Parkland physician talks turkey about cranberry juice and UTIs

Special to The Dallas Examiner

Cranberries are a holiday favorite, popping up in everything from cocktails to coffee cakes and cookies. But for many, especially women prone to urinary tract infections, the tart juice of cranberries is thought to be more than just a refreshing drink, thanks to claims of bacteria-fighting properties that may deliver a knock-out punch to painful UTIs.

True or false?

According to Maude Carmel, MD, urologist at Parkland Health & Hospital System and assistant professor of urology at UT Southwestern Medical Center, “There has been some evidence that there’s a product in the cranberry that could prevent bladder infection, but it’s not a treatment.”

The product is proanthocyanidins, a substance scientists think may interfere with the adherence of UTI-causing E. coli bacteria to the lining of the urinary tract.

“The amount of that product in cranberry juice is so diluted that it’s almost non-existent,” Carmel said. “Usually what I tell a patient is to take cranberry capsules you can buy at the grocery store, natural products store or pharmacy. These are going to have the concentrated product that we think coats the lining of the bladder, preventing bacteria from adhering to the bladder wall, thus preventing infection.”

Native Americans are believed to have used cranberries for thousands of years as a remedy for UTIs as well as a treatment for other ailments. They also used the fruit to make dyes for clothing and blankets and introduced the Pilgrims to the little red berries, which have become synonymous with Thanksgiving feasts.

Urinary tract infections are a common problem, with more than 3 million cases in the U.S. every year. Women are primarily affected, but men can also suffer from UTIs, as can children.

It’s estimated that more than 50 percent of women will have at least one urinary tract infection over a lifetime. Symptoms include frequent need for urination and pain while doing so. Older women can seem asymptomatic, but have fever and fatigue. Older men may also be susceptible to UTIs due to problems associated with enlarged prostates.

“Some people could also have pain in the lower pelvic area or flank pain,” Carmel said. “Blood in the urine is another sign of urinary tract infection. Once people develop a fever, it has become an infection of the kidney which is a more serious condition.”

Risk factors in younger women include sexual activity. Carmel explained that sex “promotes the movement of bacteria into the urethra.” Women have a short urethra compared to men, so once bacteria get there, they easily can go to the bladder. Many physicians recommend that women prone to recurrent UTIs urinate after sex because the flushing could be protective. Constipation is another risk factor to be avoided.

About 30 percent of bladder infections can be treated at an early stage by increased hydration and frequent urination. “But if the symptoms persist after 24 to 48 hours, you should seek medical evaluation to see if you need antibiotics,” Carmel advised.

To prevent UTIs, Carmel recommends staying well hydrated and urinating frequently, at least every four to six hours. Since cranberry juice has diuretic properties, it may be helpful in this regard, some physicians believe, since frequent urination is one of the body’s ways of ridding itself of infection.

“In some women prone to urinary tract infection, we can recommend cranberry extract pills,” Carmel concluded. “Vitamin C also can prevent bladder infection. It acidifies the urine, preventing bacteria from growing. Taking one tablet of vitamin C at night before going to bed could help prevent infection.”

Cranberries also contain vitamin K, manganese and phytonutrients, naturally occurring plant chemicals that help to protect the body from harmful free radicals and offer anti-inflammatory and cancer-preventing properties.

While cranberry sauce is a favorite Thanksgiving treat, it’s best to avoid added sugars found in many cranberry products and juices, according to Parkland registered dietitian Sharon Cox. “Look for unsweetened cranberry juice instead of cranberry cocktail, one that uses fresh fruit and few additives,” she said.

Cox also recommended adding dried cranberries to cereal, oatmeal or homemade trail mix with unsalted nuts and seeds, putting frozen cranberries into a smoothie, and using fresh cranberries in whole-grain muffins.

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