Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are a common problem for women. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), 13.3% of American women reported having a UTI over a 12-month period in 2004 (versus 2.3% of men).

Patients 20 and older made 8.27 million visits to physicians or outpatient clinics for a primary diagnosis of UTI in 2000, according to NIDDK statisticians. An additional 2.75 million were diagnosed with a UTI when they sought treatment for other conditions or had routine screenings. The total cost for this medical care was $3.5 billion.

As an organic consumer, you may rely on cranberry juice or cranberry-extract tablets to treat a UTI. Unfortunately, cranberries cannot cure a bacterial infection, so a prompt diagnosis is required if you have symptoms. Cranberry products “have not been adequately tested to see if they can be used to help treat an existing urinary tract infection,” according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a branch of the National Institutes for Health.

The good news?

Cranberries may help prevent UTIs, NCCAM reports. They should also be recognized for their antioxidant and cancer-fighting properties.

NCCAM believes cranberries’ role in UTI prevention shows promise, but results are not yet conclusive. Components found in the berries appear to prevent bacteria like E. coli from clinging to the cells along urinary-tract walls and causing infection, but the mechanism of action is not fully understood.

NIDDK recommends drinking cranberry juice or taking vitamin C as a preventive measure. Both increase the acid in urine, thereby inhibiting bacterial growth. Last year, German researchers found cranberry juice helped prevent UTIs in women with recurrent infections, but not other groups. A 2007 U.S. study offered similar results. Studies are now under way to determine if cranberries can definitively prevent UTIs, stomach ulcers and dental plaque.

So, what’s the bottom line?

Eating cranberry products in food appears to be safe, but drinking excessive amounts of juice could cause gastrointestinal upset or diarrhea. Diabetics should realize cranberry juice contains natural sugar, so cranberry-extract tablets are a better preventive option for them.

NCCAM, a solid proponent of evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine, urges those who suspect they may have a UTI to see a healthcare provider for proper diagnosis and treatment. Above all, cranberry products should not be used to treat infection.

Suggested Reading

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Cranberry Cooking for All Seasons
Cranberries: Recipes from Canada’s Best Chefs

Photos courtesy of Ocean Spray