What are prunes?
Prunes are dried plums. Only certain varieties of plums are used to make prunes (they have a particular sugar content which stops them fermenting) and these are harvested and dehydrated. They sweat it out (excuse the pun) in temperatures up to 100°C for 12-24 hours. The end result is the distinctive, shrivelled little prunes we know and love so well.
Wait, do we love them or do prunes just bring back nasty bowel-associated memories of your granny trying to force-feed you prune juice?
There is some stigma attached to this, but you need to understand she was doing it for good reason! The popularity of prunes, or ‘dried plums’, is on the rise and we explain why.
How is prune juice made?
Bearing in mind prunes are dried fruit, prune juice isn’t prepared in the same way as other fruit juices as there isn’t much juice to be squeezed out!
Prune juice is prepared by boiling the prunes in water for up to 12 hours, essentially rehydrating them at first, but over time the beneficial components leach out into the water. The solid material is strained off and there we have it, prune juice.
How do prunes help with constipation?
Prunes have traditionally been used to support the functions of our bowels (especially useful for those that are particularly slow-moving). Up to 10% of the population are thought to suffer from constipation on a regular basis.
We now know that one reason for the constipation-curbing effects of prunes is their high dietary fibre content. A low-fibre diet is likely to contribute to sluggish bowels.
There are two types of dietary fibre – soluble and insoluble fibre – and prunes contain both. The insoluble fibre is particularly useful for giving slow-moving bowels the kick-start they need.
Insoluble fibre is the roughage left over from our food that we can’t digest properly. This indigestible element found in many fruit and vegetables, travels through the stomach and small intestine without being absorbed and ends up in our large intestine.
The presence of this additional roughage distends the gut wall and triggers peristalsis. Peristalsis is a series of wave like contractions produced by the smooth muscle in the walls of our gut which effectively moves food waste from one end of the digestive tract to the other.
In addition to dietary fibre, prunes and their juice also contain sorbitol. Sorbitol is what is called a sugar alcohol which is another important indigestible component prunes can add to their list. The presence of sorbitol in the large intestine causes what’s called an ‘osmotic force’ and water is secreted into the gut in response to its presence. This loosens stools and helps them to get moving.
A third, important constipation-busting component of prunes is called diphenyl isatin. Diphenyl isatin is a natural laxative and works to gently stimulate movements of the bowels.
All of these important components of prunes work well together as a team to help give you some relief from your toilet troubles.
Do prunes have any additional benefits?
As well as helping our bowels along, prunes may offer some other health benefits.
We have discussed the fibre content of prunes, having focused on the effects the insoluble fibre can have on your bowels. But let’s not forget about the soluble fibre content. Soluble fibre also offers a host of benefits, one to mention is the cholesterol-lowering effects it can have.
Soluble fibre can absorb up to 200 times its own weight in water. As it does this, it forms a gelatinous mass in your gut which oozes through your digestive system, consuming any substances that stand in its way.
This can be beneficial for us, for example in the case of bile. Bile is formed by the liver, stored in the gall bladder and released in response to us consuming fat. Bile is soaked up and leaves our body entangled in soluble fibre. As a result your liver has to produce more bile and uses up the cholesterol you have circulating your body to do so. Result!
Soluble fibre can also slow the absorption of glucose. This can have positive effects on your blood glucose which is always a bonus.
Prunes are also rich sources of antioxidants, vitamin K, boron and potassium. Studies have shown that prunes could actually protect your bones and may even be able to reverse bone mineral density loss in post-menopausal women. Wow, who would have thought it!
Theories surrounding the positive outcome prunes may be having on our bones suggest that antioxidants are partly responsible as they are able to scavenge damaging free radicals (this is of benefit to all cells of the body not just bones!). However, boron and vitamin K may also be key players as they have specific interactions with calcium and bone mineral density. It seems likely the unique combination of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants together in prunes are contributing to such outcomes.
This is definitely something to consider – especially for all you women out there who are going through the menopause the health of your bones is often top of mind.
Hooshmand, S. et al. (2011). Prunes may prevent and reverse osteoporotic bone loss. Br J Nutr 106(6): 923-930
Whole fruit versus the juice
So how do the benefits of prunes become augmented when made into a juice?
During the process of converting prunes into prune juice, beneficial agents such as sorbitol are retained, as are phenols including diphenyl isatin, although some of the fibre is lost.
However, what is lost is replaced with an additional liquid element which is generally useful in constipation. Being liquid, prune juice passes more quickly through your digestive system (carrying its beneficial agents with it) and a prompt, pronounced effect can be had on the bowels.
Prune juice can be useful for the quick relief of constipation whereas adding some whole prunes to your daily diet, with plenty of water, can be an easy step to help keep your bowels moving more regularly day-to-day.
Are there any other options for constipation?
Prunes or prune juice may well be one of the best remedies out there for constipation. Gently stimulating the bowels and potentially offering some additional health benefits while they’re at it, what’s not to like?
However, it has to be said, prune juice probably isn’t the most popular remedy out there, possibly because of the stigma attached to it, or is it the, let’s say, slightly acquired taste? So what are the other options?
Linoforce is a natural, gentle herbal remedy specifically designed to help relieve constipation. Linoforce contains linseeds, also known as flaxseeds, which contain both soluble and insoluble fibre. As seen in prunes, the high fibre content has a positive effect on the bowels. Linseeds are also a nice, vegetarian source of omega-3.
In addition to the linseeds, linoforce contains senna. Senna is a herb containing sennosides which gently simulate gut contractions. Finally, the addition of frangula bark works in a similar way to senna but has a slightly milder mode of action.
Another popular remedy out there for constipation is psyllium husks. Psyllium husks in comparison to prune juice or linseeds are primarily made up of soluble fibre. Soluble fibre can be useful in some situations but it can make constipation worse if you aren’t careful. Soluble fibre absorbs water, therefore it can dry out stools even more - this is the last thing we want!
Therefore, if taking psyllium husks make sure you drink lots of water to avoid this. Psyllium husks can actually be useful in the treatment of diarrhoea for this reason.
The pharmacy or doctor is still a go-to option for many people suffering from constipation. Prescribed or even over-the-counter laxatives can be severe, unnecessary and are unlikely to have the nice addition of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.
Should we always assume medications are the way forward? Not always; we need to appreciate the products of nature which may well be offering us a just as effective solution.