing type II diabetes alone could save nearly 250,000 lives a year, deaths caused largely from the cardiovascular and neurological consequences that occur as a result of the condition.12 But there’s evidence that anthocyanins can directly reduce risks for those conditions as well, as we’ll now see.

Cardiovascular Disease

Regular intake of anthocyanins is already known to reduce the risk for cardiovascular disease in women.13,14

Based on this knowledge, researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health set out to determine if anthocyanin intake would provide similar protection to men. To determine this, they followed 43,880 healthy men with no prior history of cardiovascular disease or cancer for 24 years in the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.15 During that time, 4,046 men (9.22%) had a myocardial infarction (heart attack).

Men with the highest anthocyanin intake experienced a 14% reduced risk of having a nonfatal heart attack. Among the subgroup of men with normal blood pressure at the beginning of the study, that protective effect rose to 19%. These figures suggest that increased anthocyanin intake could prevent nearly one in five men from having a nonfatal heart attack. This is a remarkable finding, especially considering that about 735,000 people in the US have heart attacks every year.16

The researchers believe that the ability of anthocyanins to reduce cardiovascular risk might arise from the combination of reduced blood pressure, improved endothelial (blood vessel lining) function, and increased insulin sensitivity.15

This brings us to the third impressive study published in 2016, one that showed the ability of anthocyanin supplementation to reduce the risk of neurodegeneration.17

Neurodegeneration

Neurodegeneration is the gradual loss of brain cells, along with the loss of body function, as seen in Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other age-related dementias. It is closely associated with poor insulin sensitivity, diminished endothelial function, and elevated blood pressure.18-20 These facts suggested to alert scientists that anthocyanins might be useful in reducing the risk of neurodegeneration, perhaps by reducing the impact of at least those three factors.

To evaluate this theory, the researchers injected a group of mice with a substance known to produce inflammatory and neurodegenerative changes in the brain similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s and related disorders.17 Beginning seven days before exposure to the inflammation-generating injection, one group of mice received an injection of anthocyanins, while another group was left untreated. The animals treated with anthocyanins showed significantly fewer effects in their brains compared with control mice.

For example, supplemented animals had reduced levels of oxidative stress. They also had significant reductions in brain inflammation, which was shown to be directly related to the inhibition of a host of pro-inflammatory factors including IL-1beta, TNF-alpha, and NF-kappaB.

Furthermore, the anthocyanin-treated animals showed fewer activated brain inflammation-generating cells.

This study shows us that supplementation with anthocyanins could prevent the kinds of brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

How Do Anthocyanins Exert Their Protective Effects?

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These recent studies demonstrate the protective effects of high anthocyanin intake against major chronic, age-related diseases. But how do they work?

Researchers are still seeking to clarify the precise mechanisms, but so far we have some good general ideas. For example, in type II diabetes, studies show that anthocyanins:

  • Improve insulin sensitivity21
  • Increase the activity of a group of transcription factors that regulate the expression of certain genes called PPARs, which triggers increased utilization of sugars and fats, and prevents their storage or rising levels in blood22
  • Increase secretion of the antiobesity hormone adiponectin23
  • Reduce inflammatory cell accumulations in the kidneys, a major cause of diabetic kidney disease24
  • Reduce intracellular fat accumulation25

In cardiovascular disease, anthocyanins have been shown to:

  • Contribute to improved endothelial function by increasing nitric oxide availability23
  • Reduce production of adhesion molecules that make inflammatory cells stick to blood vessel walls in early atherosclerosis26,27
  • Reduce fat production and promote clearance of fat by the liver28
  • Raise beneficial HDL cholesterol levels while reducing harmful LDL cholesterol3,4
  • Inhibit factors leading to platelet aggregation and clot formation29

Finally, in neurological disorders, anthocyanins:

  • Protect neurons from the damaging effects of the toxic Alzheimer’s protein known as beta-amyloid30
  • Protect brain mitochondria from oxidative stress, keeping them alive to do their essential energy-producing work in the brain31,32
  • Prevent oxidative stress-induced brain cell death (apoptosis)33
  • Reduce the impact of excitotoxicity, the hyperactivity of certain brain neurotransmitters that is associated with development of Alzheimer’s disease34

Best Sources for Anthocyanins

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Anthocyanins have tremendous potential to reduce misery and disease. The primary dietary sources of anthocyanins are dark fruits, especially berries.1,35-38

Even if Americans increase their consumption of cherries, strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, and others, few will be able to do it consistently enough to substantially impact healthy aging. There is also an issue with the amount of fructose ingested if they intentionally eat lots of berries.

Fortunately, anthocyanin extracts can achieve similar benefits to berries themselves. Interestingly, because these highly concentrated anthocyanin extracts are inherently stable; they cost less when taken as supplements compared to buying fresh fruits that spoil rapidly.

Summary

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The benefits of anthocyanins have been largely overlooked by the medical community. That is now changing as scientists discover their hidden potential, particularly in preventing some of the deadliest chronic, age-related diseases.

Recent studies demonstrate that high consumption of anthocyanins is associated with reduced risks of type II diabetes andcardiovascular disease. A new animal study shows that anthocyanin supplementation can protect against brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

These conditions all share high levels of oxidative stress, poor glucose control/insulin resistance, and chronic inflammatory changes. Studies of anthocyanins show that they are able to directly combat these degenerative changes.

While berries are excellent sources of anthocyanins, it can be difficult to sustain daily high intakes of these nutrients through consumption of fresh berries alone. Anthocyanin supplements can provide protection that is available day in and day out.

If you have any questions on the scientific content of this article, please call a Life Extension® Wellness Specialist at 1-866-864-3027.

References

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