Have you ever tasted berries that aren’t berries — berries that are actually used as a spice? Are you still with me? Good, because I’m talking about antioxidant-rich and heart-healthy juniper berries.
Juniper berries traditionally have been used to “detoxify” the body and promote healthy digestion and skin health, among many other things. (1) And the results definitely aren’t all anecdotal. There are a large number of studies that reflect the incredible antioxidant and antibacterial potential of juniper berries. (That’s probably why doctors used to sanitize medical equipment with them.)
Whether you’re investigating the benefits of new essential oils or just want to understand how to benefit from juniper berries, I know you’ll be excited to learn more.
What Are Juniper Berries?
Juniper berries actually aren’t berries at all. They are female seed cones that come juniper plants — a type of conifer (Pinophyta), which is a cone-bearing plant or tree. Juniper plants vary in appearance and can grow low and wide like a shrub or tall like a tree. Their uniquely fleshy, merged scales make them look like a berry, thus the name.
In addition to their slightly misleading name, juniper berries are also not a berry you would generally eat with breakfast, like blueberries (even though they’re similar in size). Instead, juniper berries are often used as a bitter spice. In fact, they give gin its distinctive flavor. Juniper berries are officially the only spice to come from a conifer tree. (2)
One of the major uses of these berries is in juniper berry essential oil. Known in folk medicine and some modern research as a natural antiseptic and antioxidant, the essential oil of juniper berries is a popular therapeutic oil. It’s also one of the essential oils the FDA approves for limited internal use. (3)
There are many species of juniper berries; however, keep in mind that at least one is toxic. Edible juniper varieties include: (4)
- Juniperus communis (the most commonly used)
- Juniperus drupacea
- Juniperus deppeana
- Juniperus phoenicea
- Juniperus chinensis
- Juniperus excelsa
- Juniperus oxycedrus
- Juniperus californica
Because they aren’t consumed like traditional berries, there isn’t a lot of information on the caloric or vitamin content of juniper berries. However, just a little of the spice can add quite the bitter-citrus kick you’re looking to add to any dish.
Long before they were used in food, the Greeks used juniper berries as medicine and stimulants for Olympic athletes. (5) Romans used them as a less expensive pepper substitute.
It’s a good thing the juniper berry has been around for so long, because scientists are just now beginning to find out just how beneficial it can be as a natural remedy for various issues.
9 Benefits of Juniper Berries
1. Relieve oxidative stress and help prevent disease
One major benefit of juniper berries is the antioxidants they contain. Antioxidants help your body to prevent and fight disease because they relieve oxidative stress caused by too many free radicals in your system.
Juniper berries contain polyphenolic compounds known as bioflavonoids, or flavonoids. (6) These compounds are what give fruits and vegetables (and a few other foods) their antioxidant loads. In particular, juniper berries have 87 distinct antioxidant compounds, according to one chemical assessment. (7) These compounds seem to occur more often in ripe berries than in unripe varieties. (8)
Issues with SOD are linked to ALS, Down syndrome, cancers and lung issues. Catalase and SOD both protect against damage from peroxide within the body, while glutathione peroxidase does the same and is associated with helping to prevent and treat cancer and heart disease. (10)
2. Natural antiseptic
The antibacterial and antifungal qualities of juniper berries have stood the test of time — which is one reason that juniper berry essential oil is often suggested as a natural household cleaning agent. These berries have compelling effects on many strains of bacteria and fungi. In fact, at least one study suggested they could be part of treatment for skin and respiratory infections. (11, 12)
Some evidence suggests that juniper berry essential oil can also potentially kill bacteria that are resistant to common antibiotics. (15)
An extract of Juniperus drupacea berries from Turkey showed significant antibacterial activity in lab tests against various cells, including the Gram-positive bacteria, Staphylococcus aureus. (16) Staph infections cause skin infections and issues like boils, and they can sometimes lead to serious complications such as pneumonia, cellulitis or bone infection.
Research has shown that another possible use of juniper berries could be as an antioxidant in foods and beverages. In addition, an ethanol extract of these berries has shown significant antibacterial impact against Aspergillus niger, a black mold commonly found on spoiled food. (17)
3. Improves skin conditions
A simple Google search reveals that one of the most common uses for juniper berries, specifically in essential oil form, is to treat skin issues like rash or eczema. The antioxidants they contain are probably one major reason this can be effective.
In an examination of how animal wounds healed when treated with juniper berry essential oil, researchers discovered that two cultivars of juniper berries “displayed remarkable wound healing and anti-inflammatory activities.” (18) This suggests the ancient use of juniper berries as a skin healer has its roots in scientific fact.
The essential oil of juniper berries has also been used for some time to reduce the appearance of cellulite, a harmless cosmetic issue involving fatty deposits that are often found on the thighs, hips and buttocks. (20)
4. May help improve digestion
Juniper berries have long been considered a digestive aid in folk medicine, but few studies have examined these effects at length. However, one study involving milk cows found that feeding the subjects juniper berry essential oil did result in improved digestive behavior. (21)
Because they function as diuretics, juniper berries can help relieve bloating in some cases.
5. Aids restful sleep
Many natural health practitioners recommend juniper berry essential oil as a relaxant and believe it has a positive impact on brain chemistry, encouraging rest.
A study from Mie University Graduate School of Medicine in Japan investigated the effects of a therapeutic fragrance, including juniper berry essential oil as well as sandalwood, rose and orris, on insomniacs currently taking medication for the disorder.
Twenty-six of the 29 participants were able to decrease their medication and achieve restful sleep after diffusing the fragrance during the night, and 12 people discontinued their medication entirely by the end of the study. (22)
6. May be useful against certain cancers
Many herbs and foods that have significant antioxidant activity are studied for their potential impact on diseases like cancer. So far, no human or animal trials have looked at juniper berry’s anticancer potential.
However, in a lab setting, juniper berry essential oil or extract has been found to cause apoptosis (cell death) in a drug-resistant strain of leukemia, HepG2 (liver cancer) cells and p53 (neuroblastoma) cells. (23, 24)
7. Good for the heart
Probably also due in part to its antioxidant qualities, juniper berries can help to improve heart function. For example, juniper berry essential oil has been found to reduce high blood pressure in animal studies, related to the antioxidants it contains. (25) A similar study stated juniper berry’s function as a natural diuretic (in its original or essential oil form) also contributes to its blood pressure-lowering activity. (26)
Juniper berries also function as an “anticholinesterase agent.” (28) This is important for heart function because anticholinesterase agents (natural or pharmaceutical) help to build up acetylcholine in the nervous system, which in turn can slow heart action, lower blood pressure, increase blood flow and induce contractions of the heart.
Interestingly, the same agents are also used in some cases to treat digestive obstructions, myasthenia gravis and Alzheimer’s disease. At present, no studies have been done to investigate the interaction of juniper berries with the latter two conditions.
8. Can be included as part of a diabetic diet plan
Like many of the others, studies connecting juniper berries with treatment for diabetes have been limited to lab and animal testing. The initial results, though, seem promising.
Juniper berry essential oil also seems to limit the amount of malondialdehyde produced by animal bodies. (31) Although malondialdehyde’s role in diabetes isn’t understood entirely, its concentration is much higher in people with diabetes (and cancer). (32, 33)
9. May help treat leishmaniasis
It’s possible that one novel use of juniper berries could be the treatment of the parasite that causes leishmaniasis, a disease commonly contracted in tropical regions and southern Europe. Lab tests showed very potent results of an extract of juniper berry against the parasite. (34)
How to Find & Use Juniper Berries in Cooking
Many health food stores carry juniper berries in the spice section. These spicy, rich berries can be purchased either dried or fresh and whole or crushed. Many sources suggest they flavor meat dishes particularly well. (35)
For the most pungent flavor, try crushing fresh berries before using them in a sauce or marinade. You may also try toasting them, but over-cooking will draw out the bitterness and make the berries inedible. (36)
Like I mentioned, juniper berry essential oil is also a popular way to gain the benefits of juniper berries. As always, ensure you purchase only food-grade, 100 percent essential oil from reputable sellers.
While juniper berries are generally safe for most people, there are some precautions and medicinal interactions to consider.
First, pregnant women should never consume juniper berries in whole or essential oil form as it may potentially cause damage to the unborn child or force uterine contractions. Juniper is also not recommended for those with poor kidney function. (37)
It is possible to develop an allergic reaction to juniper berries, which could manifest with skin issues (like a rash) or breathing issues. If you experience any of those conditions after using juniper berries, discontinue use and consult your doctor immediately.
Juniper berries may also interact negatively with certain medications, according to a 2014 study. The berries seem to inhibit a drug metabolizing enzyme in the human body known as CYP3A4. (38) This enzyme metabolizes about half of the drugs on the pharmaceutical market, while the other half of medicines actually inhibit the enzyme.
There is a fairly extensive list of medications that could result in toxicity when taken in conjunction with juniper berries. If you are taking any medications, you should first consult with your doctor before using juniper berries or juniper berry essential oil. (39)
- Juniper berries are the aromatic cones from conifer trees used traditionally in many German recipes and to make juniper essential oil.
- Because they have a large quantity of antioxidants, juniper berries have a long list of health benefits.
- Consuming juniper berries can help to prevent major diseases, kill bacteria, improve the appearance of the skin, treat insomnia and even kill the parasite that causes leishmaniasis.
- Juniper berries are also a worthwhile addition to the diet for people at risk for heart disease, diabetes and cancer.
- When purchasing juniper berries (or their oil), be sure to buy only from reputable sellers.
- If you are pregnant or have decreased kidney function, you should not consume juniper berries.
- People on medications should consult with their prescribing physician before eating juniper berries or using the essential oil, as it can interact negatively with medications activated by the CYP3A4 enzyme.
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