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You probably think of cranberries as the zingy accompaniment to your Thanksgiving turkey, but cranberries are a powerhouse all their own and deserve our attention year-round. Cranberries are native to the United States and Canada. They were used extensively by Native Americans as food, medicine, in ceremony and even as a natural dye. Early American settlers also quickly learned their value and used them not just as food but also to prevent scurvy and for a variety of conditions such as stomach ailments, fever, liver problems, swollen glands and mumps.[i] Today the United States still grows the majority of the cranberries in the world and modern research continues to validate their use as both food and medicine.
In addition to being a good source of vitamin C, cranberries, like their cousin the blueberry, are a rich source of antioxidants. Cranberries are one of the highest fruit sources of phenols (a family of potent antioxidants), and one study found they contain more antioxidant activity than broccoli.[ii] Wide varieties of antioxidants are found in cranberries and these compounds are believed to be responsible for many of the health benefits attributed to these dark red berries.
Very early on, cranberry became known for its ability to support the health of the urinary tract. The proanthyocyanidin compounds as well as the simple sugar d-mannose, which are abundant in cranberries, are believed to prevent pathogenic bacteria in the urinary tract from binding to the mucosal lining.[iii] If these bacteria are unable to get a foothold in the mucosa, they cannot cause infection. Because of this, cranberry has been found to be effective at reducing the occurrence of urinary tract infections. Other compounds found in cranberries may acidify the urine, which can prevent the formation of certain types of kidney stones (calcium phosphate and struvite stones), but due to cranberry’s high oxalate content, some types of kidney stones may actually be worsened by cranberry.[iv],[v]
Cranberries contain many antioxidants that have been shown to have a particular affinity for protecting the cardiovascular system, such as proanthocyanidins, the often-touted compounds in red wine. The antioxidants in cranberries appear to help protect LDL cholesterol from oxidation, help keep the blood flowing smoothly, modulate blood pressure and help to modulate inflammation.[vi],[vii]
Cranberry’s ability to prevent bacteria from adhering to the mucosa of the urinary tract has led researchers to speculate about its effects on other types of bacteria in other parts of the body. One place where it appears to be effective is in the stomach for preventing the bacterium Helicobacter pylori from getting a foothold. In several studies subjects drinking cranberry juice saw decreases in H. pylori populations while they were actively taking it.[viii],[ix],[x] In test tube studies, constituents and isolates from cranberries show promise even for inhibiting the growth and proliferation of some types of cancers.[xi],[xii],[xiii] Although much more research is needed to confirm this potential benefit, this preliminary research does support the notion that the compounds in cranberries are not only potent but have wide ranging effects throughout the body.
Cranberries can be found in pill, tincture, tea, juice, dried and, of course, fresh berry form. Studies using juice generally used three or more ounces of pure cranberry juice or about one and half ounces of fresh or frozen berries a day.[xiv] Beware that due to their tart taste, most cranberry juices are sweetened either with sugar or other juices, which may not be desirable for many people. Cranberry pills offer a convenient no-sugar, no-taste option and usually consist of dried and sometimes concentrated cranberries that have been powdered and encapsulated. For cranberry pills and tinctures dosing information, follow the manufacturer’s directions given on the label. Cranberry is safe for most individuals but in high doses may cause diarrhea or mild gastrointestinal upset. Cranberries also contain oxalates which may be problematic to individuals who are oxalate sensitive. As always, caution should be used when starting any new herb, nutrient, or medication, especially if you are already taking other supplements or medications or have a medical condition.
[i] Blumenthal M. The ABC Clinical Guide to Herbs. Austin, TX: American Botanical Council; 2003.
[ii] Murray M, Pizzorno J, Pizzorno L. The Encyclopedia of Healing Foods. New York, NY: Atria Books; 2005.
[iii] Hoffman D. Medical Herbalism: The Science and Practice of Herbal Medicine. Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press; 2003.
[iv] Frassetto L, Kohlstadt I. Treatment and prevention of kidney stones: an update. Am Fam Physician. 2011;84(11):1234-1242.
[v]Terris MK, Issa MM, Tacker JR. Dietary supplementation with cranberry concentrate tablets may increase the risk of nephrolithiasis. Urology. 2001;57(1):26-29.
[vi] Chu YF, Liu RH. Cranberries inhibit LDL oxidization and induce LDL receptor expression in hepatocytes. Life Sci. 2005;77(15):1892-1901.
[vii] McKay DL, Blumberg JB. Cranberries (Vaccinium macrocarpon) and cardiovascular disease risk factors. Nutr Rev. 2007;65(11):490-502.
[viii] Shmuely H, Yahav J, Samra Z, et al. Effect of cranberry juice on eradication of Helicobacter pylori in patients treated with antibiotics and a proton pump inhibitor. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2007;51(6):746-51.
[ix] Zhang L, Ma J, pan K, Go VL, Chen J, You WC. Efficacy of cranberry juice on Helicobacter pylori infection: a double-blind randomized placebo-controlled trial. Helicobacter. 2005;10(2):139-145.
[x] Gotteland M, Andrews M, Toledo M, et al. Modulation of Helicobacter pylori colonization with cranberry juice and Lactocacillus johnsonii La1 in children. Nutrition. 2008;24(5):421-426.
[xi] Katsargyris A, Tampaki EC, Giaginis C, Theocharis S. Cranberry as promising natural source of potential anticancer agents: current evidence and future perspectives. Anticancer Agents Med Chem. 2012;12(6):619-630.
[xii] Kim KK, Singh AP, Singh RK, et al. Anti-angiogenic actibity of cranberry proanthocyanidins and cytotoxic properties in ovarian cancer cells. Int J Oncol. 2012;40(1):227-235.
[xiii] Déziel B, MacPhee J, Patel K, et al. American cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) extract affecs human prostate cancer cell growth via cell cycle arrest by modulating expression of cell cycle regulators. Food Funct. 2012;3(5):556-64.
[xiv] Ehrlich SD. Cranberry. University of Maryland Medical Center website. May 7, 2013. Available at: http://umm.edu/health/medical/altmed/herb/cranberry
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