Article: Cranberry Juice, Urinary Tract Infections, and Old Wive’s Tales

When I was younger I adored toads. Watching them with extreme fascination from the surface of our pond I longed to be able to grasp one in my hand – getting closer to the creature that I admired so much.

But every time I tried my mum was swift to scold me. ‘Don’t touch that thing! It will give you warts!’ she’d say with extreme parental authority and, young as I was, I’d dutifully comply.

It wasn’t until later in life that I got older, bolder, and perhaps a little more rebellious. When I held my first toad I did so with trepidation, but it wasn’t long before I realized that my hands had not sprung out in a sudden infestation of witch’s marks. Contrary to my mother’s seemingly infallible wisdom, toads did not give people warts.

Emboldened by this experience I started wondering just how many pearls of wisdom recited my way were factually sound and how many had just been passed down from generation to generation by sheer force of habit:

‘Eating carrots helps you see in the dark’

False: This was a piece of WW2 propaganda from the RAF intended to mask the development of new technology.

‘Urinate of jellyfish stings to stop the pain’

False: And I’m sure the characters in Friends wished they’d learnt this sooner.

‘Masturbation causes blindness’

False: I’m living proof of this one.

So, when I got my very first urinary tract infection and my mother instantly recommended cranberry juice to alleviate the symptoms I really should have been a bit more dubious. Alas, I wasn’t and it was not until after the increase in pain that I learnt my error.

Cranberries and Urinary Tract Infections

‘But wait,’ you may be thinking, ‘I’ve seen multiple health food stores sell cranberry pills as a way to help with bladder infections and the like’ and, to this, I must say ‘you are correct’.

Cranberries contain an active ingredient, known as A-type proanthocyanidins, which has been shown to prevent bacteria from clinging to the bladder wall. Because of this some products have chosen to use this in order to help prevent or alleviate the discomfort of a UTI.

But, research has also suggested that cranberry pills and juice do not have enough of this ingredient to have the observed effect on bacteria that some concentrations show.

What’s more the bacteria that cause UTIs looooove sugar. It’s like the equivalent of a UV dance party for them (disco ball and all). And what do most readily available commercial cranberry juices have in abundance? You got it: Sugar! And lots of it.

For me this meant that my well-intentioned mother actually made my UTI a worst experience for me first time around rather than speeding up my recovery as she had hoped.

I don’t blame her for this. But I know that this was the case. Such are the joys of old wives’ tales.

Old Wives’ Tales

Now, I’m sure most of my readership have heard the phrase ‘Old Wives’ Tales’ but, for those who haven’t, allow me to provide a low down.

Old wives’ tales are known as widely held beliefs, often passed down through tradition, that are generally believed to be correct but which really have no scientific basis or are just outright bullshit.

The BS meter on old wives’ tales can vary from anecdote to anecdote. For example, the carrot tale can easily be debunked and we know exactly where it came from. But, even though chocolate specifically won’t cause you to gain a break out of spots, a high fat, high sugar diet may increase your risk of getting spots, and chocolate can be part of this equation.

 For the most part, though, old wives’ tales are very commonly inaccurate in some way and are at least worth checking in to, no matter how confidently someone recites their knowledge to you. This is especially pertinent in this era of ‘fake news’ and social media fear mongering, where a BS post can easily spread like wild fire and be heralded as if it was the most significant scientific discovery in centuries.

But how does one even spot an old wives’ tale to begin with?

Smelling BS Over The Roses

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that the reason why old wives’ tales are particularly easy to swallow is because they come from someone we love – someone who genuinely wants the best for us – whom we have generally viewed as a teacher over many years.

This can make old wives’ tales an insidious type of misinformation because trust and sincere empathy can often be involved in the mix.

But even the most beautiful of rose bushes can sometimes be grown out of shit, and with wives’ tales often relating to health and personal wellbeing it’s very important to have some key tactics for detecting old wives’ tales:

It will most likely concern your health: As said above, most old wives’ tales have something to do with your help and either preventing a health concern from emerging (chocolate and acne) or treating a new health concern (cranberry juice and UTIs).

It will most likely come out of the blue: The subsequent pieces of advice are usually given in the spur of the moment in reaction to some form of trigger (such as seeing you eat chocolate or finding out about your urinary hell).

It will most likely come from a family member: Much of this advice will either come from family (of course) or will be given by a concerned friend who was told it by one of their family members. I’ve very rarely heard anyone say ‘Oh yeah, cranberry juice. John said it helps with UTIs’ but I have commonly heard ‘My mum/grandma said it helps’.

It will usually have come from a senior family figure: Following this trend (and emphasising its link to parental-based trust) old wives’ tales are often something that someone has heard ‘from my mother/father’ or ‘grandmother/grandpa’. This is a huge red flag that the information that you’re about to get could very well be an old wives’ tale.

The person giving the information is adamant about it: When questioned about the validity of their knowledge many people peddling old wives’ tales will say with certainty that it works, often citing family knowledge and taking great pride in the wisdom that has passed through their family line. You really can’t blame someone for being proud of a much-loved family member but, in this case, they may not have your best health in mind.

What To Do?

So, what do you do when faced with some kindly health advice that you’re pretty sure is about as legitimate as the colorful plumage of a pig’s wings?

If coming from a family member that you know won’t take information to the contrary to heart then the polite (and self-preserving) thing might just be to gratefully take the advice given and promptly ignore it when out of earshot.

For others, it might be worth saying something to the note of ‘Oh wow, thanks for the advice…say, do you know how that works?’ at which point you may both be tempted to do a Google search to find out the truth of the matter and discover whether there’s a grain of salt in the advice given.

This allows the person telling you to also learn about the misinformed nature of their advice without feeling like you are outright defying them or insulting their intelligence. Nobody likes to be overtly called wrong, after all.

But, if you don’t want to get in to it, it might just be worth doing your searches on your own and finding the relevant reputable scientific sources to either confirm or discredit the piece of advice given.

It may not seem kind to debunk the wisdom of your family’s knowledge but when your personal health is on the line it’s almost always the better choice.