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updated: 4/2/2012 6:13 AM

Prunes may have positive impact on osteoporosis

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My patients bring me all sorts of interesting health information, and I read it all. Recently, one of my patients told me that she read that dried plums (prunes) can reverse osteoporosis. I was somewhat skeptical, but I researched it and there are several published studies on the benefits of dried plums on osteoporosis.

Osteoporosis is the result of reduced density of the bone. Bone is a very active organ, and there is a constant balance between bone being made and bone broken down. When bone breaks down faster than it is built up, osteoporosis is the result.

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Osteoporosis is weak bone and puts an individual at an increased risk of fracture and fall. It is not a disease, and lifestyle changes are very important. Weight-bearing exercise, vitamin D, diet and calcium are essential. Medications can also help, but all have side effects and, without lifestyle changes, are less effective.

In people with osteoporosis, there is an increased risk of bone fractures, especially the hip and back. Almost 1 million hip and back fractures occur in the U.S. annually. The direct and indirect medical costs exceed $20 billion per year. Preventing and reversing osteoporosis could have a major impact on quality of life and reduce the cost of medical care.

Plums are a tree fruit and when dried are called prunes. They are a good source of fiber but also are rich on polyphenolic compounds. These are considered good antioxidants, but the polyphenolic compounds also influence cell-to-cell signaling, reduce inflammation and regulate the expression of different genes in the DNA. They may also reduce bone turnover and have a positive effect on osteoporosis.

Several good studies have demonstrated that eating prunes positively affects osteoporosis. One study demonstrated that prunes prevented osteoporosis in menopausal rats. A follow-up study (with rats) showed that prunes were able to significantly reverse the bone loss associated with osteoporosis.

One blinded placebo controlled study in humans confirmed the results of the rat studies. This study, published last year in the British Journal of Nutrition, enrolled 160 postmenopausal women, not on therapy for osteoporosis. For one year, half ate 100 grams a day of prunes (10 to 12 prunes), while the placebo consisted of 100 grams a day of dried apple. Both groups had DEXA scans (test for bone density) at the beginning and end of the study. Blood samples for bone breakdown by-products were also collected at the beginning and throughout the study. At the end of the study, the bone density significantly increased in the group eating prunes. The blood markers of bone breakdown also were significantly lower in the prune group.

Although these studies are very intriguing, more research is indicated. However, there is no serious downside to eating some prunes every day, and the potential benefits are not trivial. If everyone does it, we might save a billion or two per year in medical costs. I am so impressed with these studies that I am adding prunes to my list of supplements and foods for my patients with osteoporosis.

• Patrick B. Massey, M.D., Ph.D is medical director for complementary and alternative medicine for the Alexian Brothers Hospital Network. His website is www.alt-med.org.

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