Move Over Vitamin C: Juniper Is Another Sickness-Busting Ingredient You Need to Know About

Photo: Getty Images / LordRunar
It's a truth universally known (and raved about) that wine can have some pretty impressive health perks. But there's an ingredient hiding in your grandma's gin bottle of all places that has some surprising health potential: juniper.

"Juniper comes from the berries of the common juniper tree, which is native to North America," says Suzanne Dixon, MPH, MS, RDN. (Its scientific name is Juniperus communis and yes, it's used to make gin.) And juniper is believed to have good-for-you potential beyond making for a great cocktail. “Some people claim juniper can treat urinary tract infections (UTIs), kidney stones, diabetes, arthritis, muscle pain, GI infections and cancer,” Dixon adds.

Wow—that’s a lot. But is it true? More research is needed to support health perks, but these are a few potential juniper benefits making it worth having on your radar:

1. It might lower inflammation

Essential oils containing juniper might have anti-inflammatory properties, says Dixon. “All of these products are considered safe for topical use by most people, although they shouldn't be applied to broken skin. And if a person experiences itching, rashes, pain or other skin reactions after applying juniper, they should wash it off and avoid future use,” she says.

2. It's a powerful antioxidant

Much like fresh berries or colorful produce, juniper has antioxidant properties. “It’s rich in antioxidants, which fight off inflammation and may prevent the development of serious diseases,” says Natalie Rizzo, MS, RD. It may also have some antiaging potential—one 2018 study found that juniper essential oils promoted a longer lifespan in worms, but more research is needed since that study wasn't performed on humans.

3. It could help fight off sickness

In addition to keeping inflammation at bay, which lowers risk of disease, juniper may also have antimicrobial and antifungal properties, Dixon says, where it can boost your immunity and help treat infections. More research is needed to dive deeper into its effects; however, there is a study on its abilities for wound healing in rats, says Rizzo. Cell and animal studies also suggest juniper may have some cancer-fighting properties, but there aren’t any studies on humans to make the association legit.

4. It may help GI problems

Juniper might help heal a troubled tummy, says Dixon (and has been used as such in folk medicine) but more research is needed to back this claim up. There are cell and animal studies on GI soothing abilities (it's been show to help mice with diarrhea, for example) but again, it’s lacking in human studies.

Are there any side effects to juniper?

“Despite the lack of evidence for efficacy, juniper is commonly consumed as a food ingredient and is considered safe for short-term medicinal use to manage specific, minor ailments,” says Dixon. However, due to potential side effects with longer-term use, including kidney function changes and effects on blood pressure and blood sugar, she says, people shouldn't use it as a dietary supplement or concentrated oil for more than a few weeks at a time.

People with diabetes should not use juniper supplements, oil, or concentrated extracts because it may affect their blood sugar levels. Women who are pregnant also should not take juniper medicinally, since it could cause uterine contractions and other issues. And since Juniper might have mild diuretic effects, people taking blood pressure medications or "water pills" shouldn't use juniper in concentrated form, Dixon adds.

“Of course, if a person has a more serious health condition, such as diabetes, cancer, heart disease or other chronic conditions, they should not self-treat with juniper or other herbal products,” says Dixon. Be sure to check with a pharmacist, doctor, or dietitian before adding in juniper to make sure you don’t experience any negative drug-herb interactions.

How to make the most of juniper

Juniper berries can be purchased online or in a spice shop and used in cooking or to flavor cocktails and other beverages. You can also try juniper berry tea, which is readily available and many people use it to soothe heartburn or mild nausea, says Dixon.

You can also get juniper in oil form. The essential oils are inexpensive and work well when inhaled to help with a stuffy nose or chest, says Dixon. “The oil can be placed into hot water and the steam inhaled or sprinkled into a hot bath. Diluted juniper berry oil can be rubbed on sore joints and may provide relief for garden-variety osteoarthritis, too,” she says.

Lastly, you can buy dietary supplements, which can be taken orally to treat mild GI issues. But remember: “While more diluted juniper berry products, such as tea or a few drops of juniper oil diluted in water are considered safe for regular consumption, do not take concentrated juniper berry supplements for more than a few weeks at a time,” Dixon says, as long-term effects aren’t quite known yet. (And remember: Don't take this stuff medicinally without first talking to your practitioner!)

OK, so you can't just like, treat your cold with a gin and tonic. But still, the benefits of juniper maybe make me feel a little bit better about raising a cocktail glass now and then instead of a glass of Pinot Noir.

Curious about more herbal benefits? You might want to learn more about maca. And matcha! (They're not the same, trust me.)

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