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Food as Medicine: Making the Most of Blueberry Season

Rich in antioxidants with a low glycemic index, blueberries are an underestimated superfood for those at risk for cardiovascular disease or insulin resistance

Its blueberry season!! Or at least the tail end…as we march on towards fall the fruit hanging from bushes at the local U-Pick might be dwindling, but the health benefits of this tiny berry are stronger than ever. And now is the perfect time to discuss why blueberries should earn a place on your plate this season.

Antioxidants and Heart Disease

First, lets discuss antioxidants. This “buzzword” has been around for a while now, with snack food and drink companies all too eager to advertise that their product is chock full of them. But what actually is an antioxidant and what do they do for our health? To answer those questions, lets take a look at what happens in one of the most important and often one of the most diseased places in the American body: the blood vessels that surround the heart, AKA, the coronary arteries.

The coronary arteries provide our heart muscle with the oxygen it needs to keep blood pumping effectively through our bodies, thereby nourishing our cells and tissues with all the elements they need for life. When one of these arteries becomes blocked, the result is often a heart attack: an acute event where a section of the heart loses oxygen due to the blockage in the artery that feeds it. There’s a LOT of information out there about what causes blockages in the coronary arteries, and I am only going to touch the surface of it now (stay tuned for future posts on the subject!). For our discussion of antioxidants, however, its important to know three things:

1. Blockages are the end result of damage to the wall of the coronary artery

2. Damage to the coronary artery is the end result of inflammation

3. Oxidation plays a role in both inflammation and blockage formation

Oxidation is a normal body process. It plays a role in the breakdown of our food and the production of energy, as well as many other things. The oxidative process creates something called “free radicals”: a fancy word for oxygen particles that have gone rogue. An excess of those free radicals in our blood vessels causes inflammation and puts us at risk for blockage formation, and as modern humans, we make a lot of decisions that increase them at huge levels. Smoke inhalation, oxidized cholesterol (more to come on that later) and the over secretion of insulin by the pancreas, a common finding in the early states of type II diabetes, are three of the most common causes of oxidative damage and blockage formation around the heart.

So why does your doctor keep telling you to quit smoking, stop eating bad fats and watch your sugar intake? Well for one thing, they are hurting your heart! Do yourself a favor and take the advice! But in the meantime, if you are at increased risk for heart disease (or you'd like to prevent that risk from developing), antioxidants can provide a helping hand. Think of antioxidants like a “free radical Pac Man”: their job is to go around and swallow up all the excess free radicals that stand to damage your tender, fragile blood vessels. Our body makes a lot of them naturally: but often times its not enough to keep up with the stress we put our blood vessels under. Thats where we get back to our blueberries.

Blueberries are rich in an antioxidant category called polyphenols. Studies have shown that one cup of blueberries a day is enough to meet all a person’s antioxidant needs, and since blueberries are relatively cheap, delicious and accessible, this is good news for most of us. Other berries such as blackberries and raspberries have these properties also, but blueberries have continually been shown to be the best choice. And with so many wonderful ways to prepare this delectable fruit (and with fall approaching fast), do yourself a favor and start now!

Preparation Suggestion: Blueberries for Heart Protection

Check out this awesome recipe for grain-free Blueberry Almond Cobbler from Wellness Mama, one of my favorite web sources for whole food-based yummies! Almonds are one of the only foods that have been clinically shown to boost HDL cholesterol (your good cholesterol), thereby maximizing the happy heart impact of your blueberries : ) If you want to supercharge your dessert, try adding a handful of hawthorne berries to the mix, used by American herbalists for generations to promote a healthy heart muscle, decrease blood pressure and minimize heart disease risk.

Expanding Horizons…Blueberries and Insulin Resistance

So heart protection isn't the end of the blueberry story: turns out, both blueberry leaf and the berry itself have been shown through clinical trials to have a positive impact on diabetes as well! This is good news, because as I mentioned before, heart disease and blood sugar issues are not only closely related, but often go hand in hand in my patients. But I shouldn't say “blood sugar issues”, because the symptoms and complications of type II diabetes (the type caused by lifestyle) are really caused by two things: too much blood sugar, and too much insulin.

We often think of diabetes as a disease of not enough insulin, and in a way, thats true: cells in the body need insulin in order to access the sugar we eat in our food, and for a diabetic, the amount of insulin we have isn't enough to move that sugar inside the cell. Therefore, it hangs out in our blood. But in type II diabetes, at least for a while, there is a HUGE amount of insulin being secreted, but because cells have become “insulin resistant”, it is just never enough. So now, like I said, we've got two problems on our hands: too much sugar, and too much insulin. Both of these have the capacity to wreak havoc on our system, from throwing off our hormonal balance, to making it hard to lose weight, to destroying our kidneys. But once again, its blueberries to the rescue on both accounts.

Studies have shown that the blueberry leaf (not the fruit) has the capacity to lower blood sugar in type II diabetics. This is good news, although researchers are not quite sure how blueberry leaf extract manages this. What we do know is that it is NOT through helping sugar in the blood find its way into the cells. Only insulin can do this. So while decreasing blood sugar is an admirable goal of diabetes treatment (and a necessary one), it does NOT address the root cause of the problem. Remember that diabetes is, at its base, an insulin issue.

Luckily, studies on the effects of blueberry fruit has shown increases in insulin sensitivity, meaning it can actually help cells overcome insulin resistance and use insulin properly to move sugar in. This is a huge game changer for a diabetic, because now we have a whole plant that helps decrease blood sugar AND decrease insulin resistance. Total. Super. Food.

So here we are at the end. If nothing else, remember that sometimes the simplest, most overlooked foods can offer us the most in terms of health promotion and disease prevention. Now go out and eat your berries!!!

Protein Packed Power Smoothie

Try this blueberry based smoothie as a high protein breakfast to start your insulin levels out low at the beginning of your day!

1 scoop high quality protein powder (no whey protein please! Will increase insulin!)

1 cup blueberries

1/2 cup coffee (another great tool to increase insulin sensitivity...can be decaf)

Unsweetened almond milk to taste

Blend together and enjoy!!

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