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Goji: The Secrets Behind Its Superpowers

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Walk down the aisles of almost any grocery store, and you’ll find them. From $50 bottles of juice promising to cure you of all that ails you to unassuming little bags of trail mix — goji berries are everywhere! A staple of Chinese medicine since ancient times, these little red “longevity berries” have made a comeback in a big way. People are gaga for goji! They’ve been featured on Oprah, and a number of celebrities have reportedly been using them for their anti-aging benefits. Even Anheuser-Busch is trying to cash in on the goji craze with a goji energy drink called 180 Red.

The delicate goji berry (Lycium barbarum), also referred to as wolfberry,  is a member of the nightshade family, which includes tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. Goji berries have a history of use throughout Asia spanning over 6,000 years as an ingredient in healing tonics, teas and soups. Herbalists have long know that goji berries have the power to strengthen immunity, improve circulation, increase stamina, protect the liver, improve eyesight and enhance sexual function and fertility.

Goji Is a True Superfood

It’s been said that the goji berry is among the most nutritionally dense foods on the planet, and analysis of its nutritional contents reveals that this may in fact be true. Gojis contain concentrated amounts of a long list of valuable nutrients, including:

* Polyphenols (antioxidant compounds like those found in green tea, wine and chocolate)
* Polysaccharides (beneficial long-chain sugars)
* Carotenoids (such as beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, lutein, zeaxanthin and lycopene)
* Vitamins C, B1, B2 and niacin
* More than 30 essential minerals
* 18 amino acids

This list may explain why goji berries have one of the highest ORAC scores among foods, ranking among other superfruits like açai, blueberry and pomegranate. But is the goji berry anything more than just another pricey, antioxidant-rich fruit? Is it truly the anti-aging miracle some would have us believe it is?

The short answer is yes! But science is just beginning to uncover the secrets behind this fruit’s ancient reputation as a tool for enhancing health and promoting longevity. It may all come down to a concept, which comes up often in discussions about nutrition, known as synergism. This basically means that the sum effect of all of the individual part working together is greater than the effects of the individual parts could ever be independently. Many vitamins and minerals work together in complex interactions within the human body. In the case of goji berries, it seems that some of the unique compounds they contain may work to increase the activity of an important anti-aging antioxidant enzyme known as superoxide dismutase (SOD) throughout the body.

Goji Boosts SOD Levels

SOD is an extraordinarily powerful antioxidant that is naturally produced in the body. It is responsible for neutralizing superoxide molecules, which are some of the most destructive types of free radicals. By scavenging superoxide and preventing it from damaging healthy cells, SOD decreases inflammation and stops the cellular breakdown that contributes to age-related degeneration of tissues. The body’s ability to produce SOD peaks as early as age 10, and then levels begin to decline by about 15% per decade.

Though SOD is present in certain foods, experts have recognized that is extremely difficult to boost SOD levels with diet alone, even with supplementation. Research has shown that the only way to boost levels may be to employ a clever strategy. There seem to be a few select substances that work to enhance the body’s ability to manufacture SOD, and you guessed it – goji is one of them! By providing your body with plenty of the nutrients it needs to manufacture SOD and using SOD-boosters like goji, you may be able to fortify your SOD antioxidant defenses. (Life Extension Magazine. Jan 2007.)

The clinically documented benefits associated with goji berry don’t stop with SOD. Goji extract has been shown to reduce blood glucose, total cholesterol and triglyceride levels. (Yakugaku Zasshi. 2005 Dec;125(12):981-8.) Goji has also been shown to have positive effects on the liver. Specifically, it has been proven beneficial for hepatitis B, because of a compound it contains called physalin.

Goji Enhances Feelings of Well-Being

In a 2002 Beijing study, goji was found to stimulate interleukin-2 and gamma interferon, two anti-inflammatory agents important in supporting a healthy immune system. The elderly subjects, who were given goji once a day for three weeks, also experienced significant improvements in mental outlook, appetite, sleep and sexual function.

In another study, 50% of subjects given 120 mL of goji juice daily for two weeks experienced significant increases in athletic performance, sleep quality, mental focus and calmness. In addition, nearly 60% of those drinking goji juice reported feelings of good health, contentment and happiness. (J Alt Comp Med. 2008, 14(4): 403-412. DOI: 10.1089/acm.2008.0004.)

Goji Makes Cancer Treatments Work Better

In another study, a clinical trial reported in the Chinese Journal of Oncology, 79 patients with advanced cancer were treated with lymphocyte-activated killer (LAK) cells + interleukin-2 (IL-2). In addition, some of the patients were also treated with a polysaccharide-rich goji extract.

The patients treated with LAK + IL-2 alone had a positive response rate of 16%. Those who received the goji extract concurrently had a significantly better response rate of 41%. The patients treated with LAK + IL-2 plus goji extract also had remission periods which lasted significantly longer. (Zhonghua Zhong Liu Za Zhi. 1994 Nov;16(6):428-31.)

Goji Is an Adaptogen

So we’ve covered most of the clinically proven benefits associated with goji. The research on goji is still in its preliminary stages, however, and only touches on the expanse of knowledge accumulated of the thousands of years that goji has been in use in traditional Eastern medicine and contemporary herbalism. In herbal medicine, the goji plant is considered an adaptogen.

Adaptogens, which include herbs like ginseng, eleuthero and holy basil, are a class of antioxidant-rich herbs that have the unique ability to improve the body’s response to stress, anxiety and fatigue – they help the body “adapt.” They can improve mood, endurance and immunity. In addition to protecting the body’s cells from the damaging effects of oxidative stress, adaptogens can help to increase feelings of overall well-being and can help eliminate feelings of being “stressed-out,” which may contribute to their ability to enhance immunity.

The Power of Polysaccharides

Adaptogens are typically rich sugars called polysaccharides, which interact closely with the immune system and have the ability to strengthen its defenses. Goji berries are especially rich in some unique polysaccharides. One in particular is thought to be a powerful secretagogue (a substance that stimulates the secretion of rejuvenative human growth hormone by the pituitary gland). Some in vitro research has shown that polysaccharides isolated from goji have anti-cancer and immune-enhancing properties.

The goji berry may well be one of the most powerful antioxidant fruits on earth, and science is only just beginning to understand why this fruit has been revered since ancient times as an anti-aging superfood. Eat goji berries every day if you can! And if you really want to get the most out of what this darling little berry has to offer, take a standardized goji extract supplement that provides concentrated amounts of its beneficial polysaccharides. Beware of non-standardized goji supplements and juices that contain insignificant amounts of active compounds, as they may in fact provide few health benefits. Also keep in mind that many goji juice products are loaded with added sugars, gums, stabilizers and other undesirable ingredients.

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