Blue berries are great to improve your health. But have you ever wondered, “Why?” Most likely the answer is that blueberries contain an ingredient called anthocyanin, which is in the blue pigment that colors the blueberry that bluish-purple color. There is a great deal of research that support the health promoting qualities of blueberries.

The word anthocyanin comes from the Greek language: Anthos = flower and kyáneos = blue. It belongs to a family of compound called polyphenols, specifically the flavonoid group of polyphenols. You may have heard of polyphenols when it comes to the health promoting effects of olive oil, which are thought to come from the polyphenols in olive oil.

Anthocyanins are in a number of fruits, including grapes (and in wine), bilberries, blackberries, blackcurrants, elderberries, chokeberries, strawberries and (of course) blueberries. I love my berries, whether in the morning or in the afternoon. I mix them, add a little Splenda or Stevia, pour some half & half or cream over them, add a few pecans, and I get to enjoy a delicious health improving meal.

The Health Boosting Benefits of Anthocyanins

Anthocyanins are strong antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds. They have been shown to help protect the heart from developing heart disease, the brain from neurodegenerative diseases, and essentially all your body cells from the development of cancer growths.[1]

They enhance antioxidant defenses through multiple mechanisms. One is by increasing the activity of certain enzymes, SOD (superoxide dismutase) and glutathione peroxidase. These are probably two of the strongest enzymes that help protect cells from damage that can occur due to free radical formations during normal metabolism. This is considered antioxidant activity, and anthocyanins are strong antioxidants, which correlate with anti-aging results.

This includes protection from damage of mitochondria and DNA. Mitochondria are powerhouses for every cell, and protecting their health helps ensure good energy production within each cell. Protecting your DNA does a lot of things, not only does DNA create the reactions within each cell that keep it alive and active but protecting DNA from damage could also decrease mutations of the DNA, which could equate to potentially preventing some cancers from forming.

Protecting Your Heart and Blood Vessels

One common problem that results in the development of heart disease is clogging of the arteries and destruction of the arteries by oxidation of bad cholesterol. If you have more of the bad cholesterol, potentially more of this process occurs, accompanied by worse chance of you developing heart disease.

Human studies have confirmed the antioxidant actions of anthocyanins to reduce cardiovascular disease risks. In one study,[2] 120 patients with high lipids were given anthocyanin had a reduction in bad lipids and an increase in good lipids, equating to a potential decrease in risk of developing cardiovascular disease. Raising your HDL and lowering the LDL have been shown to be good strategies for reducing the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD).[3]

Blood vessels must be healthy for adequate blood to flow freely within their lumens. We know that the inside linings of blood vessels, called the endothelium, is very important for maintaining this good blood flow. If this lining collects small areas of bad cholesterol underneath it, this could be a problem. Once these “plaques” develop, inflammation and scaring can occur resulting in atherosclerosis, otherwise called hardening of the arteries.

Along with this hardening is a “stiffness” that can occur along the arteries. To help prevent this, the endothelial cells produce a compound called nitric oxide (NO) which dilates the arteries and makes them less stiff for better blood flow. Anthocyanins have been shown to decrease formation of atherosclerosis in animal models partly by increasing the formation of nitric oxide in the endothelium.[4]

Anthocyanins Decrease Inflammation

Not only can anthocyanin relax and dilate the arterial walls to reduce blood pressure, they also can reduce inflammation that may be building up and damage the endothelium. Anthocyanins are polyphenols and are found in many colored vegetables and fruits, and have also been shown to decrease platelet aggregation, which also helps in the flow of blood through the vessels protecting the endothelium from damage.

Remember that inflammation is the root cause of chronic medical diseases. Inflammation can occur due to the deposition of the bad cholesterol under the endothelium. This deposition of the bad cholesterol (small particles) may progress resulting in a collection of this nasty stuff. Once accumulated, the body sends out messengers to clean it up and repair these collections. If excessive, the result is inflammation, which is not good. Inflammation of the material can liquify it and increase the risk of rupture of the vessel. If within the heart, the ruptured vessel may result in a blockage of flow of blood and a heart attack.

Blueberries Improve Blood Flow to the Brain

There has always been a connection between the brain and the heart: increasing heart diseases correlates with increasing neurological disease and damage. If blueberries can improve the blood flow to the heart, they can improve blood flow to the brain. There had been many animal studies that confirmed this correlation.

As we age, none of us want to suffer from degeneration of our brains (called neurodegenerative diseases) that could result in chronic diseases such as dementia, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. Ingesting blueberry extracts may be beneficial in decreasing our risks of developing these brain problems.

An important human study has confirmed the connection between ingesting high amounts of blueberries, or their extracts, and improved brain health. Researchers in the UK gave concentrated blueberry extracts to a group of 26 participants for 12 weeks in a double-blind trial.[5] Not only did they evaluate the results using cognitive questions, but also by looking at MRI changes in brain activation as seen in the MRI’s of these individuals.

They found that those taking the blueberry extracts increased brain activity, had improved working memory and had improved brain perfusion and activation in brain areas associated with cognitive function. It is thought that this improvement may be due to improvement in the endothelium of the vessels that feed the brain, in addition to direct effects of the extracts on the brain.

Conclusion

In conclusion, anthocyanins are polyphenol compounds from blueberries, wine, and other pigmented fruits and vegetables. When ingested adequately, such as with concentrated extracts, they can decrease the bad cholesterol (LDL) while increasing the good cholesterol (HDL) These changes may help prevent dysfunction of the lining of the arteries (endothelium) in many ways, including by production of nitric oxide to dilate the vessels.

Concentrations of blueberries also may improve brain function in a similar way through through improved endothelial function. All these effects help improve the flow of blood (circulation) and thus decrease the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and neurodegenerative diseases.

 

References

[1] Pojer E. et al. The Case for Anthocyanin Consumption to Promote Human Health: A Review. Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety. Sept 2013. 12(5). doi.org/10.1111/1541-4337.12024

[2] Yu Q, et al. Anthocyanin supplementation improves serum LDL- and HDL-cholesterol concentrations associated with the inhibition of cholesteryl ester transfer protein in dyslipidemic subjects. Amer. Journ. Clin. Nutrition. Sept 2009. 90(3):485-492. https://doi.org/10.3945/ajcn.2009.27814

[3] Lewis GF, Rader DJ. New insights into the regulation of HDL metabolism and reverse cholesterol transport. Circ Res 2005; 96:1221–32. doi.org/10.1161/01.RES.0000170946.56981.5c

[4] Xu JW, Ikeda K, Yamori Y. Upregulation of endothelial nitric oxide synthase by cyanidin-3-glucoside, a typical anthocyanin pigment. Hypertension 2004; 44:217–22.

[5] Bowtell JL, Aboo-Bakkar Z, Conway ME, et al. Enhanced task-related brain activation and resting perfusion in healthy older adults after chronic blueberry supplementation. Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2017;42(7):773-9. doi.org/10.1139/apnm-2016-0550