Ingredient Type: Botanical
Also Known As: Lycium barbarum, Chinese boxthorn, Chinese wolfberry, Common matrimony-vine, Duke of Argyll's teaplant, Duke of Argyll's teatree, Himalayan goji, wolfberry
L. barbarum, also known as Goji berries, come from one of two closely related species, the Lycium barbarum or the Lycium chinense. Both species are boxthorns from the Solanaceae family (more commonly known as nightshades) (2). Goji berries are known for their antioxidant properties and have been used to help control high blood pressure by lowering blood sugar and relieving insulin resistance; they also are known to assist in fighting obesity, and helping poor immune functions by increasing red blood cells called lymphocytes that help protect the body from harmful bacteria (3).
In 1753 Swedish botanist, zoologist, and physician Carl Linneas, assigned the genus name, Lycium to the berry. The name is derived from the Greek word lykion referring to a plant used by both Pliny the Elder and Dioscorides, also referring to the ancient region of Lycia, Anatolia, now modern-day Turkey. The other known name for goji, wolfberry, stems from the English interpretation of the Greek word lycos meaning “wolf” (1). Another theory of the wolfberry name origin possibly comes from the Chinese farmers that saw wolves hiding among the goji berry vines (3). The modern term, “goji” is thought to derive from the Chinese pronunciation of the L. chinense plant (1).
Goji is a deciduous woody perennial plant. It grows anywhere from 3 to 9 feet high. The fruit (the goji berries) is bright orange red in color and approximately 1 to 2 cm in diameter. This self-pollinating plant flowers June through September with the berries maturing August through October, depending on the region where it grows. In China, the plant is used to help control erosion and reestablish irrigable soils from desertification (2).
Native to China, the goji berry has been cultivated there for more than 600 years. The berries also have been used medicinally by traditional Chinese practitioners with old tales referring to the berries as a “superfruit.” One of these “tales” is a story of a man who ate goji berries daily and reportedly lived to be over 250 years old. Tales such as these and claims of its superior medicinal properties have led to strict reactions from food regulation agencies prohibiting labeling goji food products as having any therapeutic benefits. Goji has since been treated as a “new drug” under these regulations. These “therapeutic” claims have also increased research into the possible medicinal properties of goji berries (1).
Traditionally, goji berries have been used in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese medicine since the 3rd century (2). Traditional Chinese medicine uses the berries to help maintain the function of eyes and strengthen the activity of the liver, kidneys, lungs (5), and also as a potent anti-aging agent (5). Another early “tale” refers to a 2,000-year-old legend of a doctor that visited a remote village in China that consisted mostly of centenarians. Apparently, the well water from which the villagers drank was infused with the goji berries that had fallen into the water from the plants growing above the wells. The doctor’s theory was that the villagers lived so long because they drank the berry infused water and were able to benefit from the nutrients of the berries (3).
More documentations of the history of goji berry used as a medicine is one of the oldest Chinese herb and medicine books written by the Chinese emperor, Shen Nong. His book, Shen Nong Ben Cao Jing, documented the benefits of goji berries and other information about agriculture (3).
The primary group of compounds in the berries are polysaccharides and proteoglycans followed by carotenoid pigments, zeaxanthin dipalmitate, an antioxidant from which goji berries garnered their popularity (3).
Goji berries are full of health and nutritional factors including amino acids, vitamins, and minerals. The berries provide eight essential amino acid rings (3), the cyclic oligopeptides, named lyciumins A and B. Other amino acids include proline, y-aminobutyric acid (GABA) and betaine (2). Goji berry fruit contains the vitamins, riboflavin, thiamin, and contains a third of the daily recommended amount of vitamin C (ascorbic acid) (3). Other compounds include flavonoids that are derived from quercetin, kaempferol, and myricetin (2).
WHAT DOES SCIENCE TELL US?
Goji Berries Might Help Prevent Cancer:
Multiple literature reviews have reported that the mechanisms of goji berries exhibit therapeutic and medicinal effects against cancer. This can be due to the high levels of antioxidants—including vitamin C, carotenoids, and zeaxanthin—that are known for fighting cancer by slowing tumor growth and reducing inflammation (5). Specifically, in vitro and in vivo studies of goji berries have shown they exhibit apoptotic and anti-proliferative effects on cancer and may not only enhance the effects of but also even reduce the side effects of conventional cancer therapies (5).
In one in vitro study, goji berry was investigated for its effects against breast cancer cells. Michigan Cancer Foundation-7 (MCF-7) cells were exposed to a medium of Lycium barbarum (LB), and by day three of the trial, the LBs had exhibited a dose-depended growth inhibition of the cancer cells by 9.5-42.8%, and by day seven, they were reduced by 33.9%-83.9%. The results of this study indicated that LBs might inhibit the proliferation of estrogen receptor-positive MCF-7 cells through modulation of estrogen metabolism and the switching of metabolic pathways. Ultimately, it was reported that lycium barbarum has potential as an agent in therapeutic treatment against breast cancer cells (6).
Another in vitro study looked at the effects of lycium barbarum polysaccharide (LBP), extracted constituents from the goji berry, on cell proliferation and apoptosis in human cervical carcinoma cells (HeLa cells) (7). The HeLa cells were incubated with 6.25mg/mL of LBPs for four days. This incubation resulted in a 35% inhibition of cell growth. An additional phase of treatment with 6.25-100 mg/L LBPs for four days showed an increased loss of mitochondrial transmembrane potential and increase of intracellular Ca(2+) concentration leading to the conclusion that LBPs inhibit the proliferation of HeLa cells through inducing apoptosis through the mitochondrial pathway leading to an analysis that LBP could be a potential chemotherapeutic agent candidate against human cervical cancer (7).
In human colon cancer cell lines SW480 and Caco-2 cells, lyxium barbarum polysaccharides (LBPs) were shown to inhibit the proliferation of both cell lines in a dose-dependent manner. This in vitro study was conducted at the Ningbo University School of Medicine in China. Both cell lines were exposed to concentrations of LBP from 400 mg/L to 1,000 mg/L. At a concentration of 400 mg/L, the LBPs significantly inhibited the growth of the SW480 cells. The Caco-2 cells' growth was inhibited at concentrations from 200 mg/L to 1,000 mg/L. Additionally, at the 200-1,200 mg/L dosage for eight days showed a long-term anti-proliferative effect (a significant decrease in the number of adherent cancer cells) (8). The results demonstrate LBPs have an antiproliferative effect against colorectal cancer cells via modulation of critical cell cycle regulators and may be a possible agent in the therapeutic treatment of such cancers (8).
Hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer) is the sixth most common cancer in the world and is the third leading cause of cancer-related death in the world (9). Studies conducted in the Republic of China have shown LBPs to be effective against hematoma cancer cells. In one of these studies, the effects of LBP on the proliferation rate, cell cycle distribution, and apoptosis on human hepatoma cells was investigated. Exposure of the cells to 100 mg/L of LBPs inhibited the proliferation of the cells, induced cell cycle arrest, and significantly increased intracellular distribution of calcium in cells (increased Ca (2+) levels) (9). This increase in calcium and a decrease in cell proliferation, along with cell death, indicated that lycium barbarum polysaccharides might be effective agents against liver cancer (9).
Goji Berries Possibly Help Eyesight:
The high level of antioxidants contained in goji berries, specifically zeaxanthin, are what are considered to help with eyesight as well as stop damage from UV light, free radicals, and oxidative stress (3).
In one double-masked, randomized, placebo-controlled trial reported in the American Academy of Optometry’s journal, Optometry, and Vision Science, elderly participants (age 65 – 70 years) drank 13.7 grams a day of goji berry juice for thirty days. The markers were assessed to determine the effects of goji berry on macular characteristics and the levels of zeaxanthin and antioxidant levels. The results indicated the goji berry juice group’s plasma zeaxanthin level increased by 26%, and their antioxidant capacity increased by 57% with no adverse effects reported. The mechanisms of action remain unclear and more studies need to be conducted (4).
Multiple studies conducted on animals (mice and rats) have looked at the effects of goji berries on retina protection from glaucoma. Retinal I/R-induced retinal injury is associated with many diseases of the eye, including glaucoma. Usually, I/R injuries are results of oxidative injury that are accompanied by retinal swelling and disrupted blood-retinal barrier which can cause retinal edema and retinal ganglion cell death. In these studies, LBPs have shown protective effects against I/R -induced retinal injury. Further, these studies’ results show that goji berries protect the retina from the oxidative stress, thus protecting the ganglion cells that can lead to glaucoma, which in turn can protect from vision loss (5).
In one such study conducted on mice, lycium barbarum polysaccharides were shown to decrease apoptosis in the photoreceptors of the mice with retinal degeneration (17) while another study that investigated the protective effects of LBPs on retinol ganglion cells (RGC)—the leading cause of glaucoma—on rats subject to complete or partial optic nerve transection showed no delay in primary degeneration of RGCs. However, the results demonstrated that LBPs did have an effect on secondary degermation of RGCs, decreasing them by inhibiting oxidative stress and transiently increasing the expression of insulin-like growth factor-1 (18).
Goji Berries Might Help Prevent Liver Damage:
Alcohol-induced liver injury is a chronic multi-step disease where fatty accumulation in the liver is due to chronic alcohol exposure. In a study conducted on rats with alcohol-induced liver damage, thirty-six rats were divided into three groups; ethanol, control, and ethanol + LBP groups. The ethanol rat group were fed 7 g ethanol/kg body weight infusion three times a day for thirty consecutive days. The rats in the control group were fed the same dose of saline, and the rats in the ethanol + LBP group were fed 7 g/kg body weight of ethanol and 300 mg/kg body weight of LBP per day for thirty consecutive days. In the ethanol + LBP group, the liver injury was significantly ameliorated, and the progression of alcohol-induced fatty liver was prevented along with improved antioxidant functions when compared to the other groups. Further examination showed that LBP administration protected liver cells from damage produced from ethanol exposure. The scientists concluded that LBP is a promising agent in the treatment and prevention of alcohol-induced liver disease (10).
Another liver disease, nonalcoholic fatty liver disease, has been studied in conjunction with the effects of LBP to see if the effects are similar as they have shown to be with alcohol-induced liver injury. In one study, female rats were fed a high-fat diet to induce symptoms of nonalcoholic steatohepatitis. They were given 1 mg/kg LBP orally for eight weeks. The results showed that LBP improved histology and free fatty acid levels. It also rebalanced of lipid metabolism and showed a reduction in profibrogenic factors through the mechanism of transforming growth factor and improving oxidative stress. Ultimately the LBP-treated group had a reduction in hepatic pro-inflammatory mediators and experienced hepatic apoptosis showing that LBPs can be effective in reducing nonalcoholic fatty liver disease in rats (19). Overall, LBPs studies on animal subjects show it substantially can reduce oxidative stress, inhibit apoptosis, and suppress inflammatory responses which, in turn, protects the liver from injuries due to various diseases (19).
Goji Berries Possibly Help Increase Immune Defenses:
The antioxidants found in goji berries are known for their immune-boosting properties and their ability to fight off harmful free radicals. The high amounts of vitamin C and A contribute to helping the body fight off illnesses and build immunity. In examining the effects of LBP, research was conducted on sixty elderly patients (age 55+) to investigate immune function, general well-being, and safety. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study, the patients drank 120 mL per day for thirty days. Statistically significant increases in the number of lymphocytes and immunoglobulin G were found in the juice group when compared to the placebo. The placebo group showed no significant changes in any immune function. Conversely, the juice group had increased feelings of well-being and an increase in short-term memory and focus. There were no adverse effects reported in the juice group (11).
Goji Berries Might Help Improve Sleep, Depression, and Anxiety:
In the first study conducted outside of China on the general effects of goji berries, it was reported that daily consumption of goji berry juice indeed can increase feelings of well-being. In this randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial, healthy adults consumed 120 mL of GoChi juice a day for fourteen days (12). The GoChi group had a significant increase in energy, athletic performance, quality of sleep, ease of awakening, ability to focus, mental acuity, calmness, and feeling of health and contentment, as well as an increase in overall happiness. The GoChi juice also reduced fatigue and stress. The placebo group showed only two significant changes (heartburn and happiness). The results indicate that consuming GoChi for two weeks may increase feelings of general well-being while also improving neurologic/psychologic performance (12).
In a meta-analysis conducted at the University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, four studies were reviewed to investigate and compare the results of the general effects of oral consumption of lycium barbarum juice (GoChi). The trials were all randomized, blind, placebo-controlled clinical trials that included a questionnaire of symptoms that the participants filled out. There were 161 participants ranging in ages 18 – 72 years old that consumed 120 mL a day of GoChi juice. Using the Mantel-Haenszel method, each study had pre and post questions to analyze progress results and outcomes. The active juice group showed significant improvements in weakness, stress, mental acuity, focus on activity, sleep quality, and overall feelings of health and well-being. They also showed additional improvements in fatigue, depression, and calmness when compared to the placebo groups. The authors of the meta-analysis concluded that these studies results confirm that intake of L. barbarum juice can significantly improve neurological and psychological performance including overall feelings of well-being (16).
- No major interactions have been reported.
- While unreported, goji berries may lower blood sugar levels and could increase the risk of bleeding. It is important to assess all medications, especially blood thinners, before consuming goji berries as they could interact with blood thinning drugs such as warfarin (14).
- They may also interact with diabetes medication because of its effect on insulin and pancreas function (13).
- Goji berries might interfere with medication used to control blood pressure. It is advised to consult with a medical professional before consuming goji berries if taking the above-mentioned medications (13).
There have been some reports that consuming goji berries can cause minor digestive problems such as diarrhea, indigestion, nausea, and vomiting. If there is an allergic reaction to the berry, it may be accompanied by digestive distress (but this is if there is a present allergy and prolong use of the berry). It is recommended to consume goji berry supplements only on a full stomach or with food (14).
There have been some goji berry products that have the preservative, sulfites, that are either declared or undeclared. Sulfites can elicit an allergic reaction in some people and cause anaphylactic shock if taken in high doses (14).
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- Lycium barbarum. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lycium_barbarum Accessed December 10, 2019.
- Goji Berries: An Ancient Chinese Superfood. https://www.spiceography.com/goji-berries/ Accessed December 10, 2019.
- Bucheli P, Vidal K, Shen L, Gu Z, Zhang C, Miller LE, Wang J. Goji Berry Effects on Macular Characteristics and Plasma Antioxidant Levels. Optom. Vision Science. 2011;88 (2): 257-262. doi: 10.1097/OPX.0b013e318205a18f.
- Cheng J, Zhou ZW, Sheng HP, He LJ, Fan XW, He ZX, et al. An evidence-based update on the pharmacological activities and possible molecular targets of Lycium barbarum polysaccharides. Drug Des Devel Ther. 2014;9:33-78. doi: 10.2147/DDDT.S72892.
- Li G, Sepkovic DW, Bradlow HL, Telang NT, Wong GY. Lycium barbarum inhibits growth of estrogen receptor positive human breast cancer cells by favorably altering estradiol metabolism. Nutr Cancer. 2009;61(3):408-14. doi: 10.1080/01635580802585952.
- Zhu CP, Zhang SH. Lycium barbarum polysaccharide inhibits the proliferation of HeLa cells by inducing apoptosis. J Sci Food Agric. 2013;93(1):149-56. doi: 10.1002/jsfa.5743.
- Mao F, Xiao B, Jiang Z, Zhao J, Huang X, Guo J. Anticancer effect of Lycium barbarum polysaccharides on colon cancer cells involves G0/G1 phase arrest. Med Oncol. 2011;(1):121-6. doi: 10.1007/s12032-009-9415-5.
- Zhang M, Chen H, Huang J, Li Z, Zhu C, Zhang S. Effect of lycium barbarum polysaccharide on human hepatoma QGY7703 cells: inhibition of proliferation and induction of apoptosis. Life Sci. 2005;76(18):2115-24. DOI: 10.1016/j.lfs.2004.11.009.
- Cheng D, Kong H. The effect of Lycium barbarum polysaccharide on alcohol-induced oxidative stress in rats. Molecules. 2011;16(3):2542-50. doi: 10.3390/molecules16032542.
- Amagase H, Sun B, Nance DM. Immunomodulatory effects of a standardized Lycium barbarum fruit juice in Chinese older healthy human subjects. J Med Food. 2009;12(5):1159-65. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2008.0300.
- Amagase H, Nance DM. A randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, clinical study of the general effects of a standardized Lycium barbarum (Goji) Juice, GoChi. J Altern Complement Med. 2008;14(4):403-12. doi: 10.1089/acm.2008.0004.
- Goji berry interactions. https://www.webmd.com/diet/goji-berries-health-benefits-and-side-effects Accessed December 11, 2019.
- Side Effects of Goji Berries. https://www.livestrong.com/article/113722-side-effects-goji/ Accessed December 11, 2019.
- Health Benefits of Goji Berries. https://www.verywellfit.com/can-goji-berries-improve-your-health-89054#possible-side-effects Accessed December 11, 2019.
- Paul Hsu CH, Nance DM, Amagase H. A meta-analysis of clinical improvements of general well-being by a standardized Lycium barbarum. J Med Food. 2012;15(11):1006-14. doi: 10.1089/jmf.2012.0013.
- Miranda M, Arnal E, Ahuja S, Alvarez-Nölting R, López-Pedrajas R, et al. Antioxidants rescue photoreceptors in rd1 mice: Relationship with thiol metabolism. Free Radic Biol Med. 2010;48(2):216-22. doi: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2009.10.042.
- Li H, Liang Y, Chiu K, Yuan Q, Lin B, Chang RC, So KF. Lycium barbarum (wolfberry) reduces secondary degeneration and oxidative stress, and inhibits JNK pathway in retina after partial optic nerve transection. PLoS One. 2013 Jul 19;8(7):e68881. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0068881.
- Xiao J, Liong EC, Ching YP, Chang RC, Fung ML, Xu AM, So KF, Tipoe GL. Lycium barbarum polysaccharides protect rat liver from non-alcoholic steatohepatitis-induced injury. Nutr Diabetes. 2013 Jul 22;3:e81. doi: 10.1038/nutd.2013.22.