Juniper berries are berries in name only. They are a spice commonly used in the gin-making process and are harvested from plants in the Juniperus genus, which grow all over the world. They can be used to flavour food and beverages and are said to possess a number of health benefits. The problem lies within their side effects and potential risks. We’ll cover those benefits and side effects in this guide.
The Health Benefits of Juniper Berries
Juniper berries have a long history of use. The Greeks believed they possessed stamina-enhancing properties, the Romans used them as a substitute for black pepper, and they were even found in Ancient Egypt, with scholars theorising that the Egyptians imported them from Greece.
In modern times, they are mainly used to flavour foods and to make gin, despite suggestions that they can provide the following health benefits:
They Possess Antiseptic Properties
Juniper berries may help in the fight against common bacteria, with studies showing them to be effective in combating candida and staph infections. (1) (2) A 2009 study also used an extract of juniper berry to fight the spread of a common food mould, concluding that it could be used as a natural preservative for a host of foods and beverages. (3)
They May Be Relaxing
Some suggest juniper berries can help relax the mind and aid with restful sleep. It has been studied as a withdrawal aid for patients coming off sedative drugs and has also been considered as an anti-insomnia substance.
In such cases, juniper berry essential oil is used as a fragrance, not unlike lavender. It can be added to an oil burner or used as incense, with the scent said to help an individual relax and unwind.
They Contain a Number of Antioxidants
Juniper berries contain a number of antioxidant compounds. (4) These compounds can help combat oxidative stress, which in turn could reduce the risk of cancer and other chronic diseases. Some of the antioxidant compounds found in juniper berries include:
- Quercitin: A flavonoid that can be found in ginkgo biloba, as well as a number of fruits and vegetables. It can also be found in red wine and may be responsible for some of its apparent benefits.
- Kaempferol: There is a lot of exciting anti-cancer research surrounding this antioxidant. It is at its most abundant in apples, sprouts, and other fruits and vegetables, but you’ll also find this antioxidant in moringa.
- Tannins: There are a number of tannins in juniper berries, compounds said to be responsible for everything from strong flavours and health benefits to staining your carpet after you spill tea on it. They are at their most potent in black tea but can be found in many other beverages, as well.
This spice is not quite as promising as popular teas like green tea or sideritis scardica, especially when you consider that the average serving won’t provide them in large quantities, but there is certainly enough here to give credence to some of the health benefits discussed above.
May Be Good for the Heart
There have been a few promising studies concerning the effects of juniper berries on the heart and the blood. It may help reduce the levels of “bad” cholesterol while helping regulate high blood pressure. This has led some sites to claim that juniper berries may help with a host of heart, blood, and even brain conditions, as we know of some links between high blood pressure/cholesterol and a host of chronic conditions.
This all needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, though, as many of these positive studies were conducted on animals and there’s a long way to go before any conclusions can be made about its safety and effectiveness in human subjects.
Other Benefits of Juniper Berries
This spice is also said to act as a diuretic, which means it increases urination and can assist in ridding the body of excess water. Its effects are not as potent as well-known natural diuretics like nettle tea and dandelion tea, however, and it may not be strong enough to trigger a reaction following a moderate dose.
Juniper berries have also been used as a diabetic aid for many hundreds of years and a wealth of anecdotal evidence supports these claims. There is very little actual evidence, but what we know about its antioxidant content and diuretic effects suggest that there could be something to this claim.
Some species of juniper berries are poisonous, which is why it’s important to buy from a reputable source as opposed to hitting the great outdoors in search of your own harvest. Juniper berries can also cause serious side effects if consumed to excess, as well as some very unpleasant ones with small doses.
Is it Safe to Consume Juniper Berries?
Moderation is key with any herbal remedy, but some require more attention than others. We discussed how this was the case with soursop tea, which can lead to neurological damage, and it’s also true of juniper berries, as they have been linked with some serious side effects in higher doses.
The main side effects include gastrointestinal discomfort and diarrhoea, but there have also been studies suggesting that large doses can lead to kidney damage, convulsions, and even DNA damage. It is also possible to be allergic to juniper berries, in which case it can lead to everything from itching and swelling to difficulty breathing.
You should not consume them if you suffer from diabetes, bleeding disorders, or have recently undergone surgery. You should also avoid juniper berries if you are pregnant or breastfeeding. They are thought to increase the risk of miscarriage during pregnancy (also an issue with herbal teas like liquorice), and the risks they can pose to the baby while pregnant and nursing are not yet fully understood.
How to Consume
The most popular way to consume juniper berries is in the form of gin. But this is not ideal if you’re looking for an antioxidant fix. Just like turmeric and other spices, it can also be consumed as a tea, but you’ll need to be careful with the dosage and you’ll want to limit your consumption to no more than 2 cups a day, and preferably no more than 1 in the beginning.
Begin with no more than 2 grams of the berries per cup, steeping for a few minutes and then adding sugar or honey to taste. There are also a number of ways to add juniper berries to food, such as to flavour casseroles and stews or to marinade meat.