Minding the Body

The guide to health and happiness

Cranberries Are a Smart Choice for Your Brain

Eating cranberries helps keep your thinking sharp and your brain healthy.

cranberries
Public domain. Photo by Charles Armstrong, University of Maine Cooperative Extension.
The brilliant red color of cranberries is undeniably festive on your plate. But there’s more to these berries than their good looks. Growing evidence suggests that eating cranberries is great for the health of your brain. Here's the scoop on how they may help ward off Alzheimer's disease or reduce the brain damage after a stroke.

Minimizing Stroke Damage

Cranberries appear on many “healthiest foods” lists. Because they rank very high in antioxidant ability, researchers suspect that they may help fight the oxidative processes associated with vascular disease and stroke.

In one study, cranberry health researcher Catherine Neto, PhD, and her colleagues at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth took brain cells from rats, grew them in the lab, and then exposed them to stroke-like conditions.

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Specifically, one group of cells was deprived of oxygen and glucose, simulating what happens when blood flow to the brain is blocked during a stroke. Another group of cells was exposed to hydrogen peroxide, simulating what happens when blood flow to the brain is restored after a stroke. The process of restoring circulation causes oxidative stress, which leads to further cell damage and death.

Next, both groups of cells were exposed to varying concentrations of cranberry extract. The highest concentration, roughly equivalent to a half-cup of whole cranberries, reduced the death of brain cells by half. This suggests that cranberries might lessen the brain damage after strokes, although more study is needed.

Keeping Your Brain Sharp

Another promising line of research focuses on a specific compound in cranberries called ursolic acid. This acid has generated buzz for its possible anti-cancer effects. But recent research from Xuzhou Normal University in China suggests that ursolic acid may also help protect brain cells from injury or degeneration.

In one recent study, mice were injected with domoic acid. This toxin carried by shellfish can cause lasting loss of short-term memory in humans, and it can also cause problems with learning and memory in mice. But when mice in the study were subsequently given ursolic acid, it helped reverse the cognitive deficits.

Poisoning by domoic acid causes excitotoxicity—overactivity of excitatory brain cell receptors, which can lead to cell damage or death. In humans, excitotoxicity may contribute to the brain damage from a stroke or traumatic brain injury. It may also be involved in neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.

According to the researchers, their work suggests that ursolic acid might help prevent or reduce the cognitive symptoms of these conditions. It will be interesting to see if future studies bear out this intriguing possibility.

Pass the Cranberry Relish

Research on the brain health benefits of cranberries is still in the early stages. But most food scientists agree that the vibrant red berries pack a nutritional punch.

There’s evidence that consuming cranberries may help prevent urinary tract infections. Some research also suggests that cranberry consumption may limit the ability of H. pylori bacteria to cling onto the lining of the stomach and cause ulcers. Plus, cranberries may reduce the formation of dental plaque, helping prevent gum disease.

If you’re hoping to give your brain a boost, it’s still unclear how many cranberries you would need to eat. But fresh whole berries may be your best bet. They’re likely to contain higher levels of many healthful components.

For example, Neto and her colleagues looked specifically at ursolic acid and its esters—compounds produced from reactions involving the acid. Ursolic acid is found mainly in the berry peel. Here’s what their analysis showed:

  • Whole fresh berries were a terrific source of ursolic acid.
  • Commercial whole berry cranberry sauce contained less.
  • Jellied cranberry sauce contained very little.
  • Cranberry juice drink contained no detectable amount.
  • Sweetened, dried cranberries contained about the same amount of ursolic acid as whole fresh berries, but the content of esterified ursolic acid was lower.

Not sure how to cook with the tart fresh berries? The Cranberry Marketing Committee offers a wealth of recipes (some more health-conscious than others). Enjoy!

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a writer who specializes in health, psychology, and the intersection between the two. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.

Linda Wasmer Andrews is a health writer with a master's degree in health psychology.

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