The cranberry is well known for its role in promoting urinary health…but what about cancer? In the next paragraph or so, I hope to convince you that the cranberry is much more than just a quick fix for UTIs. Rather, it possesses anti-cancer activities that are able t0 slam the breaks on proliferation in a wide variety of cancer cells.
In order to understand how the cranberry can help stop cancer cell growth, we first need to take a step back and think about how cells (both normal and cancer) grow in the body. Below, I’ve outlined each of the 5 stages of the cell cycle.
1) G zero; sleep state. Most cells in the body exist in a kind of sleep-like state, meaning they do not divide constantly. Exceptions to this rule include cells that comprise the hair, skin, digestive tract and CANCER cells.
2) G1; preparation. After the cell receives a “GO” signal, either from hormones or other growth factors, the cell must make sure that it has enough nutrients and energy to start the arduous task of replicating its DNA. Since the cell cycle only moves in the forward direction, the cell must wait in this phase until it is sure that it’s ready to enter.
3) S; DNA replication. The replication of DNA is an extremely complex process that involves thousands of proteins. Each protein has different functions that are required to orchestrate the unwinding of the DNA helix, separation of DNA strands, as well as the reading, priming and synthesis of new, matching sister strands.
4) G2; quality control. Since the genetic information is exposed and most at risk during replication, the cell has evolved multiple systems to check for errors. If mistakes have been made, this is the time in the cell cycle when the DNA can be fixed. If DNA repair pathways fail to correct mistakes, this can lead to loss of important genetic information OR changes in the genetic information (commonly referred to as “mutations”). This phase of the cell cycle is absolutely essential to preserve the genetic information AND to make sure that the cell has enough nutrients to finish the actual division into two daughter cells.
5) Mitosis (M); separation. In mitosis, the DNA is condensed into small structures and then separated, along with the cytoplasm, into two daughter cells.
Now that we have a better understanding of the cell cycle, we can ask, “How does the cranberry affect how cancer cells divide?” Cranberries possess several phytonutrients, groups of naturally occurring compounds found in plants or fruits that are beneficial to the body. Recently, a group in Ontario, Canada tested how two cranberry-specific phytonutrients, called flavonoid-rich fraction 6 (Fr6) and a proanthocyanidin (PAC)-rich fraction, affect how different types of cancer cells grow. The authors show that these compounds were able to inhibit the growth of many cancer lines of various lineages, including: breast, prostate, skin, colon, lung and brain. Furthermore, the authors show that the cells treated with the cranberry compounds remain stuck in either the G1 or G2 phases of the cell cycle, thereby inhibiting the replication of cancer cells. Importantly, the cells treated with cranberry extract chose to undergo programmed cell death (also known as apoptosis) instead of progressing through the cell cycle. In support of the idea that cranberries may be a useful chemotherapeutic agent, the same group went on to show that the cranberry extracts tested can also affect the growth of tumors in mice, with little overall toxicity to the animal. These results indicate that cranberry-associated anti-proliferative affects are likely to be specific to cancer cells vs. targeting all replicating cells in the body.
I hope you enjoy the intro to the cell cycle and this recipe for cranberry orange muffins. They are mildly sweet and rich in cranberry-associated phytonutrients.
- 2 cups of almond flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/2 tsp sea salt
- 1/2 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 3 eggs
- 1/2 cup grape seed oil
- 1/3 cup agave nectar
- juice from 1/2 of an orange
- 1/3 cup dried cranberries
- zest from 1 orange
- Preheat oven to 350ºF
- Combine all dry ingredients (flour, baking soda, salt, spices and the cranberries) in a large bowl
- In a separate bowl combine all wet ingredients (eggs, oil, agave nectar, orange juice and zest)
- Gradually add the wet ingredients to the dry and stir until just combined
- Spoon batter into lined muffin tins, ~3/4 of the way full, muffins will raise while cooking
- Cook for ~20 minutes
Nutrition (1 muffin): 242 calories, 14g carb, 20g fat, 6g protein, 2g fiber
- In vivo inhibition of growth of human tumor lines by flavonoid fractions from cranberry extract. Ferguson PJ, Kurowska EM, Freeman DJ, Chambers AF, Koropatnick J. Nutr Cancer. 2006;56(1):86-94.
- A flavonoid fraction from cranberry extract inhibits proliferation of human tumor cell lines. Ferguson PJ, Kurowska E, Freeman DJ, Chambers AF, Koropatnick DJ. J Nutr. 2004 Jun;134(6):1529-35.