We have the Native Americans to thank for introducing cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) to the Pilgrims.
Considered "a gift from the Great Spirit that was dropped from the beak of a dove into the swamps," Native Americans used the red berry to dye blankets and make pemmican, a food made of crushed berries, fat, and dried meat. They also used it as a medicine to extract poison from wounds.1
It wasn't until 1647, however, that the word Craneberry (the original English word for cranberry) first appeared in a letter written by a Cape Cod missionary. Shortly after that, it became popular as a vitamin C supplement to prevent scurvy on sailing expeditions, and as a remedy for gallbladder disorders, gastric ailments, blood problems, and even cancer1—which is particularly interesting, since researchers only recently discovered that it is a potent anti-cancer agent.234
Preventive for UTIs—Urinary tract infections
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) result in approximately 7 million doctor visits and a million hospitalizations each year, adding up to $1.6 billion in medical expenditures in the U.S.5 A large percentage of individuals with spinal cord injuries suffer from UTIs. Men can also get a bladder infection, especially if they have an enlarged prostate. Women, however, are primarily affected. In fact, about 25% of all women in the U.S. have at least one UTI in their lifetime, with 20% having three or more a year.6
Antibiotics don't always work, and to complicate matters, even if the antibiotic does work, it weakens the immune system, making it easier to get a subsequent infection. The good news is that cranberry extract can nip UTIs in the bud.
How do you get a UTI?
A urinary tract infection is a bacterial infection that causes painful urination and the feeling that your bladder is never completely empty. It can also cause fever and low back pain. According to researchers at the Washington University (WU) School of Medicine in St. Louis, a UTI starts when Escherichia coli (E. coli) (a microorganism that lives in the digestive tract and is found in the anal area) invade the bladder and penetrate a protective coating of the superficial cells that line the bladder. Once the E. coli is established in the bladder lining, the stage is set for infection.7
How does cranberry extract work?
Cranberry extract is an extract of the red acidic fruit of the shrubby viburnum of North America and Europe. It contains phytochemicals that include flavonol glycosides, anthocyanins, proanthocyanidins (condensed tannins), and organic and phenolic acids. But it is the proanthocyanidins that exhibit potent bacterial anti-adhesion activity.8 The proanthocyanidins found in cranberry differ from those found in other plants by their unique structures and very potent antibacterial activity. In the case of UTIs, these proanthocyanidins prevent E. coli from adhering to the urethra and bladder.9
Here's how: The cell wall of E. coli bacteria has tiny finger-like projections that contain complex molecules called lectins on their surfaces. These lectins are cellular glue that binds the bacteria to the bladder wall so they cannot be easily rinsed out by urination. But because proanthocyanidin molecules attach themselves to these lectins and fill up all of the bacterial anchoring sites, the bacteria can no longer stick to the bladder wall and are flushed away.
The likelihood of infection is significantly reduced because bacteria must first adhere to the mucosal lining before they can proliferate—and without the ability to stick, the bacteria cannot infect.
- In a study of 153 elderly women, those who drank 10 oz of commercial cranberry drink each day had less than half the risk of developing an infection and were more likely to clear an already present infection.10
- A study of 10 young women with recurrent bladder infections found that, compared with placebo, taking a capsule containing 400 mg of cranberry extract daily for three months significantly reduced new infections. Of the 21 bladder infections that arose, only six occurred among women taking Cranberry.11
- A year-long Canadian study of 150 sexually active women found that cranberry juice and tablets significantly decreased the number of patients experiencing at least 1 symptomatic UTI/year compared with placebo. The study also found that taking cranberry was much more cost effective than taking antibiotics.12
- In February 2004, France allowed food, drink, and dietary supplement manufacturers a "function use claim" to highlight the health benefits of products containing cranberry to consumers. In turn, this will permit the claim that the North American cranberry VM (Vaccinium macrocarpon) can 'help reduce the adhesion of certain E. coli bacteria to the urinary tract walls.'
Helps individuals with spinal cord injuries
UTIs are very common in individuals with spinal cord injuries, since many of them have an indwelling catheter. Cranberry extract has been very helpful among this population in treating infections that arise from bacteria sticking to the urethra and bladder wall.13
Cranberries may reduce brain cell damage associated with stroke
In laboratory studies using rat brain cells exposed to simulated stroke conditions, a concentrated cranberry extract reduced the death of brain cells by half in comparison to cells that did not receive the extract, said the scientists. The findings suggest that cranberries can aid recovery from stroke, particularly in its earliest stages in which the most severe damage occurs.
"This study shows that cranberries have the potential to protect against brain cell damage that occurs during a stroke event," said Catherine Neto, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth and a lead investigator in the study. "It may not stop a stroke from occurring initially, but it may reduce the severity of stroke," she added. The research from the unpublished study was presented in September 2003 at an American Chemical Society meeting.
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Presser, Arthur M. Pharmacists' Guide to Medicinal Herbs. Petaluma, CA: Smart Publications, 2000, 109-112.
Yan X, Murphy BT, Hammond GB, Vinson JA, Neto CC. Antioxidant activities and antitumor screening of extracts from cranberry fruit (Vaccinium macrocarpon). J Agric Food Chem.2002 Oct 9;50(21):5844-9.
Kandil FE, Smith MA, Rogers RB, Pepin MF, Song LL, Pezzuto JM, Seigler DS. Composition of a chemopreventive proanthocyanidin-rich fraction from cranberry fruits responsible for the inhibition of 12-O-tetradecanoyl phorbol-13-acetate (TPA)-induced ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) activity. J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Feb 27;50(5):1063-9.
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Anderson, G. et al. Intracellular Bacterial Biofilm-Like Pods in Urinary Tract Infections. Science Vol 301 4, July 2003.
Howell AB. Cranberry proanthocyanidins and the maintenance of urinary tract health. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2002;42(3 Suppl):273-8.
Azfriri D, et al. Inhibitory activity of cranberry juice on adherence of type 1 and type P fimbriated Escherichia coli to eucaryotic cells.Antimicrob Agents Chemother 1989;33:92-8.
Avorn J, et al. Reduction of bacteriuria and pyuria after ingestion of cranberry juice. JAMA 1994;271:751-4.
Walker EB, et al. Cranberry concentrate: UTI prophylaxis. J Fam Prac 1997;45:167-8.
Stothers L. A randomized trial to evaluate effectiveness and cost effectiveness of naturopathic cranberry products as prophylaxis against urinary tract infection in women. Can J Urol. 2002 Jun;9(3):1558-62.
Biering-Sorensen F. Urinary tract infection in individuals with spinal cord lesion. Curr Opin Urol. 2002 Jan;12(1):45-9.
Yamanaka A, Kimizuka R, Kato T, Okuda K. Inhibitory effects of cranberry juice on attachment of oral streptococci and biofilm formation. Oral Microbiol Immunol. 2004 Jun;19(3):150-4.
Weiss EL, Lev-Dor R, Sharon N, Ofek I. Inhibitory effect of a high-molecular-weight constituent of cranberry on adhesion of oral bacteria. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2002;42(3 Suppl):285-92.
Murphy BT, et al. Identification of triterpene hydroxycinnamates with in vitro antitumor activity from whole cranberry fruit (Vaccinium macrocarpon). J Agric Food Chem . 2003 Jun 4;51(12):3541-5.
Yan X, Murphy BT, Hammond GB, Vinson JA, Neto CC. Antioxidant activities and antitumor screening of extracts from cranberry fruit (Vaccinium macrocarpon). J Agric Food Chem. 2002 Oct 9;50(21):5844-9.
Ferguson PJ, et al. A flavonoid fraction from cranberry extract inhibits proliferation of human tumor cell lines. J Nutr. 2004 Jun;134(6):1529-35.
Roy S, Khanna S, Alessio HM, Vider J, Bagchi D, Bagchi M, Sen CK. Anti-angiogenic property of edible berries. Free Radic Res. 2002 Sep;36(9):1023-31.
Terris MK, Issa MM, Tacker JR. Dietary supplementation with cranberry concentrate tablets may increase the risk of nephrolithiasis. Urology 2001;57:26-9.