Can a humble fruit shorten labor time by hours and with less induction and less postpartum bleeding?

A randomized, controlled trial of hundreds of pregnant women found that having women eat around six dates a day for a few weeks before giving birth can significantly improve “cervical ripening,” the readiness of the cervix, which is the opening to the birth canal. Drugs and surgery can also prep the cervix; “oxytocin is the most common agent used worldwide,” and you may have heard doctors refer to it by the brand name Pitocin. Although it’s effective, “it is associated with multiple adverse side effects,” which can affect both the mom and the baby. If only there were a safe, simple, side-effect-free solution. Well, dates may fit the bill.

As I discuss in my video Best Food for Labor and Delivery, in the study, the use of oxytocin for inducing labor in the date group decreased to less than half that of the control group. What’s more, the few women on dates who were induced had more successful deliveries. In an earlier study, prior date consumption appeared to shorten labor by more than six hours, and the researchers speculated that dates themselves may have oxytocin-like effects. So, how about a head-to-head trial, comparing the efficacy of dates versus oxytocin in the management of postpartum bleeding?

“Postpartum hemorrhage,” excessive blood loss after birth, “is one of the major complications of pregnancy” and the leading cause of maternal mortality. As the placenta peels off, the uterus is supposed to contract to staunch the bleeding. If it doesn’t, if the uterus doesn’t have sufficient muscle tone, an injection of oxytocin may help squeeze off the blood loss. Like all drugs, though, it can have side effects, such as causing a dangerous drop in blood pressure. There are also various devices that can be inserted to apply pressure to staunch the bleeding, and, if worse comes to worst, surgery could be necessary.

Why not try fruit first? Dates are readily available, inexpensive, and side-effect free—but do they work? Researchers set up a randomized clinical trial to find out. Immediately after their placenta came out, women were given a one-time dose of either five or so dates or an intramuscular shot of oxytocin. Then, the researchers collected all of the blood to determine which worked better.

Overall, three hours after delivery, the average blood loss in the date group was significantly less than in the oxytocin group, by about a quarter cup. At 2:24 in my video, you can see a chart showing that the date group was primarily in the lowest category with less than two-thirds of a cup of blood loss, whereas the oxytocin group mostly lost about a cup or even more. The researchers concluded that “use of oral dates after delivery decreases bleeding more than intramuscular oxytocin and it’s a good alternative in normal delivery.” (Oral dates? How else would you use them?)

If dates have oxytocin-like effects to contract the uterus, thereby shortening labor by helping to “induce earlier uterine contractions,” might date consumption increase the risk of premature labor?

A study looked at the effect of date fruit consumption on the length of gestation. Starting at about 38 weeks, women were randomized to eat seven dates a day or none at all. And, researchers found that eating dates did not affect delivery dates. Consumption of the fruit did, however, significantly reduce the need to induce labor with drugs: Half of the non-date group were induced versus less than 40 percent of women in the group eating just seven dates a day for a week. Induction of labor is serious business. It “can give rise to increased complications, such as bleeding, caesarean section, uterine hyper stimulation and rupture.” And, apart from the complications, women who are induced “tend to be less satisfied with their birth experience.” The researchers found that, therefore, dates consumption in late pregnancy is a safe supplement to be considered as it reduced the need for labour intervention without any adverse effect on the mother and child.”

If only there were a double-blind, placebo-controlled study. We want more than just a randomized trial because the women in the date group obviously knew they were eating dates, which may have had some kind of placebo effect. The only double-blind study I could find on dates and delivery is in Arabic. I read the English abstract of the study, though, which describes how women entering their active labor phase were given a date syrup or placebo. That’s brilliant! It’s hard to make a placebo date, but you could make a placebo syrup out of molasses or another similar liquid. In this study, the researchers used honey date syrup, made from the honey date (not honey and dates). The honey date is a soft, melt-in-your mouth variety of the fruit that’s easily whipped into a syrup. They found that normal labor progression increased in the date group—around 98 percent, compared to less than 70 percent in both the placebo and control groups. And, labor duration was about two hours shorter for those in the date group. So, on your due date, maybe you should give dates their due.

I love topics like this one so much. Think of all of the undiscovered benefits of whole foods that are just waiting for someone to study. Maybe we should start crowd-funding science so it’s not just money-making drugs and devices that get the research dollars. Though, how much more research do we need to start eating healthier?

You may be interested in my video on cervical ripening. Check out Best Food for Late Pregnancy. And, for more on dates, see Flashback Friday: Benefit of Dates for Colon Health.