The shiny red cranberry confers benefits that go beyond a healthy urinary tract.
By Lisa James
It was once thought simply to play a supporting role in the traditional Thanksgiving Day meal. But today the humble cranberry has become a natural medicine superstar, best known as a therapy for chronic urinary tract infection (UTI). The burning pain associated with this persistent disorder plagues millions of women each year; the National Institutes of Health says that one in five will develop a UTI during her lifetime.
It turns out that bladder defense isn’t the cranberry’s only talent. Recent research shows that cranberries may also help protect the heart and contribute to better oral health.
Killing bacteria and other harmful microbes outright is the most direct way of controlling infection, but it isn’t the only one. Many bacteria can adhere tenaciously to cells, such as those that line the urinary tract. This makes it difficult to eradicate microbes, setting the stage for chronic problems.
Cranberries contain proanthocyanidins (PACs) that form a barrier between microbes and the urinary tract lining, which can help keep bacteria from getting a foothold. In one study, cranberry reduced bacterial adherence in the urinary tracts of healthy women (Canadian Journal of Urology 12/09). Cranberry has also significantly reduced the recurrence of UTIs in preteen girls (Scandinavian Journal of Urology and Nephrology 9-10/09).
Men are much less prone to UTIs. However, they can develop prostatitis, inflammation of the prostate gland, and benign prostatic hyperplasia (BPH), in which the gland becomes enlarged. Czech researchers found that daily cranberry supplementation was able to improve several measures of prostate health (British Journal of Nutrition 10/10). Cranberry has also shown an ability to inhibit Helicobacter pylori, the bacterium associated with ulcer development (Journal of Gastroenterology and Hepatology 12/08).
Like the urinary tract, the gums are subject to bacterial colonization. This sets the stage for cavity formation and periodontal disease, two leading causes of tooth loss.
As in the urinary tract, cranberry has shown an ability to keep cavity-forming bacteria from sticking to cells lining the gums and to stop those microbes from producing acids that eat away at dental enamel (Journal of the Canadian Dental Association 10/1/10 online). Cranberry has also reduced inflammation caused by the bacteria responsible for periodontal disease (Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy 5/10).
Anti-inflammatory capacity is one reason cranberry has shown promise as an aid to cardiovascular well-being—low-level, chronic inflammation has been linked to the development of arterial plaque. And cranberry antioxidants have reduced signs of oxidative stress, another key plaque formation factor in animal studies (Nutrition Research and Practice 9/08).
While cranberries have long been part of the American diet, the fruit’s tartness requires a substantial amount of added sweetener to make it palatable. As a result, many people prefer cranberry supplements. The extract is available as capsules, chewables and liquids; many formulations include additional vitamin C along with other berry extracts for enhanced flavor and health advantages. In addition, some baby powders incorporate cranberry to help protect against diaper rash.
Are you prone to UTIs? Then keep relying on the cranberry’s bladder benefits. But don’t forget the other ways this tiny berry can have a big impact on your well-being.