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Cranberry – Food as Medicine

The term functional food is a term that denotes that a food’s chemical makeup has components that support the health of the body, or it can be used therapeutically to treat existing disease processes. Today’s article will be about cranberries and how they have been used historically as food and medicine. We will look at current research and applications.

Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon) a close relative of the American blueberry, huckleberry and bilberry, has been eaten as part of our Thanksgiving and Christmas feast. This came about when the pilgrims learned about cranberries from the American Indians; they used it as a spread on breads. Cranberry medicinal properties were discovered in the Eighteenth Century, but its use for urinary bladder infections and kidney stones became more prevalent in the later part of this century. In 1959 it was noted that the residents of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, used cranberry juice for bladder infections. While scientists knew about the many constituents of cranberry in the 1920s, one being hippuric acid, early theories about how it worked have been proven wrong. It was believed that cranberry juice acidified the urine therefore preventing bacterial growth, one of the causes of urinary tract infections (UTIs).

Urinary tract inflections account for approximately 5.2 million physician office visits yearly. Women are the primary candidates for UTIs, with one in five having had at least one in their lifetime. Recurrence happens in approximately 20% of all cases. These recurring infections can lead to more serious conditions like kidney infections and scarring of the bladder wall.

Although most bladder infections are not serious, it is important to be properly diagnosed, treated and monitored. The conventional approach is to prescribe antibiotics, but there is evidence that shows continued use of antibiotic therapy can actually be the cause for recurrent infections due to imbalances created from their overuse. Healthy bacteria live on the bladder lining, and it needs to be replaced if antibiotic therapy is utilized.

The bacteria E. coli, Escherichia coli, causes over 90% of UTIs. These bacteria adhere to the bladder wall lining and cause inflammation which causes increased urinary frequency and low abdominal pain. In 1984 it was proven by A. E. Sobota of Youngstown State University that the acidifying theory of cranberry was wrong. It takes a lot to acidify the urine enough to make any significance to the E. coli bacteria. What was discovered was that cranberry prevented E. coli from adhering to the bladder wall lining. If E. coli can’t adhere, there is no infection. In a 1994 Harvard Medical School large scale, randomized, double blind placebo controlled study; clinical evidence again proves the effectiveness with the use of cranberry juice or its extracts for UTIs. Another more recent study done this year as reported in the Integrative Medicine Consult suggests that cranberry can be safely recommended as a dietary approach for general urinary tract health maintenance. It further stated that all members of the vaccinium family helped prevent E. coli adherence.

The primary goal of a natural approach to UTIs is to enhance the body’s own natural defense system. Specifically, this is done in conjunction with drinking at least 64 ounces of water, promoting a PH that will inhibit bacterial growth and using herbs that will support antibacterial actions and boost the immune.

Let’s look first at increasing fluid intake. It is important to avoid soft drinks, coffee and alcoholic beverages during UTIs. Sugar has been implicated in suppressing the immune system and contributing to bacterial growth, so it is important to use cranberry juice which is either unsweetened or sweetened with other fruit juices. It is recommended that one drink at least 16 ounces of cranberry juice per day to be effective.

Altering PH of the urine is the next step. There is controversy in whether to acidify or alkalinize the urine. It is very difficult to acidify the urine; and it appears that alkaline urine is more effective, especially when there are no pathogenic bacteria present. The uses of potassium and/or sodium citrate have proven positive results. Another advantage to alkalization is that many herbs used to treat UTIs, such as goldenseal or uva ursi, contain antibacterial components that are more effective in an alkaline environment.

Let’s look at a few herbs that will work in conjunction with cranberry juice:

Echinacea is used to activate specific functions of the immune system and to provide longer-term immune activity. This is used to help prevent recurring infections.
Uva Ursi, or otherwise known as bearberry or upland cranberry, has been shown to be especially active against E. coli and has mild diuretic properties. The constituent arbutin is one of the active compounds and has antiseptic properties. Research has shown that the crude extract to be more effective than the isolated arbutin.
Goldenseal is used for its antimicrobial properties due to the compound berberine. It has been used historically and has been the subject of numerous researched studies for UTIs. It is not intended for long-term use, however.
Goldenrod has been proven to be effective because of its antiseptic properties and is widely used in Europe for all urinary inflammations and to prevent kidney stones.
Marshmallow Root, because it is classified as a demulcent and soothing to all mucus linings, it works more as an anti-inflammatory for UTIs and will provide quick relief.
As you can see, the use of foods as medicine has been a part of our human culture for millennia. I think it is wise to utilize these foods on a regular basis as a way to prevent many of our common ailments. If you suffer from these conditions, it is important to seek advice from your health care practitioner for proper treatment protocols. Enjoy your cranberries at your holiday feast now knowing their importance.

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