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Acai Berry Benefits & Side Effects

By Joanne Marie ; Updated August 14, 2017

You might not be familiar with a tropical tree called the acai palm, Euterpe oleraceae, but its small, dark purple berries are used in its native regions to make jelly, syrup and several kinds of beverages. The berries have also been part of traditional herbal medicine in South America, recommended by practitioners as a treatment for a number of illnesses. Modern research suggests that compounds in acai berries may have several health benefits, with few, if any, side effects.

Antioxidant Properties

Acai berries contain several natural compounds called flavonoids and procyanidins, both antioxidants with possibly important health benefits. Your body produces potentially damaging chemicals called free radicals as by-products of digestion, in your skin when you're in sunlight or after you're exposed to toxins such as the chemicals in cigarette smoke. Over time, free radicals can damage cellular DNA and cellular membranes, raising your risk of chronic diseases such as cancer and heart disease. Antioxidants such as those in acai berries neutralize free radicals, rendering them harmless and allowing your body to rid itself of them. Research on acai compounds, such as a study published in 2006 in the "Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry," found that acai compounds are among the strongest natural antioxidants.

Suppression of Inflammation

Compounds in acai berries may also help suppress inflammation, a process that occurs in painful conditions such as arthritis. Experts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center report that acai berry extracts may suppress production of inflammatory compounds called interleukins and cyclooxygenases made by cells. Laboratory research supports the potential anti-inflammatory benefits of acai compounds, including a study published in 2012 in "Phytomedicine," which reports that laboratory animals fed acai extract and exposed to cigarette smoke had less lung inflammation than a similar group not fed the extract. However, these promising results still need confirmation in controlled clinical trials with human subjects.

Anti-Cancer Benefits

Besides potentially lowering your risk of cancer by neutralizing free radicals, research suggests that acai compounds may also help prevent cancer through other mechanisms, according to experts at Memorial Sloan-Kettering. Acai extract may induce cancer cells to die, through a process called apoptosis, or programmed cell death. This was shown in another paper published in 2006 in "Journal of Agriculture and Food Chemistry" in which cultured cancer cells exposed to acai compounds stopped dividing and died by apoptosis, compared to control cells. These and other laboratory studies suggest that acai berries may act directly against cancer cells, but research is still needed with human subjects to confirm this possibility.

Few Side Effects

Acai berry products include juices and extracts, and powdered forms in capsules and tablets. No recommended dosage has been established, but 1,000 milligrams once or twice daily is considered safe and without significant side effects. However, the safety of acai berries during pregnancy or breast-feeding hasn't been established, and they can cause a rash or other reactions in people allergic to acai plants. The powerful antioxidant activity of acai compounds can also interfere with chemotherapy drug actions, so you should avoid acai berry products if you're taking these medications. Talk to your doctor about acai berries to decide if they might be helpful for your situation.

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