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Cucumbers are scientifically known as Cucumis sativus and belong to the same botanical family as melons (including watermelon and cantaloupe) and squashes (including summer squash, winter squash, zucchini and pumpkin). Commercial production of cucumbers is usually divided into two types. "Slicing cucumbers" are produced for fresh consumption. "Pickling cucumbers" are produced for eventual processing into pickles. Slicing cucumbers are usually larger and have thicker skins, while pickling cucumbers are usually smaller and have thinner skins.


What's New and Beneficial About Cucumbers


Researchers have long been familiar with the presence of unique polyphenols in plants called lignans, and these health-benefiting substances have been studied extensively in cruciferous vegetables (like broccoli or cabbage) and allium vegetables (like onion or garlic). Recent studies, however, have begun to pay more attention to the lignan content of other vegetables, including cucumbers. Cucumbers are now known to contain lariciresinol, pinoresinol, and secoisolariciresinol—three lignans that have a strong history of research in connection with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease as well as several cancer types, including breast, uterine, ovarian, and prostate cancers.

Fresh extracts from cucumbers have recently been show to have both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. While research in this area must still be considered preliminary—since it's only been conducted on animals in a lab setting—the findings are clear and consistent. Substances in fresh cucumber extracts help scavenge free radicals, help improve antioxidant status, inhibit the activity of pro-inflammatory enzymes like cyclo-oxygenase 2 (COX-2), and prevent overproduction of nitric oxide in situations where it could pose health risks. It's highly likely that cucumber phytonutrients play a key role in providing these antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, supporting health alongside of the conventional antioxidant nutrients—including vitamin C, beta-carotene, and manganese—of which cucumbers are an important source.

As a member of the Cucurbitaceae family of plants, cucumbers are a rich source of triterpene phytonutrients called cucurbitacins. Cucurbitacins A, B, C, D and E are all contained in fresh cucumber. They have been the subject of active and ongoing research to determine the extent and nature of their anti-cancer properties. Scientists have already determined that several different signaling pathways (for example, the JAK-STAT and MAPK pathways) required for cancer cell development and survival can be blocked by activity of cucurbitacins. We expect to see human studies that confirm the anti-cancer benefits of cucumbers in the everyday diet.


Health benefits of cucumbers

Hydration


According to Ware, “Cucumbers are 95 percent water." This makes cucumbers a great way to stay hydrated, especially during the summer. A cup of cucumber slices is “nearly as thirst-quenching as a glass of water,” according to Eating Well magazine.


The anti-inflammatory compounds in cucumbers help remove waste from the body and reduce skin irritation, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Preliminary research also suggests cucumbers promote anti-wrinkling and anti-aging activity, according to an article in the journal Filoterapia.


Cancer prevention


Cucumbers contain two phytonutrient compounds associated with anti-cancer benefits: lignans and cucurbitacins. In recent years, pharmaceutical companies have been paying special attention to cucurbitacins, hoping to use them in new cancer drugs. According to a 2010 research review published in Scientific World Journal, scientists have found that cucurbitacins can help block the signaling pathways that are important for cancer cell proliferation and survival.


Cucurbitacins can also inhibits the growth of pancreatic cancer cells, according to a 2009 study published in the Journal of Cancer Research looked at cucurbitacin B (which cucumber contains) on human pancreatic cancer cells and found that cucurbitacin supplements inhibited the growth of seven pancreatic cancer cell lines by 50 percent, and also increased apoptosis, or "death by suicide," of pancreatic cancer cells.


According to World’s Healthiest Foods, lignans may protect against cancer through working with the bacteria in the digestive tract. The bacteria take the lignans and convert them into compounds such as enterodiol and enterolactone, which can bind onto estrogen receptors and possibly reduce the risk of estrogen-related cancers, such as ovarian, breast, endometrial and prostate cancers. The research is not yet clear on whether lignans actually assert anti-cancer benefits.


A 2009 meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Cancer found little or no association between lignan intake and reduced breast cancer risk. Similarly, most studies have not found significant correlations between lignan intake and reduced prostate cancer risk, according to the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, though one study of older Scottish men published in the British Journal of Nutrition showed that consuming an enterolactone-containing serum reduced the risk of prostate cancer.


On the other hand, a Journal of Nutrition study of nearly 800 American women found that those with those with the highest lignan intake had the lowest risk of ovarian cancer. Furthermore, a study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute looked at nearly 1,000 women in the San Francisco area and found that postmenopausal women with the highest lignan intakes had the lowest risk of endometrial cancer.


Skin


You’ve probably seen pictures of people at a spa relaxing with cucumber slices over their eyes. It turns out there’s science behind this pampering ritual. Ware explained, “Cucumbers have a cooling and soothing effect that decreases swelling, irritation and inflammation when used topically. Cucumber slices can be placed on the eyes can decrease morning puffiness or alleviate and treat sunburn when placed on the affected areas.” She also noted that high vegetable intake is associated with a healthy complexion in general.


Bone health


According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, in the past few decades, it has become clear that vitamin K is important to bone health, and one cup of cucumber contains about 19 percent of the recommended daily intake of vitamin K. One review published in Nutrition noted that vitamin K intake might reduce fracture rates, work with vitamin D to increase bone density and positively affect calcium balance.


The human body uses vitamin K when building bones, and the effects seem to be especially important for women. A large 2003 American Journal of Clinical Nutrition study showed that low vitamin K levels were associated with low bone density in women, but not in men. Another study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in 1999 found that low intakes of vitamin K were associated with an increased risk of hip fractures in middle-age women. This is especially interesting because the women saw results from eating lettuce, showing that dietary consumption of vitamin K via eating vegetables (not supplements) is beneficial. When it comes to men, the affects of vitamin K and bone health may become more apparent as they age: A 2000 study saw reduced risk of hip fracture among both elderly women and elderly men who consumed more vitamin K.


Antioxidants


Cucumbers contain several antioxidants, including vitamin C, beta-carotene and manganese, as well as flavonoids, triterpenes and lignans that have anti-inflammatory properties. Vitamin C is well known for its immune system benefits, and beta-carotene has been shown to be beneficial for vision, according to the Mayo Clinic.


According to a 2010 animal study published in the Journal of Young Pharmacists, fresh extracts from cucumber showed increased scavenging of free radicals. Free radicals are associated with a variety of human diseases, but can sometimes be held in check by antioxidants, according to the Pharmacognosy Review.


Another study of cucumber extracts in animals, published in the Archives of Dermatological Research, found increased overall antioxidant benefits. Though this study focused on the cosmetic applications of this use of cucumbers, decreased free radicals can improve your inside organs as well as your skin.


An additional study published in Current Pharmaceutical Design found a positive association between the triterpene cucurbitacin and reduced inflammation, particularly in cancer cells. A review of triterpenes on the immune system, published in the Journal of Ethnopharmacology, suggested that they can help with inflammation and encouraged future research.


Heart health


“Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables of all kinds is associated with a reduced risk for many health conditions, such as heart disease, diabetes, stroke and obesity,” said Ware. Cucumbers’ potassium content may be especially helpful in this regard. One cup of sliced cukes contains only about 4 percent of the body’s daily potassium needs, but it comes with significantly fewer calories than most high-potassium foods like bananas. Potassium is an essential part of heart health, according to the American Heart Association. Many studies have linked it with lower blood pressure because it promotes vasodiliation (widening of the blood vessels), according to Today’s Dietitian. A study of 12,000 adults, published in Archives of Internal Medicine, showed that those who consumed 4,069 mg of potassium each day lowered their risk of cardiovascular disease and ischemic heart disease by 37 percent and 49 percent, respectively, compared to those who took 1,793 mg per day.


The vitamin K in cucumbers is also known to be essential in the blood-clotting process, according to the Harvard School of Public Health.

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