For her most recent and ongoing research, the James and Esther King Biomedical Research Program of the Florida Department of Health conferred Salazar a grant of $805,409 to explore the molecular mechanisms behind the cardioprotective effects of polyphenols.
Plant-based foods like blackberries are abundant in micronutrients called polyphenols. Salazar has conducted studies in the past using animal models to demonstrate that blackberry supplementation can help in treating clogged arteries (atherosclerosis).
It's no secret that diets rich in nutrient-dense, plant-based foods can be beneficial for heart health. Existing studies affirm that the regular consumption of such foods corresponds to better heart health and a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD).
For the most part, experts attribute these health benefits to a class of plant micronutrients called polyphenols. It is thought that these compounds act as antioxidants to combat inflammation, oxidative stress and cellular damage that can trigger chronic conditions.
In fact, epidemiological studies indicate that adopting diets containing foods rich in polyphenols can lead to great reductions in the risk of CVD and cardiometabolic disorders, according to a 2012 article published in the British Journal of Nutrition.
In this article, an international team of researchers affirmed that the apparent beneficial effects of polyphenols on cardiometabolic health are neither a recent nor groundbreaking development.
Health foods rich in polyphenols, such as dark chocolate, green tea and fresh grape juice have been studied in the past for their beneficial effects on high blood pressure, atherosclerosis and atherosclerotic diseases. (Related: Examining the healing effects of sorghum on atherosclerosis.)
In fact, Salazar has demonstrated in past studies using mouse models that the supplementation of polyphenol-rich blackberries results in significant reductions in atherosclerosis risk and incidence.
Furthermore, she notes that diets comprised of plant-based foods like the Mediterranean diet are long since thought to be beneficial for heart health primarily because of their rich polyphenol content.
Existing animal studies also demonstrate that polyphenol extracts can help reduce high blood pressure, a major biomarker for CVD, and strengthen the endothelium, the thin membrane that lines the inside of the heart and blood vessels to help regulate blood pressure.
Studies also indicate that polyphenols are capable of increasing the expression of antioxidant enzymes like catalase that protect the endothelium from oxidative stress and cellular damage, thus resulting in better blood pressure control and blood circulation.
In fact, Salazar authored a recent article published in the journal Nutrients that examined the protective role of polyphenols against vascular inflammation, aging and CVD. In this article, she notes that both inflammation and oxidative stress contribute to the proliferation of senescent cells or cells that stopped proliferating.
The phenomenon of cellular senescence is thought to protect against cancer, but Salazar adds that groundbreaking studies report senescent cells can also cause inflammation in the surrounding tissue and trigger the onset of age-related conditions, including heart failure, CVD and atherosclerotic diseases.
That being said, recent studies suggest that polyphenols from foods, including fruits, vegetables and olive oil, are capable of regulating inflammation, modulating cellular senescence, reducing the risk of CVD and minimizing its burden on patients.
Despite the reported and science-backed benefits of polyphenols for heart health, Salazar notes that it remains unclear if polyphenols can reduce smoking-induced arterial stiffness, another major biomarker for heart disease.
For her most recent and ongoing research, Salazar hopes to use concentrated extracts of blackberries as a potential treatment for patients of smoke-related diseases, including heart disease, stroke and lung disease, and chronic conditions like CVD.
Should their research be fruitful, their findings might contribute to an emerging body of research on nutrition as not only a long-term preventive measure against disease but also a holistic approach to health and healing.
Learn more about the health benefits of polyphenols and plant-based foods at FoodIsMedicine.com.