Updated 13 February 2015

Blueberries may help to control blood pressure

Eating blueberry powder for 8 weeks can cause a significant drop in blood pressure in post-menopausal women, a new study shows.


A new study has found that women who ate freeze-dried blueberries for two months had lowered blood pressure and increased levels of a chemical that relaxes blood vessel walls.

"This tells us that blueberries may improve the health of blood vessels in addition to reducing blood pressure," said Sarah Johnson, a nutrition and exercise researcher at Florida State University in Tallahassee who led the study.

Johnson and her co-authors do not suggest that blueberries should replace hypertension medications. But they say the berries might help offset a tendency toward rising blood pressure and stiffening blood vessels after menopause that raises women's heart disease risk.

Past research has suggested that blueberries may help lower blood pressure, the authors write in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Some studies have also indicated that the flavonoids and other healthy plant compounds in blueberries may help to boost nitric oxide, a chemical that affects the cells that line blood vessel walls.

Read: Berries cut heart attack risk

How the study was conducted

The 48 women in the study were all past menopause, with an average age of 55 and borderline high blood pressure.

For eight weeks, half the women consumed 22 grams (about 1.5 tablespoons) of freeze-dried blueberry powder every day (equivalent to a cup of fresh blueberries) and the other half consumed an identical-looking powder that didn't contain blueberry.

At the beginning of the study, then four and eight weeks later, researchers measured their blood pressure and the stiffness of their arteries.

According to the American Heart Association, a blood pressure reading of less than 120 mm Hg for the top number and less than 80 mm Hg for the bottom number is considered healthy. All the women in the study were either close enough to the top of the healthy range to be considered "pre-hypertensive" or already in the low end of the hypertension range.

At the start, the average blood pressure in both groups of women was 138/79 mm Hg. After four weeks, it hadn't changed in either group.

Noticeable drop in blood pressure after 8 weeks

After eight weeks, however, women who had been eating blueberry powder had an average blood pressure of 131/75 mm Hg, representing a drop of 5 to 6 percent. The readings of women eating the fake powder had not changed.

The researchers also found that blood nitric oxide levels rose by 68 percent among women eating the real blueberry powder. The rise in nitric oxide, which would relax and widen blood vessel walls, could have contributed to their lower blood pressure, according to Johnson.

She said the blood pressure decrease in the blueberry group is significant when compared to blood pressure medications and other types of interventions, but that it also depends on the individual.

"People respond differently to medications and in some people medications are even less effective than this," she said. "Some medications may work better but may also have negative side effects."

For women in the 50 to 55 age range who have borderline high blood pressure, medication isn't always recommended, according to Dr. Chileshe Nkonde-Price, director of the Penn Women's Cardiovascular Centre in Philadelphia, who was not involved with the study.

Read: Blueberries help with healthy ageing

Menopausal women can manage blood pressure with healthy lifestyle

"Menopausal women who are often in that 'gray zone' can manage their blood pressure by maintaining a normal body weight through diet and exercise and watching their sodium intake," she said. "But that can be hard to implement in everyday life."

Nkonde-Price thinks adding a cup of blueberries to a daily diet is "simple" and something her patients can easily handle.

More research into understanding how blueberries affect arterial function is needed, however, Nkonde-Price said.

"This study opens the gateway for other foods or other drugs that could lower blood pressure through the same mechanism," she said.

"I'd like to see more studies that show why foods or drugs work through this pathway."

Read more:
Eating berries may slow brain decline
Blueberries tied to lower diabetes risk
Blueberries may block fat cells

Image: Female hands holding ripe, tasty blueberries from Shutterstock


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Hypertension expert

Dr Jacomien de Villiers qualified as a specialist physician at the University of Pretoria in 1995. She worked at various clinics at the Department of Internal Medicine, Steve Biko Hospital, these include General Internal Medicine, Hypertension, Diabetes and Cardiology. She has run a private practice since 2001, as well as a consultant post at the Endocrine Clinic of Steve Biko Hospital.

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