According to a new study, beta-sitosterol, the main constituent of pomegranate seed extract, could be used as a natural stimulant to encourage the uterus to contract during labour.
Pomegranate juice is thought to have a number of health benefits, from lowering cholesterol and blood pressure to protecting against some cancers, but until now there has been no evidence to demonstrate its effects on the uterus.
Researchers investigated pomegranate seed extract - a steroid that can inhibit the absorption of cholesterol in the intestine - and its effect on uterine smooth muscle samples.
"Previous study has suggested that the pomegranate's antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties have a positive impact on health. We wanted to understand its effect on uterine contractions to help us explore new ways of treating women who may experience difficult labours," Professor Sue Wray, from the University's Department of Physiology, said.
"Currently the only available drug to treat women with a poorly contracting uterus is oxytocin, a hormone which only works approximately 50 percent of the time.
"It is important for us to investigate how the uterus works and what happens when it does not contract normally so that women experiencing problems during labour do not have to undergo major surgery to deliver a healthy baby," Wray added.
Dr Sajeera Kupittayanant, from Suranaree's Institute of Science, said: "We found that beta-sitosterol was the main constituent of pomegranate extract, a steroid present in many plant species, but particularly rich in pomegranate seed.
"We added the extract to uterus tissue samples from animals and found that the muscle cells increased their activity. Our work suggests that the increase is due to a rise in calcium, which is necessary in order for any muscle to contract, but is usually affected by hormones, nerve impulses and some drug treatments.
"The next step is to investigate how beta-sitosterol in pomegranate extract could increase calcium, but it could prove to be a significant step forward in identifying new ways of treating dysfunctional labour," Kupittayanant added.
The study has been published in Reproductive Sciences.