Nutrition researchers have been big on exotic berries lately. That’s because camu camu, sea buckthorn, acai, goji, maqui, and other foreign fruits have demonstrated a remarkable ability to slow signs of aging and disease.
Then there’s the blueberry, one of very few fruits native to North America. It may not be exotic, but it still possesses incredible health benefits.
Blueberries have long been recommended for a variety of ailments: gout, urinary tract infections, reducing inflammation, and improving eye health.
Modern research has discovered that blueberries also have an affinity for the brain. Some studies show that eating blueberries may significantly improve memory, motor coordination, and general cognitive function. Other studies reveal that they may also protect against the onset of degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.
For their traumatized subjects, researchers at Louisiana State University looked at the brain chemistry of rats exposed to a terrifying predator: a cat.
Traumatized rats that ate a blueberry enriched diet (2 percent) saw a rise in serotonin—a neurotransmitter that affects mood, social behavior, memory, and sleep. Serotonin is increased when taking selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) drugs, such as Zoloft and Paxil. Severe depression, panic, and obsessive-compulsive behavior have been shown to correlate to a serotonin deficiency.
Traumatized rats fed a plain diet (no blueberries) did not show much of a serotonin increase, but instead demonstrated a predictable rise in norepinephrine—a neurotransmitter that often spikes in response to trauma.
Norepinephrine is also necessary to maintain a balanced mood, but when levels are too high it can reduce the effectiveness of serotonin. There was no change in norepinephrine for the blueberry-eating rats.
Brain and Heart Power
So what gives blueberry its neuroprotective ability? Antioxidants: vitamins and other phytochemicals that guard against something called oxidative stress.
Antioxidants protect our cellular structure from the damaging effects of toxins and the free radical byproducts of our own metabolism before they turn into cancer, heart disease, cognitive decline, arthritis, or other chronic problems.
All fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants, but berries are an exceptional source. You can detect the presence of antioxidants in foods that have a deep, rich color.
Blueberries get their unusual blue color from an antioxidant called anthocyanin, which is known to reduce inflammation. When combined with another blueberry antioxidant, quercetin, anthocyanin also helps slow cognitive decline.
Antioxidants help cool inflammation found throughout the body, but some seem to be specialized. Research shows that blueberries are especially suited toward the brain and heart—two organ systems that are particularly vulnerable to oxidative stress. A 2012 study found that women with a high anthocyanin intake reduced their risk of heart attack by a third.
Keep in mind that an occasional blueberry muffin isn’t necessarily going to stave off dementia. In some studies, a therapeutic dose is two to two-and-a-half cups of blueberries per day. Others suggest that a half cup of blueberries consumed a few times a week can still have remarkable benefits.
It may seem like a lot, but consider that you would have to consume much more of almost any other fruit or vegetable to get the same amount of antioxidants from blueberries. Plus, they taste great!
Blueberries have a lower glycemic index than most fruit, so you don’t run the risk of spiking blood sugar like when you eat too many bananas or grapes. In fact, some studies show that blueberries can actually help balance blood sugar, and are even recommended for those with type 2 diabetes.
Eat Fresh, Frozen, Wild
Fresh berries are always a treat, but frozen is still a good choice when blueberries are out of season. One study found that frozen blueberries made antioxidants more bioavailable and increased concentration of anthocyanin.
There is also evidence to suggest that lightly steamed or dried blueberries have more concentrated antioxidants.
Wild blueberries, if you can find them, are even more antioxidant-rich than cultivated ones.
Avoid Juice, With Milk, Non-Organic
Pasteurized blueberry juice, while convenient, has many fewer antioxidants than other forms. One study also suggests that when blueberries are eaten with milk it impairs antioxidant absorption.
Whenever possible choose organic berries. Blueberries are ranked 14th among fruits and vegetables with the highest concentration of pesticide residue according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Studies show that organic blueberries also have higher concentrations of nutrients and are better equipped to fend off cellular damage.
Fun Blueberry Facts
Blueberries are the second most popular berry in the United States, after strawberries.
Blueberry production has skyrocketed in the last 20 years. In 1995, the United States grew 93 million pounds. For 2015 U.S. growers predict 735 million pounds.
Blueberry cultivation is a fairly recent invention. The first commercial blueberry crop was grown in New Jersey in 1916. Today Michigan is the top grower of cultivated blueberries, and Maine grows the most wild blueberries, but it’s still the state fruit of New Jersey.
Native American tribes often looked to bears as a guide to finding food and medicine. Black bears eat a ton of berries, and will gorge themselves on blueberries when they’re available. According to the North American Bear Center, black bears can eat up to 30,000 berries a day.