What is Sea Buckthorn?
It seems as if every year a new “superfood” gets people buzzing. Lately, a certain berry has caught the attention of the nutrition community—and it’s not goji or acai. It’s sea buckthorn. Originating from the Himalayas of Tibet, these bright orange berries have been used for centuries in traditional Asian medicine and recipes. Sea buckthorn came into the U.S. spotlight when Dr. Oz touted it as the new weight-loss superfruit. Now sea buckthorn is available in everything from soap to supplements.
But is sea buckthorn actually good for you?
Sea buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides) is filled with different nutritional properties—folic acid, flavonoid antioxidants, carotenoids, such as beta-carotene and lycopene, and vitamins C, D, K—to name a few.
What’s the big deal?
Well, each of these nutrients contributes to essential bodily functions and maintenance. Folic acid plays a crucial role in repair and cell growth. Antioxidants help protect the body from free radicals that can damage and deteriorate cells. Carotenoids are responsible for the colorful pigments of fruits and vegetables that are turned into beneficial pro-vitamins and antioxidants once digested. For example, beta-carotene is a precursor to vitamin A production and lycopene is a powerful disease-fighting antioxidant. Vitamin C helps the immune system, D maintains bone health, and K aids in blood clotting. Let all that sink in for a minute.
Uncovering omega 7
But what sets sea buckthorn apart is its variety of omega fatty acids. Not only does it contain omega 3, 6, and 9, but also the elusive omega 7. Never heard of it? That’s because the medical community is still trying to determine what it actually does.
“They are just starting to research and pull apart what omega 7s are doing for us. It’s not something we ever really talked a whole lot about before,” says Miranda Shearin, a registered dietitian and a clinical dietitian at Mary Washington Healthcare’s Stafford Hospital in Virginia.
What is known is that omega 7—also called palmitoleic acid—is a monosaturated fat that, along with all omega fatty acids, are responsible for reducing inflammation. It’s also apparent where the omegas are coming from within sea buckthorn. Omega 3 and 6 derive from the seed oil of sea buckthorn. Omega 7 originates within the actual pulp oil of the berry itself. The omega 3 and 6 in sea buckthorn is at a 1 to 1 ratio, meaning they’re at a level recommended for beneficial anti-inflammatory properties, explains Shearin.
It’s important to note that only omega 3 and omega 6 are essential fatty acids. This means they are not produced by the body, so they must be obtained through food sources. Therefore, omega 7 and 9 are produced naturally by the body, so they’re nonessential. In addition to sea buckthorn, omega 7 is found in macadamia nuts.
What science says
Several studies have shown sea buckthorn acts as an anti-inflammatory and immune booster. Some studies showed positive effects of sea buckthorn for treating and preventing stomach ulcers, stomach lesions, weight loss and dry eye symptoms in rats. However, no such studies were performed on humans. Further research is needed to determine if sea buckthorn is actually as beneficial to humans as Dr. Oz would have you believe.
A double-blind randomized trial of 254 healthy human participants showed that taking sea buckthorn supplements did not help prevent the common cold or digestive tract infections. It did, however, aid in reducing inflammation and the C-reactive protein, a marker for cardiovascular disease risk. It is unclear, however, if reducing the C-reactive protein legitimately reduces heart disease risk, according to NYU’s Langone Medical Center. The C-reactive protein alone may not be an appropriate measurement of heart disease risk. It’s actually a marker for stress, says Shearin, which can be influenced by many variables in a person’s life. This makes it hard to prove sea buckthorn alone lowered C-reactive protein levels. In other words, the jury is still out on whether sea buckthorn actually improves cardiovascular health.
A 2000 study in the Journal of Nutritional Biochemistry revealed possible skin benefits with sea buckthorn by increasing levels of fatty acids. But, as researchers at University of California Berkeley note, the study did not track whether symptoms of skin disease improved. Again, more research is required to analyze the healing potential of sea buckthorn for skin disorders.
The bottom line
Sea buckthorn does have positive nutritional properties, but don’t believe all the health claims until more research is conducted. You should always exercise caution with certain products—particularly supplements.
“We need a lot more information. I would not recommend to any of my patients that they take this as a supplement,” says Shearin. Since these supplements are not FDA approved or regulated, some ingredient lists may be a mystery—as well as if the label claims are valid. Instead, Shearin recommends people have a handful of macadamia nuts a few times a week to get an extra boost of omega 7, or eat the genuine berry. “In the nutrition field, as a registered dietitian, we almost always would rather you get it from food because then we know that that food is holding up its integrity.”
It might be hard to get your hands on the actual berry—unless you feel like mountain climbing in Tibet. The next best thing may be Sibu Beauty’s all-natural sea buckthorn juice. Warning: The tart taste is a bit shocking to the palette at first.
Erica Sanderson is a former content producer and editor for HealthCentral. Living with a chronic disorder that affects the lungs and instestine, Erica focused on covering digestive health and respiratory health. Topics included COPD, asthma, acid reflux, managing symptoms and medication.