Serendipity is a word that refers to a fortunate accidental discovery. For example, in the drug industry Minoxidil was originally used as an oral drug to treat high blood pressure, but its commercial success came from its unexpected side effect of growing hair! (Now the formula is widely available as the topical treatment Rogaine and various trade names.) Serendipity also describes what has happened with the Citrus aurantium fruit.
Simply known as bergamot, the fruit is yellow and the size of an orange. About 80 percent of the world’s supply is grown in the Calabria region of southern Italy, and in fact the etymology of the word bergamot can be traced to the Italian town of Bergamo. One of the first uses of bergamot was as a perfume, but it was found to have useful properties as an antidepressant, relaxant, antibiotic, disinfectant, antiseptic, fever reducer, analgesic, digestive aid, deodorant, antispasmodic, and as a skin and scalp treatment; it is also the ingredient that gives Earl Grey tea its distinctive flavor.
Now it’s time to add a few more benefits of bergamot, particularly its ability to help prevent cardiovascular disease and manage blood sugar. Let’s start with cholesterol.
Cholesterol is a type of fat (lipid) that is produced by the liver and is also absorbed from foods. Rich sources of cholesterol include meats and dairy products. It’s not that all cholesterol is bad or even a disease, as suggested by books with such titles as The 8-Week Cholesterol Cure. In fact, cholesterol is vital to our existence, being the raw material of sex hormones such as testosterone and estrogen, vitamin D, and bile acids that are used in digestion. The issue with cholesterol is there are certain types that are harmful if present in excess.
The traditional view of cholesterol is that there are two types: HDL (good cholesterol) and LDL (bad cholesterol). In an Italian study of 82 subjects with a total cholesterol level of at least 250 (240 or above is considered high), it was found that taking bergamot for 30 days resulted in a 42 percent increase in good cholesterol, a 38 percent decrease in bad cholesterol, and a 41 percent decrease in triglycerides, which is another measure of heart health. It’s necessary, however, to look beyond those numbers.
The controversy is that LDL cholesterol can be further broken down into two types: LDL-A and LDL-B. We don’t have to worry about the larger LDL-A molecules, but we should be concerned about the smaller LDL-B molecules, as they create plaque on the inside of the arteries (atherosclerosis). Fortunately, it’s these smaller molecules that bergamot targets.
One medical approach to dealing with cholesterol problems is to use statin drugs. These drugs reduce cholesterol by inhibiting HMG-CoA, an enzyme that is involved in cholesterol production by the liver. However, there are several possible side effects of using statin drugs, including sexual dysfunction, muscle cramps and gastrointestinal problems. Fortunately, bergamot has been found to improve the effectiveness of statins, such that lower dosages can be prescribed. Australia’s Dr. Ross Walker, who has been studying the effects of bergamot since 2010, found that bergamot can raise HDL and lower LDL cholesterol; he also believes that bergamot can be used with statins to increase their efficacy, which means much lower dosages are required.
Another benefit of bergamot is its effectiveness in reducing inflammation. In The Great Cholesterol Myth (Fair Winds Press, 2012), authors Jonny Bowden, PhD, and Stephen Sinatra, MD, present the argument that “…chronic inflammation is a significant component of virtually every single degenerative condition, including Alzheimer’s, diabetes, obesity, arthritis, cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, chronic lower respiratory disease, influenza and pneumonia, chronic liver and kidney diseases, and, most especially, heart disease.” How effective is bergamot compared to drug therapy?
A 2007 Turkish study compared three different dosages of bergamot oil (BO) to the non-steroid anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) Indomethacin. Whereas the reduction from the NSAID produced a 95.70 percent reduction in inflammation, the highest-dose bergamot group showed a reduction of 63.39 percent. Note the authors, “The results of the present study showed that BO had anti-inflammatory effect and provided support to the traditional usage of BO in inflammation.” So as with statin, using bergamot can reduce inflammation and also may enable users to lower their dosages of powerful drugs that have numerous side effects.
Finally, bergamot has a beneficial effect in managing blood sugar levels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 25.8 million people in the US have diabetes, and by the year 2050 one of three adults will be diabetic. In the Italian study, subjects who used bergamot reported a 25 percent decrease in blood glucose (sugar).
According to the American Diabetes Association, by carefully managing blood glucose adults “…can prevent or slow the progress of many complications of diabetes, giving you extra years of healthy, active life.” Again, as with cholesterol and inflammation, because bergamot directly helps manage blood glucose, it follows that bergamot can reduce the reliance on medications designed to control blood glucose.
Challenging Metabolic Syndrome
A popular term in medicine is metabolic syndrome, which describes a group of five risk factors that influence your susceptibility to heart disease and other health problems. The five major risk factors are high triglyceride levels, low HDL cholesterol, high blood pressure, high blood glucose and a large waistline. If you have at least three of these risk factors (or are on medicine to treat the first four), you have metabolic syndrome.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, “In general, a person who has metabolic syndrome is twice as likely to develop heart disease and five times as likely to develop diabetes as someone who doesn’t have metabolic syndrome.” So far we’ve shown that bergamot can directly influence three of these risk factors, and now let’s explore the other two.
Bergamot helps regulate an enzyme called phosphodiesterase, which influences the development of abdominal (visceral) fat. This type of fat surrounds the abdominal organs and is highly associated with many health problems, including high blood pressure. One of the best ways to lower blood pressure is to reduce overall body fat, which is one of the properties of bergamot. Consequently, bergamot can influence all five major risk factors in metabolic syndrome. Taking bergamot not only helps your body function better and puts you at a lower risk of developing heart disease and diabetes, it also helps improve your appearance.
Bergamot’s impressive range of health benefits merits attention. Soon this supplement may generate the same level of buzz that fish oils and vitamin D receive today. Not only has bergamot revolutionized the cosmetic industry, but research shows it can be one of the most effective tools to help prevent and treat many types of serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes. When you write your checklist of must-have supplements, bergamot should be near the top of your list.