Have you ever wondered how berries get their varied and bright colours?
The answer is all in the pigment which lies in their skin!
These richly collected cells in the skin of berries which give the skin their bright colours, are the home for a variety of biological compounds. One of which is a specific flavonoid, which we will discuss here as a source of a plethora of health benefits.
Flavonoids (or bioflavonoids) are a group of molecules created during plant metabolism. In fact there are 6,000 different types of these metabolites (1). There are a number of different health benefits ascribed to these molecules including anti-oxidant, anti-inflammatory and even anti-cancer properties.
This article will examine one particular member of this group, one which has even been deemed the most important of the flavonoids (2); and the one making up the key structure of the pigment in fruits.
This article will discuss Anthocyanin and how it can boost your health and performance.
What Is Anthocyanin?
In truth, anthocyanin is similar to but not exactly a flavonoid. Instead it is part of the flavonoid group of phytochemicals (naturally occurring chemicals in plants).
There are about 17 anthocyanidins in total, with six (cyanidin, delphinidin, petunidin, peonidin, pelargonidin, and malvidin) having the most importance to humans (3-4).
They occur naturally in a variety of fruits and vegetables, but are particularly concentrated in a number of berries (e.g. strawberry, cherry, raspberry, blueberry). The anthocyanidins exist as the pigment which gives berries their colour (5-6); and as such are normally sufficiently consumed by most people (7-8).
Historically they have been utilised for remedies of a diverse number of diseases, including high blood pressure, vision disorders and infections just to name few (179-10). As such, proliferating their reputation as all around super supplement.
Oral consumption of anthocyanin in fruit, extracts or supplements has proved to be effective in preventing or treating such diseases (11-13). .
How Do Anthocyanins Work?
Oxidative stress is a state where the quantities of free radical atoms (reactive oxygen species) are greater than the capacity of anti-oxidants (compounds which delay or inhibit oxidation by free radicals). This imbalance leads to oxidation of proteins, lipids and even DNA. This state is a key component of chronic degenerative disease such as heart disease and cancer (14).
The degree of anti-oxidant activity of anthocyanins have been widely confirmed (15-18).
However, the ability of anthocyanins to counteract reactive oxygen species is different between one type to another, and is wholly dependent upon each compound’s chemical structure (19). Each type of anthocyanin may react differently to a different type of free radical, which some what leads to differing research results.
Unfortunately some of the positive experimental (in vitro) studies showing high anti-oxidant capacity (20-23) are not entirely supported by human food trials (24).
However, it is possible that very low concentrations of anthocyanins may also modulate cell signalling and other biological processes by non-antioxidant mechanisms which may explain the difficulty in observing anti-oxidant effects in human trials.
Studies have also shown that anthocyanins may have an anti-inflammatory role via a number of cellular mechanisms (5).
Anthocyanins inhibits the biological activity of some pro-inflammatory proteins called cytokines by suppressing specific cellular signalling pathways (20,25).
For example, they can work to inhibit the pro-inflammatory enzyme, cyclooxygenase-2 (COX-2) which is often responsible for pain (26-27).
In truth it is the combined anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory cellular activity which facilitates the clinical uses of anthocyanin when treating disease.
Anthocyanin | Health Benefits?
However, whilst some studies and media publications concentrate solely on the anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits of Anthocyanin, it is apparent in the research that other mechanisms are potentially as responsible for the health benefits described (13,28-30).
This goes beyond just simple antioxidant and anti inflammatory mechanisms and diversifies as far as anticarcinogenic and cardiovascular protective effects.[31-32]
Some of these additional biological effects include protection against:
– Reactions which break down DNA
– Hormone-dependent disease development (oestrogen activity)
– Lipid peroxidation (lipid breakdown)
– Fragility of capillary blood vessels (12,33-36)
It is the combination of these mechanisms which allows arthocynanins to be beneficial across so many disease states. Below we shall examine some of the specific health issues where anthocyanins have been deemed beneficial.
Clarity of vision, or how well defined you can see an image (visual acuity), can be improved through administration of anthocyanin (37). However, this is not the only part of vision which can be improved. The ability to see in the dark (night vision) is also enhanced through the provision of anthocyanin (37).
Cancers are characterised by uncontrolled cell proliferation to create tumours or metastases. Experiments both in Petri dishes and animals have shown that anthocyanins have the ability to reduce or slow cancer cell growth to inhibit the formation of tumours (38-41).
It seems likely that anthocyanins utilise both anti-oxidative and anti-inflammatory mechanisms to disrupt the process of carcinogenesis (42).
However, it has also been found that anthocyanins can prevent tumour development through a distinctly anti-carcinogenic mechanism through the inhibition of a specific cellular pathway (mitogen-activated protein kinase pathway) (43).
Cardiovascular diseases (such as coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis) are strongly linked with oxidative stress as a key contributor to their pathology.
The positive relationship between drinking red wine and reduction of heart attacks has been publicised in health media for a while, and this has been connected to the anthocyanins in red grapes, which assist in reducing inflammation, boosting capillary strength, enhancing nitric oxide release and inhibition of platelet formation (44).
Further testing shows that incorporation of anthocyanin into the cell walls of blood vessels significantly increases anti-oxidant protection (45).
Interestingly researchers have also suggested a relationship between anthocyanins and weight loss (13). This study provided mice a high fat diet in combination with anthocyanins. Their results found an effective inhibition of body weight and fat (adipose) tissue gain.
They also saw the prevention of a number of metabolic disease factors including hyperglycaemia (high blood sugar) and hyperinsulinaemia. This provides evidence of anthocyanins role in management of obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
A final health related benefit of anthocyanin is through modulation of the nervous system to boost cognition and memory, whilst helping to prevent age related neurodegeneration.
Experiments with mice show both enhanced cognitive function and reduction in lipid peroxidation in brain tissues(46). This is supported by evidence showing that administration of high arthocynanin content blueberry extract leads to effective reversal of neurodegenerative memory and motor functions (47).
Anthocyanin & Athletic Performance
The question remains then, how can arthocynanin use its various properties to assist athletic performance in healthy individuals?
The larger group of bioflavonoids have been shown to influence the oxidation process in muscles during endurance exercises with a resulting increase in maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max) (48-50). This has been postulated to be due to an increase in the number of mitochondria inside the muscle cells.
There is also evidence that these compounds can reduce muscular damage and post exercise soreness, whilst simultaneously improving neuromuscular function (51-52) and strength (53).
However, what about anthocyanin in particular?
Anthocyanin | Side Effects
Due to the long history of consumption of foods which have a high content of anthocyanin (different berries for example); such flavonoids are generally regarded as safe and well tolerate in humans (64).
A large analysis of 133 randomised controlled trials examined the safety of flavonoids (including anthocyanin) and failed to indicate any adverse effects or toxicity issues of anthocyanin in particular (65).
It is worth noting that as a group flavonoids may have issues with toxicity dependent upon the type, dose and duration of intake (66)- particularly in high risk groups such as the elderly (67).
However, no such issues were indicated for anthocyanin in this study.
Anthocyanin | Dosage
The daily intake of anthocyanin is relatively high across the population at 500mg to 1g (68).
However, athletic and health related benefits require only an additional 100mg to boost anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory capacity (2).
Take Home Message
So ends our whistle-stop tour of the incredible anthocyanin compound.
From, what is innately a biproduct of natural evolution, a compound flourished which can boost anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory function, whilst also modifying cellular signalling, to aid health and physical performance.
Therefore, whether you want to improve your vision, takes steps to help prevent against aging and disease, or even enhance your endurance performance, anthocyanin may be worth a look!