30/03/2017 07:59 BST | Updated 28/03/2018 06:12 BST

Bergamot: Another Healthy Reason To Love Italy

As if Chianti, pizza and Gucci were not enough reasons to love everything Italian, one of the latest natural therapies for common cardiovascular conditions has Italian roots, literally. Rather than the sangiovese grape, I am talking about the bergamot fruit. Bergamot may sound familiar as the peel of this citrus, that looks like a large lemon, is often used for teas, perfumes, and essential oils. The citrus grows on a tree only in the region of Southern Italy called Calabria, very close to Sicily. Beyond the appeal of the peel, the fruit pulp itself has a unique combination of flavonoid chemicals that are a mouthful. Although the names are unfamiliar, like naringin, bruteridin, and melitidin, these natural bergamot compounds block the same enzyme that statin medications like Lipitor block, without the same concerns over Lipitor side effects.

Bergamot has also been shown to lower blood sugar, lower inflammation, improve blood vessel activity, and activate the AMPK system similar to a popular diabetic drug called metformin. How is all of this known about the citrus fruit growing in a remote zone of Italy? There was a tradition that locals that ate the fruit of the bergamot citrus did not get heart disease, diabetes and other maladies. Universities in that region began studying this folklore and it proved to be an accurate local legend. There are now more than 200 scientific studies exploring the role of bergamot for health. Bergamot is available as a food supplement in tablet form that concentrates the active polyphenols found in the whole fruit.

Does bergamot actually work? The science says yes and the experiences from consumers that take bergamot supports this too. In a recent trial in 77 patients with high cholesterol, subjects were treated with a statin medication alone or combined with bergamot. The combination therapy produced the lowest LDL cholesterol and the highest HDL cholesterol. In addition, measures of damage to blood vessels by oxidation were the lowest when bergamot was added. In other studies, the beneficial effects of bergamot on blood sugar levels and body weight were demonstrated.

What about metabolic syndrome? An estimated 20-25% of the world's adult population is thought to have this condition and maybe as many as one third of adults in the United Kingdom, suffer from it. It is a combination of increased abdominal fat and waistline, hypertension, abnormal cholesterol lipid values with low HDL and high triglycerides, elevated blood sugar. Bergamot has proven to be particularly useful in assisting the reversal of this syndrome, which raises the risk of future events like heart attack and stroke.

A particularly vexing problem seen more and more commonly is non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), also known as NASH. NASH results from an inactive lifestyle along with a diet that is high in processed foods stuffed with oils and fats that overloads liver cells with fat droplets. It is also associated with insulin resistance, pre-diabetes and adult Type 2 diabetes as the insulin resistance builds. While the foundation of the treatment of NASH is activity, weight loss, and plant-based diets low or absent added oils, bergamot shows promise here too. In a study in humans with metabolic syndrome and NAFLD, significant responses to bergamot were seen.

With the expanding knowledge and research into alternative and natural medicine, the treatment focus for many conditions has begun to shift towards personalised lifestyle medicine and nutraceuticals. In society today, sedentary lifestyles and processed foods put the population at risk of obesity, diabetes, elevated cholesterol and heart disease. More safe, effective, food based strategies, like bergamot, are needed.

Why is bergamot so unheard of? It is a natural product and therefore difficult to patent or licence in a medical approval process. However, If a conventional treatment derived from a food was not only safe but supported a lower blood sugar, blood cholesterol while reducing metabolic syndrome, and NAFLD it would surely be frequently prescribed. When combined with lifestyle efforts focusing on diet, exercise, sleep and stress, the bergamot fruit from southern Italy can provide significant cardiovascular benefits.