Look out, statin drugs- there’s a new cholesterol-lowering agent in town, an extract of the juice of the bitter bergamot orange. And while it doesn’t have the same number of studies as statins to demonstrate its efficacy, two animals studies and four human trials point to its value in reducing LDL (so-called bad) cholesterol. At the same time, the bergamot extract appears to increase HDL (so-called good) cholesterol, and protect the liver. That’s not bad for an orange.
Bergamot is probably best known as the distinctive aroma and flavor in Earl Grey tea. It’s bergamot that imparts the unique fragrance of that popular brew. The essential oil of the orange skin is a valuable ingredient in various perfumes. But researchers over the past decade or more have turned their attention to other uses of bergamot, namely as a cholesterol-lowering ingredient.
Believed to be an ancient hybrid of two other species of orange, bergamot is tart in taste, and bright yellow like lemon. The greatest majority of bergamot oranges are cultivated on the sun-drenched slopes of the hills and mountains of the Calabria region of southern Italy, and the fruit is named after the Calabrian town Bergamo. In fact, bergamot is the symbol of the Reggio district of Calabria, and is a source of great regional pride. The fruit is also grown in France and Ivory Coast Africa. In Turkey, bergamot is grown for the manufacture of marmalade. The juice, with its tart grapefruit-like flavor, is a favored drink in the island nation of Mauritius, in the Indian ocean, where bergamot is grown on a small scale.
Two compounds in bergamot, brutieridin and meltidin, have been studied for their statin-like effects. Both are classified as flavone glycosides, a group of natural antioxidant compounds that typically occur in small amounts in various plants, from fruits and vegetables to herbs. As a class, the flavone glycosides show a lot of beneficial activity. Some are known to fight cancer, while others appear to enhance brain function. This category of natural compounds is attracting increasing scientific attention. Both brutieridin and meltidin occur in the cholesterol-lowering extract.
One study of 77 adults reported in the International Journal of Cardiology in 2013 found significant LDL cholesterol reduction when subjects took 1,000 milligrams of the extract daily for a month. The same article reported that doctors were able to reduce by half the amount of the statin drug rosuvastatin among those using the drug, by adding the bergamot extract, with no reduction in effectiveness.
In both animal and human studies, bergamot extract also demonstrates anti-hyperlipidemia activity. This means that the extract reduces excess lipids in the blood. Hyperlipidemia leads often to atherosclerosis - hardening of the arteries – a precursor to heart attack and stroke. Thus the bergamot extract may be a cardiovascular wonder drug in the making.
Scientists involved with the studies and those who are not involved agree that further, larger-scales trials are needed before bergamot extract is fully substantiated as an effective cholesterol-reducing agent. Some current studies are un-published, and thus have not gone through the rigorous process of peer-review required for publication in substantive scientific and medical journals. Still, results thus far have been very good, and there is a lot of investigative science on the compounds brutieridin and meltidin.
The more we dive into the world of foods and herbs, the more we rediscover what the Greek physician Hippocrates said circa 400 BC. Let your food be your medicine. Amen.