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New “Wonder Nutrient” Found in Grapes, Blueberries

Why would a plant produce a natural substance that, when consumed by you or me, helps fight diabetes, cancer and brain problems?

No one knows precisely.

Another twist to the puzzle is that the chemical I’m going to talk about today has unique properties that seem custom-designed to benefit humans. It can boost a part of our immune system that isn’t found in other animals, except for our fellow primates like gorillas and monkeys.

But that particular mystery hasn’t stopped researchers from delving into the complicated health benefits of a compound called pterostilbene (pronounced “tero-still-bean” — the “p” is silent).

The research is just getting underway, but everything discovered so far points to the conclusion that pterostilbene possesses an impressive array of benefits. It lowers the risk of conditions like diabetes and cancer that plague modern society. Among its benefits are reduced blood sugar and weight loss.

Playing Second Fiddle

One reason the studies on pterostilbene have only recently begun to ramp up is that it’s been overshadowed by another, similar substance found in some of the same plants: Pterostilbene is made by grapes and blueberries, and is often found side-by-side with resveratrol, a related anti-aging compound that’s attracted a great deal of publicity and research.

Now scientists are beginning to realize the overlooked younger sister is the real beauty of the family.

Both resveratrol and pterostilbene are compounds known as phytoalexins. Plants make these chemicals to fight off fungal infections and protect themselves from the ultraviolet radiation in sunlight, as well as to help them fend off damage from toxins.

Plants containing both substances usually contain about ten times more resveratrol than pterostilbene. This is probably a reason that research into pterostilbene has lagged. It just doesn’t stick out quite as much.

But a little bit of pterostilbene can go a long way.

Vitamin D Partnership

Researchers at the University of Oregon analyzed the potential health benefits for immunity of 446 different natural compounds found in a variety of fruits and vegetables. They discovered that the two that stood out the most prominently were resveratrol and pterostilbene.1

Both resveratrol and pterostilbene operate synergistically with vitamin D to increase the activity of a part of the immune system called the human cathelicidin antimicrobial peptide. This peptide – a peptide is a fragment of protein consisting of a small chain of amino acids – is also known as CAMP. It’s only found in humans and other primates.

CAMP takes part in immune activities known as innate immunity and, besides eliminating cancer cells, it also controls the growth of blood vessels, helps heal wounds and regulates inflammation.

Intriguingly, the Oregon researchers found that pterostilbene multiplies the biological power of vitamin D in boosting immune function.

Protects Against Diabetes

Studies on lab animals in the 1990s first demonstrated that pterostilbene could help protect against diabetes even though it wasn’t clear how the natural chemical might have this effect.2 But tests in India showed that it could reduce blood sugar by more than 40 percent while also being associated with asignificant weight loss – up to a substantial reduction of 20 percent of body weight.

One theory about pterostilbene’s performance against diabetes holds that by limiting oxidative (i.e. free radical) stress in the kidneys and liver – where oxidative damage occurs in diabetes patients – pterostilbene helps the body keep blood sugar levels under control.

And experiments have supported this thesis – a lab test found that while diabetes patients have reduced levels of five important antioxidant enzymes produced in the kidneys and liver, pterostilbene could help the body regain much of its lost enzymatic antioxidant protection.3

Also revving up pterostilbene’s power to conquer diabetes is the fact that this plant nutrient apparently helps the body shed excess fat. A study in Taiwan shows that pterostilbene increases the body’s production of a hormone called adiponectin that breaks down fat tissue.4

Most recently, research at the University of Ottawa in Canada unexpectedly discovered that the CAMP gene is active in the pancreas and may help spur the production of extra insulin. It also seems to be involved in regeneration of pancreatic tissue. So if pterostilbene interacts with CAMP in this part of the body and bumps up its activity, that could help keep blood sugar under control, too.5

A Potent Cancer Fighter

Studies that look at how pterostilbene affects cancer have shown that it can lower the risk of several types of cancer as well as boost the body’s defenses against tumors.

Animal studies at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences demonstrate that this nutrient improves breast cells’ resistance to tumors and affects breast cells in ways that make them less likely to turn cancerous.6

A growing collection of other studies show that, because of pterostilbene’s pronounced antioxidant capacity and its influence on cancer cells, it lowers the risk of damage from colon cancer, stomach cancer, esophageal cancer and prostate cancer.7 Pterosilbene often helps induce apoptosis in cancer cells (natural cell death, which healthy cells undergo, but cancer cells don’t).

Crosses The Blood-Brain Barrier

The fact that pterostilbene is so effective at blocking free radical damage also means that it can protect brain cells after it crosses the blood/brain barrier (which it’s able to do, unlike a great many substances).8

Experiments at the University of Houston-Clear Lake strongly indicate that pterostilbene can help mitigate memory loss in older brains.9 And research at the University of Barcelona in Spain found that, in animals fed a diet rich in pterostilbene, the substance actually collected in the brain’s cortex where it apparently improves the transmission of nerve signals among brain cells.10

Wide Range of Benefits

All of these health-promoting effects of pterostilbene can, at times, seem a little too good to be true. And I haven’t even gone into the benefits scientists have found for the cardiovascular system – where studies show that it helps heart health by bumping up the activity of antioxidant enzymes in cardiac muscle tissue.11

A scientific review of pterostilbene speculates that future research into this chemical will do much more to explain “pterostilbene’s complicated effect upon antioxidant activity and critical pathways of pathogenesis in multiple organ systems.”

The review, performed at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health and the Department of Surgery at the University of Connecticut Health Center, concludes that “substantial evidence suggests that pterostilbene may have numerous preventive and therapeutic properties in a vast range of human diseases”12 – which is about the closest that mainstream scientists ever get to printing a rave review of a natural substance.

Oh, one last note – Another reason that researchers are so focused on pterostilbene and think it may soon overshadow resveratrol is the fact that our bodies absorb pterostilbene much more readily than it does resveratrol. And although both substances do good things for the body, pterostilbene is also retained in the body for a longer time.

  1. http://oregonstate.edu/ua/ncs/
  2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9214733
  3. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17132211/
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15853379/
  5. http://diabetes.diabetesjournals.org/content/64/12/4135.short
  6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19932869/
  7. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649683/
  8. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16627932/
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21168307/
  10. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16053243/
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19536295/
  12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3649683/