The Science Behind- Goji Berries

in Nutrition

The Science Behind: Goji Berries

DISCLAIMER: I am not a medical doctor. Before trying what is written here, please consult your physician.

You’ve heard about them.

They seem to be “the new kale”.

Everybody is talking about them and everybody seems to know a new magical property these berries have.

I’m talking about Goji berries also known with the badass name of wolfberries. It’s superfood baby!

I don’t know why but the names make me think of Dragon Ball 🙂

And well, I very well hope that they can make me turn into a Super Saiyan 4.
At this point I’m pretty sure I’ve lost all my female audience.

Ok guys, the ladies are gone, we are alone now, let’s talk about chicks and share some ass-pics.

Just kidding, just kidding, let me get serious again and move on.

So, these Goji berries. They come from China where they have been used for quite a while (their use is documented already 2300 years ago!) as a remedy for an incredible variety of conditions. Protective action on the liver, eyes, preventing diabetes, hyperlipidemia, male infertility, cancer. They are also used to increase stamina, to give a sense of tranquility and for their anti-aging properties.

WOW, GIMME BERRIES NOW!​

Well, you know, I’m a bro, but also a scientist so I normally tend not to believe to popular believes dismissing them as another woo woo thing.
I thought, though, that if every body is talking about these Goji berries, I have to know what I am dealing with and get familiar with the topic.

So I took my lab-coat and started doing some research. Beside feeling pretty uncomfortable (I wanna see you sitting down with a lab-coat for hours), I have to say that I was pretty amazed with what I found out.

Let's Science Bro

Firstly I was pretty surprised with the amount of research being conducted at the moment all around the world on the health benefits these berries provide. Researchers are investigating the use of Goji berries for a wide variety of conditions, treatments and applications.

One pattern that emerges from the scientific literature is the strong anti-oxidant power of these berries. In particular, the anti-oxidant power seems to be cause by the so called Lycium barbarum polysaccharides (LBP).

Goji Berries

Wait, wait, bro, polywhat?!

I know, I just shoot at you three words that I swear are not Chinese. First of all: Lycium barbarum is the name of one of the two plants where Goji berries come from (the other one is the Lycium chinese).

(If you are wondering why I’m writing the names of the plants in italic, it’s because the scientific way of writing species names is in italic. Now you know a cool fact to impress chicks with at your next date)

The other word I used is polysaccharide. Polysaccharide is a molecule made of carbohydrates.

Several molecules of sugars are linked together and form a polysaccharide. The single units can be of the same kind (as for instance in the cellulose that makes trees where all the units made are of glucose) or they can be different as in the case of the LBP (link to the scientific paper describing its structure).

What is an anti-oxidant?

Now that you know what a polysaccharide is, you need to know what an anti-oxidant is and why they matter. Don’t worry bro, I’ll keep it short and to the point (which is definitely not what SHE said).

Firstly you have to understand what a free radical is.
A free radical is a molecule which is unstable and clingy. Think of it as of your ex.

A free radical is needy. It can’t live with itself and need to bother other molecules with its empty life and its negativity. So what it does is poking other molecules and making, this time, them unstable and initiating a chain reaction of problems.

For those of you who managed the hard task of getting through high school, a free radical is a molecule with an incomplete pair of electrons in the most external orbital. So, instead of two, it has only one electron. And this lonely electron desperately wants to pair with another one. Therefore the free radical will react immediately with the first molecule available by either giving its lonely electron to it or taking an electron from it.

Once a free radical finishes its job of donating or taking a single electron, it will make the new molecule a new free radical and the reaction goes on and on. It's a chain reaction.

What does this mean? It means that this will damage important molecules in your body. Proteins are gonna get fucked up and start not working as they should or stop working altogether. Membranes that make your cells' wall will get wasted and make the cells stiff as your hamstrings. DNA will get trashed with mutations that are not good. No, you’re not gonna turn into an X-Man though.

You can imagine where this shit is going. You’re gonna get cancer man, you’re gonna get heart-problems brah, you’re gonna age faster, grandpa!

Ok I just totally crapped my pants, how do I stop this?

You need to understand that free radicals are part of our daily life and are inevitable like any news on Justin Bieber's dick pics.
Not only they are produced by UV, smoking cigarettes, pollutants in the air, radiations, pesticides, industrial solvents, ozone. They are also generated inside our body by our own cells! Those MOFOs!

Inflammation is a big one. Killing of microbes is another one (our cells make free radicals to kill those little fuckers). Respiration makes them too (please keep breathing, don’t think you’re smart). Even exercise! This doesn’t mean I just gave you the perfect excuse to sit on the couch and binge watch your favorite series which we all know being Anger Management.

Hearing all of this you might wonder how is that even possible that I am still alive. Well you’re right. In fact, our cells have natural defenses against free radicals. Several enzymes are responsible for dealing with this crap together with some of the food we ingest.

Ever heard about the importance of vitamin C, E and beta-carotene? Well now I’ll tell you why you need them. These molecules are anti-oxidants.

How does an anti-oxidant work?

Antioxidants either take or remove the lonely electron from the free radical making it inactive.

“Well” – you say – “what’s the difference then with other molecules?”

“Wouldn’t then the anti-oxidant become a free-radical itself?” – you keep asking, without giving me the time to answer

You are indeed right my friend, I’m glad you asked.

The super-power of the anti-oxidant molecule is that even if they become free-radicals by having a lonely electron, they basically don’t give a crap about it because they usually are big molecules. Therefore they can move the lonely electron within itself. Imagine the anti-oxidant molecule as a big amusement park. When it gets the lonely electron, it will keep it “busy” by making it playing around so that it doesn't bother anyone.

This will stop the chain reaction and no important molecules will be damaged.

That’s why it’s important to eat foods rich in anti-oxidants like the Goji berries we are talking about in this post.

(for a very good scientific review about anti-oxidant, check this paper out)

Scientifically Proved Effects of Goji Berries

Most of the beneficial effects of the Goji berries can be ascribed to their anti-oxidative action. By preventing the action of free radicals, anti-oxidant can stop the damaging of protein, DNA and membranes in several tissues and organs.

I will link here some scientific publications that investigated the role of Goji berries or they extract in several diseases/conditions/situations. There is really a lot of research about this so I will link just one per topic.

Summary of Goji Berries Effects

Science seems to have proved what Chinese traditional medicine has been speculating for centuries. Although it’s important to notice that most of the experiments have been performed on mice and/or on cell lines and this doesn’t mean that the effects in vivo (which means on human beings) might be exactly the same.
So far we can summarize the effects as:

  • Anti-oxidative (especially on liver, kidney and eyes protection)
  • Anti-cancer (this is a general term so take it with quotation marks. The effect is that the Goji berries increase apoptosis in cancer cells which means that it makes cancer cells more "suicidal")
  • Male fertility increase
  • Anti-aging
  • Neuro-protective
  • Immune System booster
  • Improved insuline resistance
  • Lipid lowering

All of these things are proved. If you wanna research things yourself, beside the papers I cited I suggest you to use PubMed and type for instance “Lycium brain” or “Lycium diabetes” and read the papers.

Which one to buy and how much should I take?

There is no much data about dosage but concerning the Goji berry extract, the scientific literature reports between 300-600 mg/kg body weight.

Personally I would avoid the extract by itself firstly because we don’t know the method they use to extract it and we are not completely sure of its composition therefore there might be not much of what we would like to be in it.

I would go for the whole dried Goji berries whose price is around 16$/lb.

Personally I eat 1 tablespoon per day (or 20 grams) of Goji berries, after my workout.

Experiment with it and let me know what do you think.

Ah, I forgot to mention something quite important: THEY ARE DELICIOUS!

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(special thanks to my friend Jartin for the spellcheck 😉 )