Don’t look now, but fruits may be edging out vegetables in terms of nutritional value.
At the mention of health foods, the first things that come to mind are often leafy greens and cruciferous vegetables like cabbage and broccoli. But that’s changing: Researchers are discovering a wide range of natural chemicals in fruits that can help your body fight disease.
And some of these chemicals are incredibly powerful. Keep reading below. . .
This “Forbidden” Food
For example, apples have chemicals called procyanidins that may increase your life expectancy.1
Grapes possess a combination of natural compounds that provide antioxidant protection against nerve damage).2
And then there’s the cranberry.
It’s long been popular for treating urinary tract infections, but now the cranberry is receiving important attention from cancer researchers. Not to beat around the cranberry bush, their studies show this fruit may help limit the growth and spread of tumors.
It’s not just for Thanksgiving anymore. . .
Lab tests at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, show that therapeutic substances found in cranberries can be effective against colon cancer, even though the exact identities of all the helpful compounds in the berries are not yet clear.
Colon cancer is remarkably widespread – about one American out of 20 will eventually suffer colon cancer. It’s the second most prevalent cause of cancer deaths in the U.S.
When the Massachusetts scientists decided to see if eating cranberries could affect colon cancer, they reasoned that the natural compounds in the berries travel down the digestive tract and can directly impact the areas where colon cancer tumors take root and grow.
As researcher Catherine Neto points out: “Cranberry constituents and metabolites should be bioavailable to the colon as digestion proceeds.”
In tests on lab animals, the researchers compared the benefits of consuming various powders made from cranberries: a powder made from the whole fruit, an extract containing cranberry polyphenols (anti-inflammatory chemicals), and a concoction that only included the non-polyphenol parts of the berries.
The powder made from the whole-fruit performed the best.
“Basically, what we found was pretty encouraging. All preparations were effective to some degree, but the whole cranberry extract was the most effective,” says Neto. “There may be some synergy between polyphenol and non-polyphenol constituents.”
The amount of cranberries that the animals consumed translates to a human eating about a cup of the berries per day.
Personally, I’ve never been a cranberry fan. I’ll nibble a few bites with the turkey on Thanksgiving. But I may have to change my ways. . .
Can be used along with chemotherapy
If you’re being treated for cancer, cranberries can help chemotherapeutic drugs attack tumors more effectively.
A lab test on ovarian cancer cells performed at Rutgers University shows that chemotherapy agents called platinum drugs are six times more deadly against tumors when the cancer cells are also exposed to cranberry compounds.
I think that’s quite a finding.
Researchers are still studying these effects, but they note that the cranberry-drug combo could potentially allow treatment for ovarian cancer to proceed with lower levels of platinum-based chemotherapies — powerful pharmaceuticals that often produce serious side effects like nausea, vomiting, nerve damage and kidney problems as well as reductions in white and red blood cells.
The researchers conclude: “…we have shown in our in vitro studies that cranberry extracts can sensitize resistant human ovarian cancer cell lines. This has opened up exciting possibilities for therapeutic intervention associated with platinum therapy.”
Having worked on lab cultures, the approach has to be tested in animals and humans, so there’s a long way to go.
The Rutgers scientists think the effective substances in the cranberries include potent antioxidants known as A-type proanthocyanidins – compounds that help strengthen the immune system and that also have been shown to reinforce cartilage. To consume these proanthocyanidns, you have to eat cranberries; other types of berries won’t do. The particular forms of proanthocyanidins found in cranberries are unique to this fruit and are not found in any other fruit.
The folks at Rutgers are still trying to unravel all the details about how these chemicals fight cancer. But they say that other studies suggest the compounds link up with the tumor-promoter proteins produced in ovarian cancer cells that normally help the cancer grow and spread. Once these proteins are locked down by the cranberry compounds, they succumb more readily to platinum drugs.
In further tests, these researchers are hoping to eventually tease out the most powerful anti-cancer portions of cranberry extract and figure out an optimal dose to use against ovarian cancer in conjunction with platinum drugs. They believe a mixture formulated from cranberries could be turned into a drink cancer patients can consume while they’re undergoing chemotherapy. Or it could be made into a drug that is injected.
But this combo therapy is still being tested – the researchers haven’t signed off on it yet.
Cranberries are being used, however, in some medical practices for help with the side effects of the radiation that’s used to treat prostate cancer.
A frequent difficulty caused by radiation treatment of the prostate is cystitis – an inflammation of the bladder. Cystitis can stimulate frequent urination, burning sensations when you pass urine, annoying pressure in your lower abdomen and generally uncomfortable sensations in your pelvic area.
In a study at the Dunedin Hospital in New Zealand, researchers showed that taking cranberry capsules can reduce the burning, lessen urine leakage and improve the strength of the urine stream.3
Of course, as with other natural protections against cancer, the best time to start eating or drinking cranberry products is right now – before you encounter a serious medical problem.
Consider all the other anti-cancer benefits cranberries offer:
- Studies show cranberries contain an antioxidant chemical called myricetin that can lower the risk of breast cancer while helping the body maintain its immune defenses against tumors.4
- Cranberries can slow the action of an enzyme called ornithine decarboxylase (ODC) that is involved in prostate cancer. ODC enables cancer cells to communicate with each other in a way that helps them thrive, reproduce and spread.5
- The cancer-promoting activities of the enzyme CYP2C9, which is frequently involved in colon and rectal cancer as well as lung cancer, can be inhibited by cranberries. 6,7
- Lab tests at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada show that chemicals in cranberries can slow the growth and spread of prostate cancer cells.
One of the few cautions you may have to take when you consume cranberries is to be careful if you are also taking the blood-thinning drug warfarin (Coumadin) for preventing blood clots. Some studies have shown that cranberries – even just drinking cranberry juice – can cause dangerous, excessive bleeding in combination with warfarin.
This problem occurs because cranberries interfere with the enzyme CYP2C9, the same enzyme that is sometimes involved in a developing cancerous growth. Although cranberries’ interaction with CYP2C9 may lower the risk of cancer, the body needs this enzyme to break down warfarin.
The interference of cranberries with the metabolism of warfarin seems to be pretty rare. And researchers aren’t sure why some people suffer difficulties and others seem to be immune. But if you are taking warfarin I would advise you to consult with your healthcare practitioner before eating cranberries or drinking cranberry juice.
One last word of cranberry advice – If you decide to drink cranberry juice, read the labels on juice packages and avoid varieties that contain large amounts of sugar. Yes, I know the tart flavor of cranberries can be tough for some people to swallow. One of my colleagues tells me he drinks cranberry juice that only contains cranberries without added sugar. He dilutes it a little with water and finds it perfectly drinkable.
To make it more palatable, you can always mix it with a little bit of another, sweeter juice. Try it with grape juice, which also has some enviable anti-cancer benefits.9 You’ll still be taking in sugar but at least it’s bonded with valuable nutrients.
To the extent you can tolerate unsweetened cranberry, that’s the way to go.