As Thanksgiving nears, we tend to think of holiday foods. Thanksgiving is a bad day for turkeys for sure, but the typical holiday meal, with squash and other healthy ingredients, is a favorite time for many. One of the regular features of a Thanksgiving dinner is cranberry sauce, and that brings us to the healthy benefits of this remarkable berry.
Native to North America, most cranberries are wet harvested. The
berries, which ripen on low-growing perennial dwarf shrubs, are
cultivated in bogs, where they are beaten off of the branches of the
plant, and float until they are collected. Cranberries were introduced
to colonial settlers by Native Americans, who used the berries which
they called Sassamanash, in the concentrated food pemmican. A blend of
fat, nuts, and dried fruits, pemmican provided a lot of energy, and
travelled well. A colonial setter named Henry Hall is widely regarded as
the first non-native to plant and grow cranberries.
Cranberries, with their tart flavor and rich red appearance, have
become popular for juices and sauces. They have also made their way into
the health market where they are increasingly highly regarded for their
numerous therapeutic benefits. Probably the best known remedy for
urinary tract infections (UTI), cranberries contain a group of
antioxidant compounds called proanthocyanidins. These natural agents
prevent bacteria, including E. coli, from adhering to the walls of the
bladder and urinary tract. This was first reported in 1988 by Dr Amy
Howell and her co-researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine. If
bacteria can’t adhere to the walls of the urinary tract, they can’t
proliferate and maintain infection. A six ounce glass of cranberry juice
twice daily is often sufficient to eliminate a UTI for good.
From a cardiovascular standpoint, cranberries offer a rich
concentration of antioxidant flavonoids, which help to inhibit the
oxidation of fats in the blood, lower LDL cholesterol, and reduce the
risk of atherosclerosis, or hardening of the arteries. Atherosclerosis
is a primary cardiovascular disease, and contributes to clots known as
thrombosis that can obstruct vessels and lead to heart attack or stroke.
Regular consumption of cranberry juice and other cranberry foods can
make a positive contribution to cardiovascular health.
The same mechanism of action by which cranberries help to prevent and
treat UTI’s also comes into play with ulcers. It is widely established
that most stomach ulcers, other than those causes by excess use of
aspirin, are due to the bacteria H. pylori. Cranberries appear to
inhibit the adhesion of H. pylori to the lining of the digestive tract.
The more concentrated the cranberry, the better this activity. H. pylori
is a factor in cases of stomach cancer, acid reflux, and gastritis.
Cranberry may turn out to be one of the very best medicines for reducing
the risk of these diseases.
Tantalizing research shows that cranberries may even help to reduce
the risk of prostate cancer. Studies conducted in the US and Canada show
that compounds in cranberries contribute to early destruction of
prostate cancer cells. In several studies, cranberry concentrates proved
toxic to cancer cells. As research continues, we may see the emergence
of cranberry chemotherapy as a primary treatment for some types of
As a powerfully antioxidant berry, cranberries deserve the monicker
“super fruit.” They are low in calories, very high in beneficial
compounds, and they not only contribute to well-being, but they also
help to fight disease. A number of companies make highly concentrated
extracts of cranberry for use in supplements, so if you don’t want to
eat or drink cranberries on a regular basis, you can still derive their
From use by native Americans and their appearance on the first
Thanksgiving table, cranberries have made their way to cultivated crop,
widely enjoyed food, and natural medicine imparting significant
benefits. Now that is something to be thankful for.
Chris Kilham is a medicine hunter who researches natural remedies
all over the world, from the Amazon to Siberia. He teaches ethnobotany
at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he is Explorer In
Residence. Chris advises herbal, cosmetic and pharmaceutical companies
and is a regular guest on radio and TV programs worldwide. His field
research is largely sponsored by Naturex of Avignon, France. Read more
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