Women in some Asian countries are highly discouraged from eating papaya during pregnancy. The fruit which is native to tropical parts of the Americas is a rich source of vitamin C and folate so why is it not recommended as a pregnancy food? Well, there seems to be some truth to folklore beliefs about papaya and pregnancy not mixing well and that are now scientifically proven to be true. However, this does not mean that you should worry too much about eating papaya when pregnant as things are not that simple. Keep reading to find out more.
The papaya fruit which was once a rare tropical plant is now readily available year-round in most supermarkets around the globe. Its high vitamin C content offers the right daily amount of this important nutrient. Some of the health claims attached to this tropical delicacy are a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It is said to aid in digestion, improve blood glucose levels, lower blood pressure, and aid in wound healing. The fruit is also recognized for its cancer-fighting properties which are mostly due to its unique antioxidant content. But despite all these benefits, pregnant women are advised to avoid eating papaya as the fruit is said to have the ability to induce abortion.
Papaya as a Contraceptive
It has been a long-held belief that papaya and pregnancy don’t mix well. This may be one reason why women in Sri Lanka use the papaya fruit as a natural contraceptive, and if they want to get pregnant, the women simply avoid eating the fruit. In the mid-90s, Tharmalingam Senthilomohan stated for Asia week that the enzyme in papaya called papain suppresses progesterone production which is a hormone important for the maintenance of pregnancy. Another proposed theory is that papain also breaks down a membrane vital for fetus development. The anti-fertility effect of papaya was also observed a study published in Phytomedicine that found that papaya seeds seem to decrease sperm count and mobility in male rats.
Papaya and Pregnancy
To see if avoidance of papaya during pregnancy had any basis in reality, researchers from the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the National University of Singapore gave the papaya fruit at different stages of ripening to pregnant rats or water as a control. The study which was published in the British Journal of Nutrition found that ripe papaya had no effect whatsoever on pregnancy outcomes in female rats. However, they did find that rats fed crude papaya had greater uterine spasms when compared to ripe-papaya eating rats. The researchers believe that this means that eating unripe papaya could be unsafe during pregnancy.
Why does Crude Papaya Cause Spasms?
The reason why the rats from the previously mentioned study had increased uterine spasms was due to the high latex content in unripe papaya. The researchers found that 0.1–3.2 mg/ml of papaya latex induced uterine spasms similar to oxytocin and prostaglandin. Both of these hormones are released during labor and mensuration because they stimulate uterine contractions. However, keep in mind that ripe papaya does not contain any latex so most research today agrees that eating ripe papaya fruit is completely safe.
Does Papaya Induce Abortion?
The latex content in unripe papaya is probably unlikely to induce abortion in humans. Most studies today have been done on animal models and there are no reported cases of abortion caused by eating the papaya fruit. However, one study on rats published in the Journal of Veterinary Advances found that administering unripe papaya extract induced abortion and that it was highly toxic to the embryos. So we can see that there is some truth to the commonly held belief that papaya may induce abortion. But, most women are not in danger of this happening as most eat the latex-free ripe papaya fruits and even if they did eat an unripe fruit, the dose of any abortion-causing chemicals would probably be too low.
What About Human Studies?
Women in rural areas who don’t have access to health care are more likely to turn to unsafe ways of abortion such as by using plants and herbs. A study published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth found that women in rural Tanzania had frequently used plants as a way to induce abortion and that these plant sources were quite potent in provoking uterine contractions. Some of the plants the women used were listed in this study, but papaya was not one of them.
Although it can be a bit frightening to hear that papaya has the potential to induce abortion, this only applies to the unripe form of this popular fruit. Furthermore, there are no studies or case examples of abortion caused by eating the papaya fruit. Most studies that were carried out were using animal models using the unripe papaya fruit. This is why doctors agree that eating ripe papaya is highly unlikely to cause any pregnancy complications.