Have you eaten a pomegranate? The fruit features in Greek mythology in the story of Persephone, daughter of the harvest goddess Demeter. Hades, the lord of the underworld, kidnapped the beautiful maiden. Because she ate a few pomegranate seeds before being rescued, she had to spend several months every year in the underworld with him. According to the myth, that?s when the earth was forced to endure winter.
Modern stories about pomegranates are not quite as fanciful as the myth, but there is a lot of buzz lately about the exotic fruit. How much is supported by scientific research?
Pomegranates grow wild from Iran to northern India, but they are cultivated throughout India, the Middle East, southern Europe and California. Scientists in Israel have been conducting research on the health benefits of pomegranates and pomegranate juice for years, and now others have joined in.
What are pomegranates good for? Researchers report that they are rich in antioxidants that can keep bad LDL cholesterol from oxidizing (American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, May 2000). This degradation of LDL seems to be an initial step in the development of atherosclerosis. In addition, pomegranate juice, like aspirin, can help keep blood platelets from clumping together to form unwanted clots.
Does this make any difference clinically? More recent research has found that eight ounces of pomegranate juice daily for three months improved the amount of oxygen getting to the heart muscle of patients with coronary heart disease (American Journal of the College of Cardiology, Sept. 2005). Other researchers report that long-term consumption of pomegranate juice may help combat erectile dysfunction (Journal of Urology, July 2005).
Investigators are also excited about the possibility that pomegranate compounds might prevent prostate cancer or slow its growth. In mice, treatment with pomegranate extract delayed the development of tumors and improved survival (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Sept. 26, 2005). Other research reports suggest that pomegranate juice might help reduce the risk of breast cancer.
Even arthritis may yield to the power of pomegranates. Scientists at Case Western Reserve University have reported that tissue cultures of human cartilage cells respond to pomegranate extract. Inflammation is reduced and the enzymes that break down cartilage become less active (Journal of Nutrition, Sept. 2005). This is still far from a prescription for aching joints, but most experts agree that a little pomegranate won?t hurt and might help.
One traditional use of pomegranate juice is to calm diarrhea. We have seen no research supporting this claim, but we have heard from a reader with personal experience: ?One of the best things to take for diarrhea is pomegranate juice, which can be found in grocery stores. You can actually get constipated if you drink too much (as I found out!)?
A word of caution: Pomegranate juice appears to interfere with certain medications much as grapefruit juice does (Drug Metabolism and Disposition, May 2005). So when grapefruit juice is risky, pomegranate juice might be as well.
Persephone might have done better to resist eating pomegranate seeds, but modern science suggest most of us could benefit.
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Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of this newspaper or e-mail them via their Web site: www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.