The Antioxidant Power of Açaí vs. Apples

There are so many açaí products on the market now, from frozen pulp in smoothie packs to freeze-dried powder and supplements. How is it eaten traditionally? “In the Brazilian Amazon, the Indian tribes of the forest cut down the tree and eat the palm heart…then urinate on the rest of the tree to attract a species of palm beetle to lay its eggs inside the tree. Several weeks later, they return to harvest 3–4 pounds of beetle grub larvae….” I think I’ll just stick to my smoothie pack.

“Despite being used for a long time as food and beverage” in the Amazon, açaí berries have only been researched scientifically since the beginning of this century. A number of years ago, I reviewed that research in my video Clinical Studies on Açaí Berries, starting with in vitro studies showing that açaí could kill leukemia cells in a petri dish at levels you might expect to find in the bloodstream after eating one or two cups of açaí pulp and could also cut the growth of colon cancer cells in half.

Unfortunately, as I discuss in my video The Antioxidant Effects of Açaí vs. Apples, subsequent published studies have failed to find such benefits for that particular type of colon cancer, a different type of colon cancer, or an estrogen-receptor negative form of breast cancer. An açaí extract did appear to kill off a line of estrogen-receptor positive breast cancer cells, but to achieve that level of açaí nutrients in your breast, you’d have to eat about 400 cups of açaí pulp.

The problem with many of these petri dish studies is that they use concentrations that you could never realistically achieve in your bloodstream. For example, as you can see at 1:48 in my video, açaí berries may exert a neuroprotective effect, blocking the buildup of amyloid fibers implicated in Alzheimer’s—but only at a dose reached by drinking about 2,000 cups at one time. They may also have an anti-allergy effect or decrease bone loss—at a mere 1,000 cups a day.

In my previous video Clinical Studies on Açaí Berries, I also talked about a clinical study in which subjects were asked to drink less than a cup a day of açaí in a smoothie. They appeared to get significant improvements in blood sugar, insulin levels, and cholesterol. Now, there was no control group and it was a small study, but there’d never been a bigger study trying to replicate it until a study published in 2016.

As you can see at 2:37 in my video, researchers gave subjects the same amount of açaí for the same duration as the previous study, but they found no significant improvements in blood sugars, insulin, or cholesterol. Why did this study fail to show the benefits seen in the first study? Well, this study was publicly funded with “no conflicts of interest,” while the first study was funded by an açaí company, which always makes you suspect that perhaps it was somehow designed to get the desired result. And, indeed, the participants in that first study were not just given açaí smoothies, but they were explicitly told to avoid processed meat, “for example bacon and hot dogs.” No wonder their numbers looked better at the end of the month. Now, the new study did find a decrease in markers of oxidative stress in the participants’ bloodstreams, a sign of how rich in antioxidants açaí berries can be.

Those who hock supplements love to talk about how açaí consumption can “triple antioxidant capacity” of your blood. And, if you look at the study they cite, you’ll find that the antioxidant capacity of participants’ blood did actually triple after eating açaí—but the same or even better tripling was achieved after consuming just plain applesauce, which the researchers used as a control that happens to be significantly cheaper than açaí berries or supplements. You can see the graph at 3:42 in my video.

A new study has shown significant improvements in artery function after eating açaí berries, but are they any more effective than other common fruits and vegetables? You can learn more about that in my video The Benefits of Açaí vs. Blueberries for Artery Function.


What’s so great about antioxidants? Check out:

Where else can you get them? See Flashback Friday: Antioxidants in a Pinch and Antioxidant Power of Plants vs. Animal Foods.

What are the nutritional aspects of those grub-kabobs? See Bug Appétit: Barriers to Entomophagy and Good Grub: The Healthiest Meat.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

What White Blood Cell Count Should We Shoot for?

At the start of my video What Does a Low White Blood Cell Count Mean?, you can see what it looks like when you take a drop of blood, smear it between two pieces of glass, and view at it under a microscope: a whole bunch of little, round, red blood cells and a few big, white blood cells. Red blood cells carry oxygen, while white blood cells are our immune system’s foot soldiers. We may churn out 50 billion new white blood cells a day. In response to inflammation or infection, that number can shoot up to a 100 billion or more. In fact, pus is largely composed of: millions and millions of white blood cells.

Testing to find out how many white blood cells we have at any given time is one of the most common laboratory tests doctors order. It’s ordered it hundreds of millions of times a year. If, for example, you end up in the emergency room with abdominal pain, having a white blood cell count above about 10 billion per quart of blood may be a sign you have appendicitis. Most Americans fall between 4.5 and 10, but most Americans are unhealthy. Just because 4.5 to 10 is typical doesn’t mean it’s ideal. It’s like having a “normal” cholesterol level in a society where it’s normal to die of heart disease, our number-one killer. The average American is overweight, so if your weight is “normal,” that’s actually a bad thing.

In fact, having excess fat itself causes inflammation within the body, so it’s no surprise that those who are obese walk around with two billion more white cells per quart of blood. Given that, perhaps obese individuals should have their own “normal” values. As you can see at 2:06 in my video, if someone with a 47-inch waist walks into the ER with a white blood cell count of 12, 13, or even 14, they may not have appendicitis or an infection. That may just be their normal baseline level, given all the inflammation they have in their body from the excess fat. So, normal levels are not necessarily healthy levels.

It’s like smoking. As you can see at 2:31 in my video, if you test identical twins and one smokes but the other doesn’t, the smoker is going to end up with a significantly higher white cell count. In Japan, for example, as smoking rates have steadily dropped, so has the normal white count range. In fact, it’s dropped such that about 8 percent of men who have never smoked would now be flagged as having abnormally low white counts if you used a cut-off of 4. But, when that cut-off of 4 was set, most people were smoking. So, maybe 3 would be a better lower limit. The inflammation caused by smoking may actually be one of the reasons cigarettes increase the risk of heart attacks, strokes, and other inflammatory diseases. So, do people who have lower white counts have less heart disease, cancer, and overall mortality? Yes, yes, and yes. People with lower white blood cell counts live longer. Even within the normal range, every one point drop may be associated with a 20 percent drop in the risk of premature death.

As you can see at 3:39 in my video, there is an exponential increase in risk in men as white count goes up, even within the so-called normal range, and the same is found for women. The white blood cell count is a “stable, well-standardized, widely available and inexpensive measure of systemic inflammation.” In one study, half of the women around 85 years of age who had started out with white counts under 5.6 were still alive, whereas 80 percent of those who started out over 7 were dead, as you can see at 4:05 in my video—and white blood cell counts of 7, 8, 9, or even 10 would be considered normal. Being at the high end of the normal range may place one at three times the risk of dying from heart disease compared to being at the lower end.

The same link has been found for African-American men and women, found for those in middle age, found at age 75, found at age 85, and found even in our 20s and 30s: a 17 percent increase in coronary artery disease incidence for each single point higher.

As you can see at 5:00 in my video, the higher your white count, the worse your arterial function may be and the stiffer your arteries may be, so it’s no wonder white blood cell count is a useful predictor of high blood pressure and artery disease in your heart, brain, legs, and neck. Even diabetes? Yes, even diabetes, based on a compilation of 20 different studies. In fact, it may be associated with everything from fatty liver disease to having an enlarged prostate. And, having a higher white blood cell count is also associated with an increased risk of dying from cancer. So, what would the ideal range be? I cover that in my video What Is the Ideal White Blood Cell Count?.

A higher white blood cell count may be an important predictor for cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality, decline in lung function, cancer mortality, all-cause mortality, heart attacks, strokes, and premature death in general. This is no surprise, as the number of white blood cells we have circulating in our bloodstreams are a marker of systemic inflammation. Our bodies produce more white blood cells day to day in response to inflammatory insults.

We’ve known about this link between higher white counts and heart attacks since the 1970s, when we found that higher heart attack risk was associated with higher white blood cell counts, higher cholesterol levels, and higher blood pressures, as you can see at 0:53 in my video What Is the Ideal White Blood Cell Count?. This has been found in nearly every study done since then. There are decades of studies involving hundreds of thousands of patients showing dramatically higher mortality rates in those with higher white counts. But why? Why does white blood cell count predict mortality? It may be because it’s a marker of inflammation and oxidation in the body. In fact, it may even be a biomarker for how fast we are aging. It may be more than just an indicator of inflammation—it may also be an active player, contributing directly to disease via a variety of mechanisms, including the actual obstruction of blood flow.

The average diameter of a white blood cell is about seven and a half micrometers, whereas our tiniest vessels are only about five micrometers wide, so the white blood cell has to squish down into a sausage shape in order to squeeze through. When there’s inflammation present, these cells can get sticky. As you can see at 2:20 in my video, a white blood cell may plug up a vessel as it exits a small artery and tries to squeeze into a capillary, slowing down or even momentarily stopping blood flow. And, if it gets stuck there, it can end up releasing all of its internal weaponry, which is normally reserved for microbial invaders, and damage our blood vessels. This may be why in the days leading up to a stroke or heart attack, you may find a spike in the white cell count.

Whether white count is just a marker of inflammation or an active participant, it’s better to be on the low side. How can we reduce the level of inflammation in our body? Staying away from even second-hand smoke can help drop your white count about half of a point. Those who exercise also appear to have an advantage, but you don’t know if it’s cause and effect unless you put it to the test. In one study, two months of Zumba classes—just one or two hours a week—led to about a point and a half drop in white count. In fact, that may be one of the reasons exercise is so protective. But is that just because they lost weight?

Fitness and fatness both appear to play a role. More than half of obese persons with low fitness—51.5 percent—have white counts above 6.6, but those who are more fit or who have less fat are less likely to have counts that high, as you can see at 3:47 in my video. Of course, that could just be because exercisers and leaner individuals are eating healthier, less inflammatory diets. How do we know excess body fat itself increases inflammation, increases the white count? You’d have to find some way to get people to lose weight without changing their diet or exercise habit. How’s that possible? Liposuction. If you suck about a quart of fat out of people, you can significantly drop their white count by about a point. Perhaps this should get us to rethink the so-called normal reference range for white blood cell counts. Indeed, maybe we should revise it downward, like we’ve done for cholesterol and triglycerides.

Until now, we’ve based normal values on people who might be harboring significant background inflammatory disease. But, if we restrict it to those with normal C-reactive protein, another indicator of inflammation, then instead of “normal” being 4.5 to 10, perhaps we should revise it closer to 3 to 9.

Where do the healthiest populations fall, those not suffering from the ravages of chronic inflammatory diseases, like heart disease and common cancers? Populations eating diets centered around whole plant foods average about 5, whereas it was closer to 7 or 8 in the United States at the time. How do we know it isn’t just genetic? As you can see at 5:38 in my video, if you take those living on traditional rural African diets, who have white blood cell counts down around 4 or 5, and move them to Britain, they end up closer to 6, 7, or even 8. Ironically, the researchers thought this was a good thing, referring to the lower white counts on the “uncivilized” diet as neutropenic, meaning having too few white blood cells. They noted that during an infection or pregnancy, when more white cells are needed, the white count came right up to wherever was necessary. So, the bone marrow of those eating traditional plant-based diets had the capacity to create as many white cells as needed but “suffers from understimulation.”

As you can see at 6:26 in my video, similar findings were reported in Western plant eaters, with an apparent stepwise drop in white count as diets got more and more plant based, but could there be non-dietary factors, such as lower smoking rates, in those eating more healthfully? What we need is an interventional trial to put it to the test, and we got one: Just 21 days of removing meat, eggs, dairy, alcohol, and junk affected a significant drop in white count, even in people who started out down at 5.7.

What about patients with rheumatoid arthritis who started out even higher, up around 7? As you can see at 7:03 in my video, there was no change in the control group who didn’t change their diet, but there was a 1.5 point drop within one month on whole food plant-based nutrition. That’s a 20 percent drop. That’s more than the drop-in inflammation one might get quitting a 28-year pack-a-day smoking habit. The most extraordinary drop I’ve seen was in a study of 35 asthmatics. After four months of a whole food plant-based diet, their average white count dropped nearly 60 percent, from around 12 down to 5, though there was no control group nor enough patients to achieve statistical significance.

If white blood cell count is such a clear predictor of mortality and is so inexpensive, reliable, and available, why isn’t it used more often for diagnosis and prognosis? Maybe it’s a little too inexpensive. The industry seems more interested in fancy new risk factors it can bill for.

I touch on the health of the rural Africans I discussed in How Not to Die from Heart Disease.


For more on fighting inflammation, see:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations:

70% Taking Common Antidepressants Suffer Sexual Side Effects

What’s the latest on treating depression with the spice saffron? Years ago, I covered a head-to-head comparison of saffron versus Prozac for the treatment of depression in my video Saffron vs. Prozac, and saffron seemed to work just as well as the drug. In the years since, five other studies have found that saffron beat out placebo or rivaled antidepressant medications.

It may be the spice’s red pigment, crocin, since that alone beat out placebo as an adjunct treatment, significantly decreasing symptoms of depression, symptoms of anxiety, and general psychological distress. Perhaps, its antioxidants played a role in “preventing free radical-induced damage in the brain.” The amount of crocin the researchers used was equivalent to about a half teaspoon of saffron a day.

If the spice works as well as the drugs, one could argue that the spice wins, since it doesn’t cause sexual dysfunction in the majority of men and women like most prescribed antidepressants do. SSRI drugs like Prozac, Paxil, and Zoloft cause “adverse sexual side effects” in around 70 percent of people taking them. What’s more, physicians not only significantly underestimate the occurrence of side effects, but they also tend to underrate how much they impact the lives of their patients.

Not only is this not a problem with saffron, the spice may even be able to treat it, as I explore in my video Best Food for Antidepressant-Induced Sexual Dysfunction. “In folk medicine, there is a widely held belief that saffron might have aphrodisiac effects.” To test this, men with Prozac-induced sexual impairment were randomized to saffron or placebo for a month. By week four, the saffron group “resulted in significantly greater improvement in erectile function…and intercourse satisfaction,” and more than half of the men in the saffron group regained “normal erectile function.” The researchers concluded that saffron is an “efficacious treatment” for Prozac-related erectile dysfunction. It has all been found to be effective for female sexual dysfunction, as well, as you can see at 2:35 in my video. Female sexual function increased by week four, improving some of the Prozac-induced sexual problems but not others. So, it may be better to try saffron in the first place for the depression and avoid developing these sexual dysfunction problems, since they sometimes can persist even after stopping the drugs, potentially worsening one’s long-term depression prognosis.

This includes unusual side effects, such as genital anesthesia, where you literally lose sensation. It can happen in men and women. More rarely, antidepressants can induce a condition called restless genital syndrome. You’ve heard of restless legs syndrome? Well, this is a restless between-the-legs syndrome. These PSSDs, or Post-SSRI Sexual Dysfunctions, meaning dysfunctions that appear or persist after stopping taking these antidepressants, can be so serious that “prescribing physicians should mention the potential danger of the occurrence of genital (e.g., penile or vaginal) anesthesia to every patient prior to any SSRI treatment.” If you’re on one of these drugs, did your doctor warn you about that?

All hope is not lost, though. Evidently, penile anesthesia responds to low-power laser irradiation. After 20 laser treatments to his penis, one man, who had lost his penile sensation thanks to the drug Paxil, partially regained his “penile touch and temperature sensation.” However, he still couldn’t perform to his girlfriend’s satisfaction, and she evidently ended up leaving him over it, which certainly didn’t help his mood. But, before you feel too badly for him, compare a little penile light therapy to clitoridectomy, clitoris removal surgery, or another Paxil-related case where a woman’s symptoms only improved after six courses of electroshock therapy.

Pass the paella!


For more on the spice, check out:

Those drug side effects sound devastating, but depression is no walk in the park. However, when one balances risk and benefit, one assumes that there are actually benefits to taking them. That’s why the shocking science I explored in Do Antidepressant Drugs Really Work? is so important.

What else may boost mood? A healthy diet and exercise:

For more on sexual health generally, see:

What else can spices do? Here’s just a taste:

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

PS: If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my free videos here and watch my live presentations: