What makes berries, cherries and pomegranates unique and beneficial? Berries and cherries are high in nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber—all of which protect your health. Notably, berries have the highest nutrient-to-calorie ratio of all fruits.
Berries, cherries and pomegranates are full of beneficial phytochemicals, many of which act as antioxidants. Berries are some of the highest antioxidant-rich foods in existence and cherries—which are not berries, but rather a stone fruit (like peaches and plums)—are also rich in flavonoid antioxidant compounds.
Antioxidants are critical for your health as they protect against oxidation and minimize damage to your cells from free radicals. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons, so they are unstable, and can potentially injure cells, negatively affect genetic material and cause destructive chain reactions. Accumulated free radical damage over time ages the body and catalyzes a host of chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and slow or stop their reactions. Some familiar types of antioxidants we get from foods include vitamin C, vitamin E, the minerals selenium and manganese, and carotenoids like beta-carotene. Other types of antioxidants are called flavonoids. Flavonoids occur as pigments in fruits and flowers. Berries, cherries and pomegranates are abundant in flavonoids, which are concentrated in their skins and give rise to their deep hues of red, blue, and purple.3 Flavonoids are thought to have a number of additional beneficial effects in the body, beyond their antioxidant capacity. In fact, flavonoids, in contrast to other dietary antioxidants, are believed to contribute to health primarily due to their ability to modify cell signaling pathways, not their antioxidant capacity. Flavonoids affect pathways leading to changes in gene expression, detoxification, inhibition of cancer cell growth and proliferation, and inhibition of inflammation and other processes related to cancer and heart disease.
Reduction in Heart Disease Risk
Likely due to these cell signaling actions of flavonoids, several studies have shown that high flavonoid intake lowers the risk of heart disease by up to 45%. Flavonoids in berries, cherries and pomegranates and other pomegranate polyphenols appear to act in several different ways to maintain heart health including by reducing inflammation, improving blood lipid, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, and by preventing plaque formation.
Protection Against Cancers
The antioxidants in berries, cherries and pomegranates help to protect against cancers. In the 1980s, ellagic acid, another type of antioxidant abundant in berries, blocked the formation of tumors, providing the initial evidence that these fruits were anti-cancer foods. Flavonoids have powerful anti-cancer effects including reducing inflammation, preventing damage to genetic material, preventing cancer cells from multiplying, slowing the growth of cancer cells, preventing tumors from acquiring a blood supply, and stimulating the body’s own antioxidant enzymes. Pomegranate has anti-angiogenic properties that prevent tumors from getting nourishment and oxygen via blood vessel support. Pomegranate also can reduce breast cancer risk with natural aromatase inhibitors, which inhibit the production of estrogen.
Improvements in Brain Function
Berries are excellent foods for the brain. Substances present in blueberries can both reduce oxidative stress and improve communication between brain cells. Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries have all been shown to slow or reverse age-related cognitive decline in animal studies, and blueberries have now been tested for their effects on human memory. Older adults with mildly impaired memory were given wild blueberry juice as a supplement, and after as little as 12 weeks, measures of learning and memory had improved. The antioxidants in cherries have also been shown to protect brain cells against oxidative stress, implying that eating cherries may help to prevent neurodegenerative diseases like dementia. In people with mild memory complaints, those who drank pomegranate juice daily performed better on memory task compared to placebo and displayed and increase in brain activation measured by functional MRI.
Pain Reduction and Exercise Recovery
Cherries have a unique anti-inflammatory function that may offer natural pain reduction. Cherry extracts inhibit the action of cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1) and COX-2 enzymes. These enzymes are important components of the inflammatory process and the sensation of pain. These are the same enzymes that are inhibited by many common pain medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen. In fact, the COX inhibitory activity of cherry flavonoids is comparable to that of equal concentrations of these medications. Cherries and cherry juice have eased symptoms of gout and arthritis in human subjects, and may also help athletes reduce post-workout muscle pain. Distance runners training for a race who drank tart cherry juice twice daily for 8 days (7 days prior to race plus race day) experienced less post-race pain than those who drank a placebo. Similarly in strength training workouts, those who drank tart cherry juice experienced less pain and strength loss over the four following days, compared to those in the placebo group.
Improvements in Sleep
Cherries may help you sleep. Tart cherries are one of the few food sources of the hormone and antioxidant melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle in the human brain. Tart cherry juice supplementation has been associated with improvements in sleep quality.
Reductions in Uric Acid (Gout)
Evidence has emerged that the anti-inflammatory effects of tart cherry juice could benefit those with gout. In this study, overweight and obese people consumed 8 ounces per day of tart cherry juice or took a placebo for 4 weeks. Those in the group who drank tart cherry juice experienced reductions in uric acid levels and inflammation markers.
In summary, berries, cherries and pomegranates are important components of a natural, high-nutrient diet. I recommend eating one of the three daily to provide the body with protection against free radicals, inflammation, heart disease, and cancers. Include them as part of your variety of fruits, in addition to a bounty of vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds, which together can provide an abundant and varied mix of antioxidants, further protecting your health.