Lemon Juice: Is it a miracle cure?

I’ve had pain in my right wrist for a long time now. It initially started when I learned how to break dance back in college, and it’s persisted ever since then. Typically it doesn’t bother me, but whenever I put weight on it the pain is pretty severe. I’ve seen a few doctors about it, and we all suspect that it has something to do with inflammation.

I was talking with a friend about it, and she mentioned that her Kung Fu Shifu (mentor) had apparently squeezed lemon juice to drink every morning to treat his neck pain for 3 months. I’m sure we’ve all heard that lemon juice has benefits for human health, but is it true? What is in the lemon that is responsible? And so the research begins!

“If you drink lemon water on a regular basis, it will decrease the acidity in your body, which is where disease states occur. It removes uric acid in your joints, which is one of the main causes of inflammation.”

– Krissy Brady, from 11 Benefits of Lemon Water You Didn’t Know About

Citrus juices are a rich source of a class of compounds called flavonoids. These compounds have anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and antioxidant properties (note that this does not mean that they treat these conditions).1 Lemons, in particular, appear to contain 32 identified flavonoids.2

Molecular structures of flavonoids, taken directly from Tripoli et al.
Molecular structures of flavonoids, taken directly from Tripoli et al.3 As an interesting note, the phenolic rings (hexagons) in these compounds are what give them their color and make lemons yellow.

Based on my literature search, it seems pretty clear that flavonoids do have anti-inflammatory properties, but not for the reasons that many articles on the internet state. Basically, there are a lot of signals in your body that interact in order to trigger an inflammatory response, sort of like in a relay race where you pass the baton between runners. If you can stop the baton from being passed somewhere in the middle, the response doesn’t happen. Since most things aren’t perfect, the best we can do is slow down the response, like closing down the lanes of a highway. That’s what a lot of pain killer medications (Advil, Tylenol, etc.) are developed to do.

So how does lemon juice compare?

Well, the medications you can take in pill form are essentially just the important, active ingredient necessary for shutting down the response. On the other hand, lemon juice has a lot of other ingredients (Vitamin C, sugars, amino acids), so it’s not formulated specifically to treat inflammation. But would you rather drink lemon water every day, or take some medicine? (Or in my case, lemon tea :).)

Does this mean that lemons are a special, miracle fruit?

Not exactly. Other foods like carrots, peppers, celery, olive oil, peppermint, rosemary, oregano, thyme, lettuce, chocolate, rooibos tea, green tea, spinach, and parsley (the list goes on and on) also contain flavonoids.4 So what it ultimately boils down to, like many things, is eating healthy and taking care of your body. That’s the best we can all do for ourselves, after all :D.

– The Scientist Next Door

References:

  1. Middleton, E., Kandaswami, C. & Theoharides, T. C. The effects of plant flavonoids on mammalian cells: implications for inflammation, heart disease, and cancer. Pharmacol. Rev. 52, 673–751 (2000).
  1. Ledesma-Escobar, C. A., Priego-Capote, F. & Luque de Castro, M. D. Characterization of lemon (Citrus limon) polar extract by liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry in high resolution mode. J. Mass Spectrom. 50, 1196–205 (2015).
  1. Tripoli, E., Guardia, M. La, Giammanco, S., Majo, D. Di & Giammanco, M. Citrus flavonoids: Molecular structure, biological activity and nutritional properties: A review. Food Chem. 104, 466–479 (2007).
  1. Nabavi, S. F. et al. Luteolin as an anti-inflammatory and neuroprotective agent: A brief review. Brain Res. Bull. 119, 1–11 (2015).
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