Cranberry sauces appear on many tables during the holiday season that starts with Thanksgiving and extends through to New Year’s. I won’t say these sugar-laden concoctions will save you from cancer, but cranberries minus all the added sugar can help do that. The bitter red berries are worth turning into a year-round habit.
They contain their own natural sugar that helps to starve cancer cells, at least in lab tests. Here’s the story. . .
Besides the “cranberry sugar” I mentioned, the little fruit also contains other natural substances that can get cancer cells to self-destruct – via the process called apoptosis. Like many foods, cranberries are a natural pharmacy.
A different type of sugar
When you say “sugar,” most people think of sucrose (table sugar) or fructose (found in fruit and some vegetables, and used to sweeten many processed foods). The body converts these to glucose – blood sugar.
Mannose is a whole ‘nother thing. It’s a variety of sugar contained in cranberries, as well as many other foods, including broccoli, cabbage, kelp, and shiitake mushrooms. Mannose displays a wide range of intriguing characteristics when researchers take a close look at it.
According to scientists at the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, “Mannose is a simple sugar with a complex life.”1
The important cancer fact about mannose: Tests in England demonstrate that it slows the growth of tumors and may be a useful cancer treatment.
Its usefulness stems from the fact that cancer cells are sugar hogs – but they won’t eat just any sugar. They speed their growth with glucose. Mannose can gum up this process and limit cancer cells’ access to the massive amount of glucose they want.
“Tumors need a lot of glucose to grow, so limiting the amount they can use should slow cancer progression,” says researcher Kevin Ryan. “The problem is that normal tissues need glucose as well, so we can’t completely remove it from the body. In our study, we found a dosage of mannose that could block enough glucose to slow tumor growth in mice, but not so much that normal tissues were affected.”
Not a universal cure or “magic bullet”
Not all tumors in these lab tests responded to mannose. The scientists believe that cancer cells can resist its anticancer effects if they contain an enzyme that can break down mannose. But lab tests showed mannose was effective against skin cancer, lung cancer and pancreatic tumor cells.
“Our next step is investigating why treatment only works in some cells, so that we can work out which patients might benefit the most from this approach,” says Dr. Ryan. “We hope to start clinical trials with mannose in people as soon as possible to determine its true potential as a new cancer therapy.”
But researchers also point out that while mannose taken as a medicine or supplement can be used to treat certain metabolic conditions and may help fight cancer and urinary tract issues, it can be a problem for people with diabetes – it may complicate control of their blood sugar.
That’s if you’re taking a concentrated mannose extract. But getting mannose in cranberries is perfectly safe. No one ever keels over on Thanksgiving from eating cranberry sauce. And research actually shows that consuming cranberries can improve blood sugar control in people with diabetes.2
The use of mannose as a supplement is also very safe if your blood sugar is healthy.
Fighting oxidative stress
Another impressive feature of cranberries is their ability to lower oxidative stress in the body. This antioxidant benefit may be a weapon against cancer.
Oxidative stress is the accumulation in the body of what are called free radicals – destructive, reactive substances that can tear holes in cell membranes and cause cellular malfunctions. Oxidative stress is a byproduct of the normal everyday activities of cells as they turn the food we eat into energy.3 But toxins in our food and water, pollution, and many other factors can raise your free radical count to dangerous levels.
According to researchers at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, the start of a tumor and the spread of cancer cells is often linked to oxidative stress when those free radicals cause DNA damage.
In a review of studies that have analyzed cranberries, researchers have found they contain a potent brew of antioxidant phytochemicals (i.e. plant chemicals) that can eliminate free radicals.
According to the scientists, it seems cranberry’s chemicals not only directly defuse free radicals, they also produce epigenetic benefits that activate genes that enhance the body’s own ability to make antioxidant enzymes.4
Beyond that, tests show that cranberries calm down immune cells. These cells cause inflammation – the background cause of many diseases including cancer — when they get over-stimulated. Inflammation is a process in which your immune system attacks your own tissues.5
Other research on cranberries shows they can:
- Restrict the growth of prostate cancer by interfering with the ways prostate cancer cells reproduce.6
- Kill off esophageal cancer cells by causing them to self-destruct.7
- Slow the growth of rectal and colon cancer by hampering the action of cancer-linked enzymes.8
Something else I’ll let you in on – the more research I’ve done on cranberries, the more impressed I get with their benefits.
For example, research in Europe shows that compounds in cranberries can protect your mouth from gum disease. According to this study, cranberry juice can keep harmful bacteria from sticking to gum tissue and setting off gingivitis and plaque, which leads to cavities AND to general inflammation in your body.9
Other researchers believe that if you have type 2 diabetes, consuming cranberries or a cranberry extract may be especially good if you also add omega-3 fatty acids to your meal plans. People with diabetes are prone to having serious issues with periodontal disease. But in one test, combining cranberries with omega-3s made a world of difference for their gum health. Plus, it also helped in normalizing blood sugar.10
Just one more word of advice – if you decide to drink cranberry juice, avoid any varieties that are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar. If you have trouble with the tartness of unsweetened cranberry juice, one idea is to sweeten it yourself by mixing it with apple juice or another sweet juice.