When you think of antioxidants, you should be thinking of fresh, colorful fruits and vegetables that are not only pleasing to the eye, but to the palate as well. Along with providing vitamins and fiber, fruits and vegetables are important for their role in absorbing free radicals.
Free radicals are highly reactive forms of oxygen that are missing an electron. When they come into contact with normal molecules, they try to steal an electron, damaging the healthy cell and its DNA. In fact, some estimates show that every cell in your body takes 10,000 oxidative hits to its DNA daily! Antioxidants work to counteract the damage caused by free radicals.
This is likely why antioxidants are effective in helping preventing against cancer. Antioxidants prevent free radical damage, which in turns prevents cellular damage. This cellular damage, over time, can damage the DNA.
According to a study published in AACN Clinical Issues in 2002, when the damage is extensive and irreversible, it may lead to cancer. The hypothesis is that since antioxidants prevent free radical damage, they can decrease oxidative stress, damage to the DNA, and therefore help prevent cancer.
And when it comes to particular antioxidant-rich, cancer-fighting foods, the humble cranberry is one of the most powerful.
One researcher from the University of Massachusetts–Dartmouth set out to discover exactly what it was in this curious little berry that made it such a cancer-fighting powerhouse. After reviewing nearly 40 different studies on cranberries and cancer, he found that there are three main phytochemicals that seem to be responsible for cranberry’s anti-cancer power:
- Proanthocyanidins (powerful antioxidants),
- Anthocyanins (anti-cancer; anti-inflammatory), and
- Ursolic acid (anti-inflammatory, anti-proliferative).
In vitro studies have shown that proanthocyanidins (PAC) have blocked the growth of cancer in human lung cells, colon cells, and leukemia cells. Similar in vitro studies have found that PACs induce cell death, particular breast cancer, colon cancer, oral cancer, ovarian cancer, prostate cancer, and esophageal cancer cells.
The anthocyanins found in cranberries appear to reduce inflammation, which is commonly associated with cancer risk. Additionally, these anthocyanins have been shown to block an enzyme (ornithine decarboxylase), which is known to promote cancer growth. Plus, anthocyanins limit angiogenesis, or the growth of new blood vessels. This is important because cancer needs this growth to spread.
But the real hero in cranberries just may be ursolic acid. This little-known nutrient has been shown to be cytotoxic toward cancer cells. In fact, an in vitro study found that PACs and ursolic acid from cranberries brought on cell death in colon cancer cells. But, more promisingly, is that an in vivo study (in an animal) found that ursolic acid decreased the size, weight, and eventually presence of breast cancer cells in mice.
Clearly cranberries are proof that great things really do come in small packages.