The pomegranate is one of the most-mentioned fruits in the Bible. It is one of the seven species that are abundant in the Land of Israel, and the High Priest’s robes had golden pomegranates hung around the hem.
Now, researchers at Haifa’s Rambam Medical Center and Technion-Israel Institute of Technology have found that pregnant women who drink pomegranate juice – the kind found in any supermarket – could cut the risk of embryos developing brain damage. Their joint study was recently published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
The causes of many premature births are infection or inflammation – or a combination of both – that develop in the mother’s womb. Inflammation is the body’s response to something perceived as harmful and is accompanied by redness, warmth, swelling and pain.
Premature birth or inflammation in a fetus can damage the infant, especially their brain. Previous studies have shown that inflammation, which can be transmitted by the mother and the uterus to the fetus, is a risk factor linked to brain injury and the development of neurological deficits soon after birth or later in life. This condition can result in cerebral palsy, motor injuries and even psychiatric disorders. Many researchers are trying to find treatments or substances to be administered to mothers at high risk for developing infection or inflammation during pregnancy, but without causing harm and that could minimize the potential damage associated with these processes.
“Studies have shown that pomegranates are rich in polyphenols (a type of compounds that neutralize damaging free radicals in the body), which have strong antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. They can also help protect against cardiovascular disease,” notes Prof. Ron Beloosesky, director of Rambam’s prenatal ultrasound unit in the hospital’s division of obstetrics and gynecology.
Previously, Prof. Michael Aviram, former director of Rambam’s clinical research institute, carried out groundbreaking research in this field.
“Because we know some causes of brain damage in fetuses are related to inflammatory processes, we thought to test if drinking pomegranate juice could help prevent infection and inflammation in the mother and thus reduce the risk of damaging the fetus,” Belooseky explained.
A total of 24 pregnant lab rats were divided into three groups: those undergoing inflammatory processes; those that drank pomegranate juice for several days before undergoing inflammatory processes; and a control group that neither underwent inflammatory processes nor drank pomegranate juice.
In the group of rats experiencing an inflammatory process that did not drink pomegranate juice, researchers examined the brains of the newborns for the presence of an inflammatory brain injury, as well as the activation of pathways associated with oxidative stress and apoptosis (programmed cell death), which have been linked with long-term brain injury and impaired functioning.
When researchers examined the group of pregnant rats experiencing an inflammatory process after receiving pomegranate juice for several days, they found surprising results, which were very different from those in the first group. There was a decrease in the levels of inflammation in the mothers as well as a significant reduction in signs of inflammation and injury to the brains of the fetuses.
Pomegranate juice with added sugar is not recommended for drinking, especially if the mothers are diabetic, suffer from temporary gestational diabetes or are overweight.
The authors concluded that maternal pomegranate juice supplementation may attenuate maternal inflammation-induced fetal brain injury.
“Although this is a preliminary study, the results are very interesting,” said Beloosesky, “It seems that an accessible and inexpensive juice that can be found in any supermarket has a positive effect on a serious problem that harms mothers and their embryos. We are continuing the research to better understand its mechanisms.”
The Haifa scientists are continuing their research in a clinical study on humans, which is expected to be completed in the next two years.
“This is the first study of its kind that aims at understanding how to use the pomegranate – which has known health benefits – to prevent a problem that, under certain conditions, passes from mother to child,” concluded Prof. Zeev Wiener, the co-author of the study who directs the hospital’s gynecology and obstetrics division. “The results of the first study are certainly satisfactory and we are curious to see what we’ll learn in the future.”
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