Any woman will tell you: Urinary tract infections suck. They burn, they’re uncomfortable, they make us feel like we constantly need to pee, and now the World Health Organization reports that E. coli, the leading cause of UTIs, is becoming increasingly antibiotic-resistant (grrrreattt). I’ve been fortunate enough to only suffer through a couple of UTIs in my lifetime, but I have plenty of friends who get them on the regular — and they always buy a ton of cranberry juice at the first sign of infection. You see, like many other women (myself included), they’ve heard that cranberry juice can help treat and even prevent UTIs. But … is that actually true? To figure out if cranberry juice is a proven treatment and cure for UTIs (or just an old wives’ tale), I asked the experts.
First of all, what exactly is a UTI? Dr. Paul Tulikangas, a fellow of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, told me that a UTI is, quite simply, an infection within the urinary tract, which is the tube that connects your kidney to your bladder and urethra. So if someone has a UTI, it means that they have an infection somewhere along that tract. These infections can often be caused by sex (because the opening of the urethra is right in front of the vagina, which means that bacteria can get into it). Other risk factors include using older forms of birth control (like a diaphragm), having gone through menopause, and urinary tract anomalies. They’re incredibly common, though: Nearly half of women will experience a bladder infection in their lifetime, according to the doctor.
What’s the deal with cranberry juice and UTIs? It seems odd to me that we all seem to think that cranberry juice can help prevent UTIs — it’s sugary, tastes bad, and seems just as medically irrelevant to me as grape juice. However, Dr. Tulikangas explained the reasoning behind the theory. “Initially, people thought that cranberry juice would acidify the urine and make it less likely for you to get an infection,” he said. But after realizing there wasn’t a significant change in pH levels from drinking cranberry juice, researchers instead focused on something else: They found that a molecule called proanthocyanidins (or PACX) was found in women’s urine after drinking cranberry juice. “It was thought that the molecule would prevent bacteria from adhering to the wall of the bladder,” he noted.
So, does it help? Sadly, no. Until 2012, many doctors seemed to think that cranberry juice could help with UTIs — Dr. Tulikangas even used to tell at-risk patients to have one glass of it each day to prevent the infections from coming on. However, all of that changed in 2012, when a major Cochrane review found that “cranberry juice does not appear to have a significant benefit in preventing UTIs and may be unacceptable to consume in the long term.” Now, doctors generally agree that there isn’t enough science to back the claim that it can help.
But what about cranberry supplements or other products? In addition to chugging cranberry juice like it’s going out of style, many of my UTI-suffering friends also take cranberry supplements to stave off infection. However, the same study found that, well, cranberry supplements also don’t have much of an effect on our urinary tract, either. “Cranberry products (such as tablets or capsules) were also ineffective (although had the same effect as taking antibiotics), possibly due to lack of potency of the ‘active ingredient,’” the study said.
Hmm, does it have any benefits, though? Yes! Registered dietitian and nutritionist Amy Shapiro, of Real Nutrition NYC, explained to me that, while it won’t cure your UTI, cranberry juice actually is really good for you. It’s low in calories and high in antioxidants and nutrients (which is why it’s commonly referred to as a “superfood”). It also has a ton of vitamin C, which means it can help boost your immunity, as well as a bunch of fiber and vitamin E. It’s also thought to prevent heart disease and slow tumor growth.
So should I stop drinking cranberry juice when I have a UTI? Well, Dr. Tulikangas told me there’s really no harm in drinking cranberry juice if they think it might have an effect on their UTI situation — not only is it a healthy drink, but staying hydrated can also help you flush out infection (since it will make you pee more). But Shapiro noted that people taking blood thinners and those at risk of kidney stones might want to steer clear of the beverage.