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Cranberries Fight Bacteria but Favor Females
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Findings add ulcers, cavities, and flu to the tart berry's preventive powers; benefits are greatest in women

by Craig Weatherby

Cranberry juice enjoys considerable evidence as a remedy for relieving urinary tract infections (UTIs) in women.

And the results of a clinical trial, published earlier this month, prove what always seemed likely... that the benefits of cranberries are not limited to the juice, and likely extend to whole cranberries and cranberry extracts.

Key Points

  • Cranberries contain a polyphenol compound that keeps disease bacteria from adhering to human tissues.
  • Studies show cranberry juice inhibits urinary tract infections, ulcers, tooth decay, and flu.
  • Benefits accrue mostly to women, for unknown reasons.
  • The evidence comes from studies using cranberry juice, but the active constituent occurs in intact berries.
  • Blueberries display similar properties, but have not been studied as extensively.
Researchers at the Université de Montpellier in Nîmes, France tested the effects of cranberry extract capsules in women suffering from urinary tract infections by E. coli, and found that they worked well, as does cranberry juice (Lavigne JP et al. 2008).

But there is much more to the vibrant, tart red berry.

Over the past two decades, Professor Itzhak Ofek of Tel Aviv University has published bountiful research on the tart berry, and his findings indicate that its apparent benefits extend beyond the power to combat UTIs.

Professor Ofek’s team discovered that a compound in cranberry fights the flu, helps prevent cavities, and lessens the re-occurrence of gastric ulcers.

The cranberry juice company Ocean Spray funded most of Professor Ofek’s early research and his later research on ulcers, but these papers were published in respected, peer-reviewed journals, and stand up to scrutiny.

Cranberry contains “bacterial Teflon”

The remarkable anti-microbial properties of cranberries come from a molecule known as non-dialyzable material or NDM, isolated by Prof. Ofek and his colleagues.

NDM coats some bodily surfaces Teflon-style, and thereby prevents some infectious microbes from getting a foothold from which to invade organs.

As his team wrote at the turn of the last century, “The majority of infectious diseases are initiated by the adhesion of pathogenic organisms to the tissues of the host. Soluble carbohydrates… block the adhesion of the bacteria …
Agents other than carbohydrates also block adhesion, as demonstrated with cranberry juice as well as with low and high molecular weight preparations isolated from the juice” (Burger O et al. 2000).

Yet, NDM has no effect on most of the beneficial bacteria in our bodies, as Dr. Ofek and his colleagues reported in the New England Journal of Medicine more than 15 years ago (Ofek I et al. 1991).

Cranberry juice as tart mouthwash

After discovering the anti-microbial effects of NDM, Dr. Ofek hypothesized that if cranberries could protect against bacterial invasion in the bladder, they might work similar wonders elsewhere.

He took the challenge to Tel Aviv University’s School of Dental Medicine, and together with Professor Ervin Weiss, found that NDM inhibits adhesion of oral bacteria to tooth surfaces and reduces the bacterial load that causes cavities in the mouth (Steinberg D et al. 2004 and 2005).

After a clinical trial, they formulated a mouthwash based on cranberries.

And in 2006, researchers at Université Laval in Québec, Canada discovered that NDM reduces the damaging inflammation induced by the bacteria behind periodontal (inflamed gums) disease.

As they wrote, “This suggests that cranberry constituents [NDM] may offer perspectives for the development of a new therapeutic approach to the prevention and treatment of periodontitis” (Bodet C et al. 2006).

Of course for dental use, one should use unsweetened cranberry juice, or chew on the berries themselves.

Cranberry as flu fighter

Working with Dr. Weiss and Dr. Zichria Zakay-Rones at Hadassah Medical and Dental School, Dr. Ofek also found that NDM keeps the flu virus from attaching to cells and prevented experimental flu infections in animal models.

This research paralleled studies on elderberry, which proved that extracts of that berry prevent the flu virus from entering cells… those findings proved of practical anti-flu benefit in two small clinical trials conducted by Dr. Zakay-Rones (Zakay-Rones Z et al. 1995 and 2008).

The resulting elderberry extract is called Sambucol, after the Latin name for elderberry (Sambuca nigra). This specific extract is patented by Turkish virologist Madeleine Mumcuoglu, PhD, who discovered the anti-flu properties of elderberry.

Cranberry as ulcer under-miner

Most recently, Prof. Ofek collaborated with Dr. Haim Shmuely, of Beilinson Hospital and Tel Aviv University to find that cranberry also inhibits two-thirds of the pathogenic bacteria that clings to gastric cells and lead to ulcers, called Helicobacter pylori (Shmuely H et al. 2007).

Cranberry helped reduce the load of H. pylori in the gut, and in combination with antibiotics, it reduced repeat ulcers from approximately 15 percent to about five percent.

But, in a gender-specific oddity of human biology, the results suggest that, as with urinary tract infections, the ulcer-preventing power of cranberries applies only to women.

Today, a cranberry research team comprised of scientists from across Israel, and headed by Professors Ofek and Weiss, is investigating the berry's healing powers.

Recently, it has been shown found that extract of cranberryas well as extracts from blackberry, black raspberry, blueberry, red raspberry, and strawberryinhibit cancer growth in test tube experiments (Seeram NP et al. 2004 and 2006).

Prof. Ofek’s recommendation is that women drink two glasses a day to treat certain infections. And because there is still so much we don’t know about cranberries, he suggests that men also drink two glasses a day.

As he said in press release, “The take-home message is that God created this fruit with a polyphenolic material. We still don't know its chemical formula, but it seems to target a fraction of bacteria and viruses” (TAU 2008).


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