June 21, 2017

By Virender Sodhi, MD (Ayurveda), ND

Does Papaya cause abortion? Is it myth or reality?

Pregnancy is a magnificent time period in any woman’s life. A pregnant female becomes the creator of a new life. Deficiency or excess of a number of nutrients can cause obstacles during pregnancy. We see in Indian movies and drama that a vampire mother-in-law gives papaya to her daughter-in-law and the daughter-in-law has a miscarriage. Does papaya cause abortion? Is it myth or reality? Let us look at the ancient belief and the science.

Papaya (Carica papaya) is a fruit-bearing tree native to tropical parts of the Americas and the world. The most frequently eaten parts of the plant include the fruit and leaves. Papaya is a superfood and prevents many diseases. The raw, unripe papaya fruit has been known to aid in digestion, immunity, and wound healing. The juice from the papaya fruit has been utilized in treating boils, burns, and warts. The leaves of papaya tree have been used in the treatment of ulcers, while the papaya seeds are consumed as a remedy for intestinal parasites. Papaya consumption has been linked to a reduced risk of heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It lowers blood pressure and improves blood glucose levels. It is a rich source of Vitamin A, Vitamin C, folate, calcium, and potassium. A sliced cup of raw papayas contains about 88mg of Vitamin C. Papaya is a powerful antioxidant, and it is known for its cancer-fighting properties.

According to Ayurvedic medicine, the energetics of the food can be hot or cold. The Vitamin C-rich raw, green papaya is considered hot. This can help regulate menstrual cycles. Consuming raw papayas can increase the production of the hormone estrogen in the body, and hence, regularizes periods in females. Since ancient times, raw papaya has even been used for birth control. Traditionally, pregnant women are told to avoid eating papaya, as hot food can cause abortion.

A substance that induces abortion or causes miscarriage is called an “abortifacient.” Traditionally, in the Asian countries, women use papaya as a natural contraceptive, and avoid eating the fruit when they wish to become pregnant. In India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, papaya has been used as an emergency contraceptive and an abortifacient.

Raw papaya contains an enzyme called papain which suppresses the production of progesterone, a hormone critical in healthy pregnancy. Low progesterone may not help the growth of endometrium, which is essential for the growth of fetus. Raw papaya is especially considered hazardous to developing embryos. However, this impact of papaya on pregnancy is a little less if the papaya is ripe and eaten in moderation. The ripe papaya is free of the enzyme papain, and therefore, it is not harmful for mothers-to-be. The enzyme papain in raw, green papaya is responsible for miscarriage or abortion during pregnancy. Raw papaya is also high in the concentration of latex, a milky liquid that triggers uterine contractions due to release of prostaglandins and oxytocin, which can cause abortion in pregnant females.

In an experiment, researchers took papaya latex extract and tested it on rat wombs. Different doses of papaya latex extract caused increased rat uterine contractile activity. The largest amount of contractile activity of the rat uterus was seen during later stages of pregnancy which corresponds to the maximum level of estrogen in the rat blood. Based on this report, it is clear that the crude papaya latex has enzymes, alkaloids, and other substances which have the ability to cause contractions in the uterus at different stages, and thereby, may cause abortion (Cherian 2000).

A study published in the British Journal of Nutrition scientifically evaluated the ancient belief in Asia that papaya or Carica papaya is dangerous in pregnancy. Ripened papaya blend (500ml/l water) were given to four groups of Sprague-Dawley rats at different stages of embryonic development (days 1–5, 6–11, 12–17 and 1–20). The control group was given water only. The scientists evaluated the effect of ripe papaya juice and crude papaya latex on the uteruses of pregnant and non-pregnant rats. Good news is that there was no indication of fetal or maternal toxicity in all groups. The ripened papaya juice did not show any significant uterine muscle contractions in pregnant and non-pregnant rats. In contrast, the crude papaya latex produced spasmodic contractions in the uterine muscles similar to hormones oxytocin and prostaglandin. These two hormones are generally released during labor and menstruation, as they trigger uterine contractions. The researchers concluded that since raw or semi-ripe papaya has high concentrations of the latex that can induce uterine contractions, it is unsafe in pregnancy. The study also suggested that normal consumption of ripened papaya during pregnancy is not risky. However, further research is necessary to ensure the risks of raw papaya or semi-ripe papaya during pregnancy in humans (Adebiyi 2002).

Another investigation was conducted to study the effects of papaya seeds on abortion in female rats. Oral doses of 100 and 800 mg/kg body weight of papaya seeds were given to pregnant Sprague-Dawley female rats once a day on days 1-10 after they mated. There were not any substantial differences in the total body weight in the fetuses receiving papaya. In the group that acquired 100mg/kg body weight of papaya, there was a substantial increase in the implantation sites and the weight of the fetus decreased as compared to the controls. (In embryology, implantation is the process of attaching the fertilized egg to the uterine lining and takes place about 6 or 7 days after conception). There were no dead or deformed fetuses found. In contrast, in the group of rats given 800mg/kg body weight of papaya, there was a noticeable vaginal bleeding, but no treatment-related increase in implantation sites. However, approximately 30% of the fetuses were completely resorbed, and the surviving fetuses were stunted as compared with the control, but they did not have external deformations. The scientists concluded that a low dose extract of papaya seeds does not negatively affect prenatal development, but high doses of papaya can harm the fetus and cause abortion (Oderinde 2002).

Does papaya cause abortion in pregnant women? Most research is based on animal models and there have been no reported cases of abortion in pregnant women because of eating papaya. Multiple studies on rats discovered that raw papaya extract caused abortion and can be toxic to developing embryos. Yes, there is some evidence with unripe papaya which also supports the old-fashioned belief that papaya causes abortion. Latex in the unripe papaya can trigger prostaglandins and oxytocin, which can cause pre-mature induction of labor. Nonetheless, most women who eat ripened papaya that is latex-free are probably not going to have a miscarriage. Even consuming moderate amounts of the latex-containing raw papaya most likely does not provide the dose high enough to induce an abortion.

Most medical professionals agree that eating ripened papaya in moderation does not cause complications in pregnancy. As a general rule, avoid high amounts of papaya, if you are pregnant or trying to become pregnant. Based on scientific research in animals, it might be a good idea for pregnant women to completely avoid raw, green papaya in their diet. You may need to eat lots of green papaya to have abortion-inducing effects.

References

  • [1] Adebiyi, Adebowale, P. Ganesan Adaikan, and R. N. V. Prasad. "Papaya (Carica Papaya) Consumption Is Unsafe in Pregnancy: Fact or Fable? Scientific Evaluation of a Common Belief in Some Parts of Asia Using a Rat Model." British Journal of Nutrition 88.02 (2002): 199. Web.
  • [2] Cherian, Thomas. "Effect of Papaya Latex Extract on Gravid and Non-gravid Rat Uterine Preparations in Vitro." Journal of Ethnopharmacology 70.3 (2000): 205-12. Web.
  • [3] "The Natural Way. A Tropical Contraceptive." Asiaweek. U.S. National Library of Medicine, n.d. Web. 19 June 2017.
  • [4] Oderinde, O., C. Noronha, A. Oremosu, T. Kusemiju, and O. A. Okanlawon. "Abortifacient Properties of Aqueous Extract of Carica Papaya (Linn) Seeds on Female Sprague-Dawley Rats." The Nigerian Postgraduate Medical Journal. U.S. National Library of Medicine, June 2002. Web. 19 June 2017.