Take 5 Berries for Winter Health

Even in Scotland in November, nature delivers up her bounty. Hawthorn berries offer a red hue in the hedgerows well after the leaves have fallen.

We see glimmers of yellow on trees as velvet shank mushrooms begin to show and in the leaf litter, if you have a keen eye, you might just spot vibrant purple blewit mushrooms ripe for the picking. Nature may slow down, but she never fully rests as she continues to offer up foods and medicines for us.

Winter in the north may be harsh and cruel, but she gives very generously in the autumn to set store for the leaner months ahead. And although autumn may feel like the season of decay and recycling, it’s actually the season of new life as nature sows her seeds for new growth.

Nature is a hard-working and creative lass. She knows that the apple needs to fall further from the tree in order to survive and thrive. So, she cleverly packages her seeds in tasty fruits and berries for birds, beasts and humans to eat and spread far and wide.

She rewards us for this service with nutrient-rich foods, densely packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and potent medicinal compounds. In short, berries contain life force.

High in Healing Nutrients

As a medical herbalist, I will often recommend adding extra berries to the diet as they are high in healing nutrients including bioflavonoids and vitamin C which are known to support immune health, reduce inflammation and protect collagen, the building block for our connective tissue, bones and skin.

Cultivated berries are a good source of nutrients, but wild berries contain more potent levels of antioxidants and medicinal compounds as they have had to protect themselves from the forces of nature to survive.  Research suggests they may contain up to twice the antioxidants of cultivated varieties.

Blueberries or Bilberries

Wild blueberries or bilberries are abundant in our local pine forests and are a refreshing, tart nibble when out for a walk in the woods.  They are a rich source of potent super nutrients that include vitamin C, resveratrol, anthocyanins and vitamin E.

These berries are great for the skin and considered to be antioxidant powerhouses.  They help to neutralise the enzymes that break down collagen and we consider them a tonic for blood vessels, helping to prevent bruising and damage to blood vessel walls.

Oxidative stress is thought to be a key driver in the aging process and notably so when it comes to eye health. So, if you want to keep your vision at its best bilberries are worth eating regularly.

Studies have shown that bilberry extracts can improve night vision, reduce eye strain and may also potentially prevent and even treat macular degeneration, which causes vision loss in the elderly.

Of course, we would all love to be living the “good life” but for many people foraging from the woods for your plate isn’t always a viable option.  Even if that’s the case you can still benefit from berries in your diet. Buy fresh organic berries if you can, frozen organic if you can’t, and regularly cultivated if there is no other option.  No matter which you choose there is benefit to be had from consuming them regularly.

Hawthorn Berries

In addition to the berries we find in the supermarket, there are countless medicinal berries available as capsules, tinctures and tablets in health food shops, some of which you might also be able to find growing in your local hedgerows and parks.

Two grow within a few hundred metres of my house and are firm favourites of mine in my herbal practice, too. The first is hawthorn, which I’ve already mentioned and which I’ve already turned ketchup. The second is elderberry, now gone over for the season, but turned into syrup and stored in my garage as a winter tonic for the immune system.

Hawthorn is a herb of the heart and has a long tradition of use in medicine throughout Europe.  Known as May blossom, the leaves and flowers are harvested in the spring and made into teas or tinctures to help lower high blood pressure.  They are gently relaxant on the peripheral blood vessels and open up the peripheral circulation, reducing the pressure in the system.

The berries are used more specifically for central heart health and are used in herbalist prescribed treatments for hardening of the arteries and high cholesterol, angina and even congestive heart failure.

These conditions are not the sort of problem you should attempt to remedy by yourself. But working with a trained, skilled medical herbalist to address cardiovascular health may benefit you.

The Root of Common Health Issues

Orthodox medicine focuses much attention on cholesterol when it comes to the heart and circulation, but the focus of the naturopathic minded practitioner delves a little deeper to consider inflammation, which is at the root of many chronic health issues.

Inflammatory changes in blood vessels allow cholesterol to clump and dump. Therefore, the aim of treatment is not only to improve cholesterol status but to modify the diet to reduce homocysteine and curb the damage within the blood vessels themselves.  It’s also aimed at increasing elasticity and reducing a tendency for fibrous hardening which leads to cramps, spasms and congestion.

Hawthorn is considered a specific for the circulation. In my many years of practice, I have observed significant benefits for clients using it for angina and intermittent claudication of the legs. Both are caused by restricted blood flow and lead to painful cramps.

With hawthorn, exercise endurance increases, legs ache less and the need for nitrate sprays is reduced. These are all positive signs that blood vessels are functioning better, and the heart is being nourished more.

Popular Elderberry

Berries really do have the potential to support lots of different systems in the body and our immune system can also gain a healthy edge from consuming berries regularly.

When I undertook my professional herbal studies back in the 1990s, we mainly focused on elderflowers as the medicine to gather from the elder tree. Now elderberries have overtaken the popularity of elderflower as an immune-supporting tonic. You can now find elderberry supplements in chemists, supermarkets and health food shops as well as traditional herbal dispensaries.

Like the flowers, they have a real affinity for mucus membranes. We often prescribed them for respiratory viruses, particularly those affecting the lungs and bronchial tubes.

They have gained popularity probably because scientific studies now back traditional folk use and the internet is littered with papers demonstrating their effectiveness not just in treating respiratory viruses but also in reducing the severity and longevity of flu-like illnesses.

Natural Immune Boosters

Elderberries contain immune-boosting anthocyanidins and flavonoids that help to prevent cell wall damage and which in turn helps to stop viruses from entering and infecting cells of the body.

These deep purple berries may have even more to offer us in our quest for wellness. It’s thought that they may also be good for the circulation, for reducing high blood sugar and may even be of potential benefit in cancer management.

In early 2020 rumours started to circulate that elderberries might exacerbate Covid19 by inducing a cytokine storm. That’s an inflammatory reaction which we now understand leads to a poorer outcome for people fighting the virus.

All research suggests that elderberry would have the opposite effect, that it should, if anything, dampen down rather than activate an inflammatory response. Researchers have found no evidence that it exacerbates it. So we can continue to use it in syrups and supplements through the winter, safe in the knowledge it’s safe to use no matter what the immune threat might be.

There is no scientific evidence to show that home-made syrups are as effective as commercially produced remedies, but I have faith that my local, freshly harvested, wild-grown organic elderberry syrup will be every bit as effective as a mass-produced product.  My whole family keeps fighting fit by taking a healthy swig every day as well as a good dose of vitamin D.

Sea Buckthorn Berries

Each colour on the fruit and veg spectrum relates to different health benefits, which is why we should aim for a rainbow on our plates every day.  The same could be said of berries and although these mainly come in purples and reds there are also some super health-promoting orange berries, too.

In Scotland, near the coastal margins of Fife and East Lothian as well as other maritime fringes, sea buckthorn grows wild in abundance. I understand it’s native to the south coast of England and has been planted around other coastal dune lands to stabilise the shoreline. Anyone lucky enough to have it growing locally has a great free food resource as the berries can be harvested and eaten raw in smoothies or made into jams, jellies and syrups.

Like the other berries mentioned here, there are indications that sea buckthorn berries are good for the heart and circulation and they might also help to lower cholesterol.

Beneficial Fatty Acids

Their tart flavour imparts tone to the digestion and in Asia they have traditionally been used to treat gastric problems and stomach ulcers.  In the UK most of the interest in sea buckthorn focuses on the oil extracted from the seeds which gives a spectrum of omega 3, omega 6, omega 9 and abundant omega 7 fatty acids.

Omega 7 helps to increase insulin sensitivity and at the same time helps to protect the insulin-releasing beta cells of the pancreas. That, coupled with cholesterol-lowering benefits, suggests it might benefit if there’s a risk of type II diabetes in the family.

Sea buckthorn seed extracts may also help another age-related problem. It may help with dry mucus membranes and dry and irritated eyes. A dry lipid layer in the eyes can cause them to feel tired and irritated and even stream as the body attempts to moisten them. Supplementation seems to dramatically improve symptoms over a period of just a few weeks.

Popular Post Menopause

Sea buckthorn can moisten other membranes, too. Its particular benefit for post-menopausal women or women on hormonal suppression medications is that it can markedly improve symptoms of vaginal dryness without HRT or oestrogen pessaries.

Nowadays many women prefer a non-hormonal approach to managing menopause issues and sea buckthorn omega 7 supplements are a go-to for vaginal atrophy in both our shop and clinic.

Of course, if you have them growing nearby you can eat the berries fresh or freeze them to see you through winter and spring. Eating both the seed and the flesh has additional benefits and may help keep your skin looking younger, too.

Exceptional Schisandra

The final berry is one of my all-time favourites and unusually for me, not one I have foraged. This one isn’t a native plant. It comes from Asia and Russia, where it has a long tradition of use as a medicine and a tonic.

It’s schisandra chinensis, also known as five-flavoured fruit because herbalists consider it to be a balance of sour, salty, sweet, acrid and bitter tastes and therefore balancing to all constitutions.

I’ve been exploring schisandra berry as a herbal remedy more in my practice over the past couple of years because of a significant uplift in inflammatory and histamine-driven conditions we are seeing in clinic.

Auto-immune inflammation is on the rise and stress has reached ferocious levels, particularly over the past few months.  In schisandra we have a remedy with almost miraculous indications in a wide range of conditions.

I would encourage you to read some of the papers available online. There’s a huge amount of research into herbal medicines in China and schisandra’s exceptional properties have been well validated.

Powerful Adaptogen

Like many berries, it is antioxidant and has indications for cardiovascular health and conditions such as diabetes.  But dig deeper and you discover a powerful adaptogen that helps to counter the effects of stress and dampen down the damage of excess cortisol.

It is a tonic for the liver, helps to reduce inflammation associated with autoimmune conditions and malignancy and even has neuroprotective potential for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases. So you can understand why this berry has really grabbed my interest and is on my list of frequently prescribed herbs.

Typically, we’re all living longer nowadays, but it saddens me that this doesn’t necessarily mean we’re living healthier lives. If you take one thing away from this, consider berrying up your diet and your medicines. Boost those protective antioxidants and you can not only live longer but live younger too!

Finally, please remember that if you do suffer from a health problem it’s always better to have herbs prescribed by a qualified and experienced professional herbalist. And always check before taking a supplement or herb if you are on prescribed medications.

You also want to make sure you know your plant ID before harvesting anything for the table or the pot. There are poisonous berries, barks, leaves and mushrooms out there too!  She’s a clever lass, but nature can be quite wicked, too.


Keren Brynes Maclean is a consultant medical herbalist and has been a Member of the National Institute of Medical Herbalists since 1996.  She owns and runs Health Food and More in Kirkcaldy, a shop, clinic and dispensary in the Kingdom of Fife. Visit www.healthfoodandmore.co.uk for more information.