Cranberries, a fruit native to North America, have been thought to contain healing properties for hundreds, or even thousands of years. North Native Americans used cranberries to treat urinary tract infections and kidney diseases.
Urinary Tract Infection Basics
Just so we’re on the same page: a urinary tract infection (or UTI) can occur in the kidneys, bladder, urethra, or anywhere in between. It’s usually caused by harmful bacteria that have somehow embedded themselves in one or more of these areas of the body. Most often, a UTI is caused by bacteria in the bladder or urethra.
Symptoms of a UTI
Symptoms can vary but they can include:
- pain during urination
- having an urge to urinate, but with very little volume
- general pelvic pain
- blood in the urine
- fever, nausea and vomiting can also occur, but this may be a sign that the infection is in the kidneys
Luckily, a dose of antibiotics usually takes care of a UTI.
I should mention that because of the nature of their anatomy, UTIs are far more common among women. That’s not to say men can’t get UTI’s–we absolutely can–but it doesn’t happen as often. For both men and women, this infection can occur at any time during one’s life, but is much more likely when folks become sexually active and as we age.
Can Cranberries Help Prevent or Treat Urinary Tract Infections?
To determine this, we need to understand whether cranberries possess any qualities that may fight off infections. In fact, just by looking at them, you would guess by their deep red color that they could be loaded with antioxidants.
Side note: colorful plant-based foods are often full of antioxidants (it’s the antioxidants that usually give them that color).
And in the case of cranberries, you would’ve guessed correctly: cranberries are a great source of vitamins A, C, and K, as well as proanthocyanidins (or, PACs for short). PACs, along with vitamins A and C, are antioxidants. When the body has been infected with bacteria or a virus, the body’s immune system wakes up and tries to fight it off. Part of this process leads to inflammation in the body. Antioxidants help reduce this inflammation in the body and may have the ability to kill some of these bacteria and viruses.
Specifically, PACs in cranberries are thought to prevent harmful bacteria from sticking to the wall of the bladder, which is a common site for urinary tract infections. Vitamins A and C help the immune system function optimally, so again, it seems all signs point to the fact that cranberries may be useful in the prevention and treatment of UTIs.
The Data and Research
When we look at the research, the data seem to conflict at times. A number of studies on this topic have been published, but they each use different cranberry dosages, had different recommendations for how frequently study subjects needed to consume it, they may have had the study participants consuming cranberry juice where other studies looked at cranberry powders, then other studies may have studied those currently suffering from a UTI (yet others looked at only those folks that are healthy right now, but frequently suffer from UTIs)… and so on. This makes it challenging to make really strong conclusions about the effectiveness of cranberries for preventing or treating urinary tract infections.
The Best Way to Consume Cranberries
I’m going to do my best to make some sound recommendations based on the conflicting data. For the most part, based on well-designed studies, consuming cranberries can help prevent and possibly treat urinary tract infections. But for this to actually work, the first step is to identify the purest form of cranberries you can find.
Have you ever tried eating a raw cranberry? It’s awful… it’s face-meltingly sour. It’s not practical to sit and consume a bowl of them like you would any other berry. Because of this, many of the commercial cranberry juices are loaded with sugar to make them more palatable.
The trick is to consume pure cranberry juice (not cranberry juice cocktail). Pure cranberry juice will likely have some sugar added, but not nearly as much as cranberry juice cocktail. When reading the label, be sure that cranberries are listed as the first ingredient. Consuming 8-10 fl. oz. per day appears to be the right dose.
If you’re not crazy about drinking this much juice, like for those with diabetes, a dry cranberry juice extract may also be helpful in preventing and treating UTIs. When it comes to supplements, like I always say, be sure to find a product that is free of impurities and fillers (you can do this by doing a quick search on Consumerlab.com). Then, aim to consume 300-400 mg twice a day.
Side Effects of Consuming Cranberries
The next thing we need to consider is whether consuming this much cranberry juice or dry cranberry extract could do any harm.
For those with diabetes or those wanting to lose weight, drinking too much juice is not recommended. But 1 cup per day (8 fl. oz.) is likely fine.
As far as supplementing with dry cranberry extract, provided you’ve purchase a quality supplement, the research shows that there doesn’t appear to be any negative effects. If you’re taking blood thinners (like Warfarin or Coumadin), are on any heart or blood pressure medications, or on anti-depressants, check with your doctor first because you don’t want to consume your daily dose of cranberry around the same time. It could interfere with these medications.
The Bottom Line
Cranberry, in its purest form, may help prevent and treat UTIs. Always let your doctor know whenever you begin taking a supplement and if you suspect you have a UTI. If left untreated, the infection can spread to other organs and cause more damage.
Bonus: Ingredients for a Holiday Cranberry Sauce
Oh, and lastly, here are my secret ingredients to make a killer cranberry sauce this holiday season:
- add some orange peel
- cinnamon sticks
- and lastly, lingonberry! The lingonberry makes it good
Oh, and don’t expect cranberry sauce to help with UTIs since it’s loaded with sugar!