Ask anybody about a natural way to prevent or treat a urinary tract infection (UTI), and they’ll likely respond with “cranberry juice.” Chocked full of antioxidants, cranberry juice and cranberry supplements are believed to offer antibacterial and anti-fungal effects that can reduce the symptoms and likelihood of a UTI occurrence.
Now, this information seems to be one of those things that people just sort of know, without ever really considering the source of the information or looking into it for themselves. But does cranberry juice really work for UTIs, or is it just another one of those widely circulated myths that are so common in the health world? Lets see what the research says.
Prevalence and Risk Factors for UTIs
A urinary tract infection is basically a bacterial infection in any part of your urinary system, but most typically occurs in the lower urinary tract areas like the bladder or urethra. Women are far more likely to contract a UTI than men, and this is simply due to human anatomy. Because the urethra and anus of women are very close, bacteria found in the lower intestine—like E. coli—released through the anus can migrate into the urethra, leading to an infection.
Sexual intercourse is another way UTIs can occur. Nearly two in every three women will experience a UTI at some point in their lives, and about a quarter of them will suffer a recurrence within six months. Common UTI symptoms include:
- Burning sensation during urination
- Frequent or intense urge to urinate, often with very little coming out
- Pressure or pain in the lower back or abdomen
- Cloudy, dark, blood or strange-scented urine
- Feeling tired or shaky
- Fever or chills (signaling the infection may have reached the kidneys)
The risk factors for UTI, specific to women, include:
- Female anatomy (as mentioned earlier)
- Sexual activity: research indicates sexually active women tend to experience UTIs more regularly than those who are not sexually active. This could have something to do with bacteria carried by the men and the close proximity of all the parts.
- Contraceptives: Certain types of birth control can also play a role in UTI risk. Diaphragms and spermicidal condoms or other agents seem to increase risk.
- Menopause: Menopause can also increase the risk because of lower levels of circulating estrogen. This can result in changes that increase vulnerability to infection.
Other risk factors include:
- Genetic urinary tract abnormalities that may lead to blockages
- Blockages in the urinary tract resulting from kidney stones or an enlarged prostate
- Suppressed immune system; having a condition like diabetes or other diseases that kick the immune system into overdrive
- Catheter use
- Recent urinary procedure
Cranberry juice and supplements are often recommended to treat or prevent UTIs because high concentrations of phenolic compounds—antioxidants specific to certain plants—that, theoretically, should offer therapeutic effects for UTI symptoms. The compounds in cranberries of particular interest include flavonoids and tannins.
Active Compounds in Cranberry Juice to Fight UTI
What make cranberry juice such an attractive natural treatment for UTIs are the concentrations of powerful flavonoid and phenolic compounds. Specifically, the beneficial compounds are the flavonoids quercetin and myricetin; and the phenolic compound benzoic acid.
- Quercetin has recognized antioxidant and antihistamine benefits
- Myricetin has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties
- Benzoic acid has antifungal and antibacterial benefits
So when considering UTIs, it looks pretty clear why cranberry juice could offer some relief and potentially reduce the likelihood of recurrence. These compounds all present nearly the exact benefits to keep the proliferation of bacteria at bay and diminish symptoms.
It should also be noted that many of the sugary cranberry juice varieties available in the grocery store are diluted versions. If you want to get the most nutrition possible from cranberry juice, experts recommend you get it strong and straight—without much processing. It will taste stronger, tarter, and be more viscous, but that’s just how natural juices are.
Is Cranberry Juice Effective for UTIs? What the Research Says
Of course, the research doesn’t always support theory. This seems to be the case in regards to the efficacy of cranberry juice. Although cranberry juice has been rather widely studied, results about whether it will help with UTIs are mixed. And the most noted meta-analysis used shows a small, yet positive effect of drinking cranberry juice on UTIs, but most other studies have failed to show a positive effect. One study in particular, funded by cranberry juice manufacturer “Ocean Spray,” found a benefit, but its results are not quite what they may seem.
Studies that have shown benefits seem to be surrounded by concern, particularly due to three factors:
- the study period ended before the period for recurrence concluded
- publication bias
- lack of clarity on the presence of bacteria
Therefore, the chance for a UTI to arise was greatly diminished and likely showed disproportionately better results. Studies also tend to focus on women who are at risk for recurrent UTIs, and not necessarily the general population. This means that cranberry juice may not be effective for general populations, even if minor improvements have been noted in some populations.
Overall, the research does not seem to support the notion that cranberry juice is an effective natural treatment for UTI, and looks like its usefulness in treating UTI is more medical myth than reality. But thankfully, there are other treatment methods for UTI.
How to Reduce the Risk of UTI/Treat UTI
Okay, so even if cranberry juice doesn’t offer the healing or prevention methods you want, there are other ways to reduce the risk and treat a urinary tract infection.
Treatment methods include using low-dose antibiotics, taking a single dose antibiotic directly following sex, taking an antibiotic for one or two days if symptoms appear or using at home urine tests to identify an infection. Drinking lots of water can also help flush out the system.
To prevent recurring UTIs, using natural methods you can:
- Empty your bladder as soon as you feel the need to go.
- Wipe from front to back
- Drink lots of water
- Choose showers instead of baths
- Avoid scented feminine hygiene sprays and scented bath products
- Urinate after sex to flush out any bacteria that may have entered
- If you use a diaphragm or condoms with spermicide for birth control, consider switching to another method.
- Keep genital area dry by wearing cotton underwear and loose-fitting clothing.
Eells, S., et al., “Daily cranberry prophylaxis to prevent recurrent urinary tract infections may be beneficial in some populations of women,” Clinical Infectious Diseases, June 2011; 52(11):1393-4; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3916750/, last accessed July 24, 2017.
Stapleton, A., et al., “Recurrent urinary tract infection and urinary Escherichia coli in women ingesting cranberry juice daily: a randomized controlled trial,” Mayo Clinic Proceedings, Feb. 2012; 87(2):143-50; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3497550/ , last accessed July 24, 2017.
“Urinary Tract Infection (UTI)” Mayo Clinc; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/urinary-tract-infection/basics/risk-factors/con-20037892, last accessed July 24, 2017.
Bernstien, L., “Your Guide to Urinary Tract Infections (UTIs)” WebMD, August 4, 2015; http://www.webmd.com/women/guide/your-guide-urinary-tract-infections#3, last accessed July 24, 2017.
Patel, K., “Cranberry juice for UTIs: natural remedy or old wives’ tale?” Examine, July 13, 2017; https://examine.com/nutrition/cranberry-juice-for-utis/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=blog-071317, last accessed July 24, 2017.