Tart cherry juice is being increasingly recognized as important for health because of the natural compounds that the cherries contain and their impacts on human health. One particularly significant area of this is the relevance of tart cherry juice for inflammation.
Inflammation itself might be a biological process but it is one that has significant implications for our health. At the same time, tart cherries contain a wide range of natural compounds that can potentially have significant impacts on the body overall.
In this article, we will take an in-depth and up-to-date look at the use of tart cherry juice for inflammation and the science that surrounds this topic. After all, understanding the research is critical for knowing whether the health benefits of a natural product are as good as people claim.
Before we get started though, I do want to briefly introduce tart cherries and tart cherry juice.
Tart cherries are also sometimes called sour cherries, and they have a much sharper taste than the normal cherries that most people eat. You can find fresh or dried versions of these cherries, along with tart cherry juice. Tart cherry juice is particularly popular because you can get it at any time of the year and it serves as a concentrated source of nutrients.
The most common variety of tart cherries that we consume is known as Montmorency cherries. Research tends to focus on these cherries and most studies look at tart cherry juice or tart cherry concentrate (a concentrated version of tart cherry juice).
But, why look at this topic at all?
The Importance of Tart Cherry Juice for Inflammation
Inflammation is a natural biological process and it is the way that our bodies protect us. However, inflammation can also be a painful process and it can also contribute to the development of diseases.
For example, some types of arthritis occur because there is an inflammatory response, even though there is nothing present that the body is actually fighting (1). Likewise, health issues like asthma and Crohn’s disease have also been linked to inflammation (2).
Indeed, the significance of inflammation is why so many of us take NSAIDs for pain.
The term NSAID stands for Nonsteroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug and most common pain relievers fall into this category. For example, both aspirin and ibuprofen are NSAIDs (3).
The fact that these drugs decrease inflammation is one of the key ways that they fight pain.
However, at the same time, medication like NSAIDs tends to have side effects, such as increasing the risk of heart issues for some patients. They’re also a little concerning because researchers still do not fully know how they actually work in reducing pain (4).
With that in mind, finding natural solutions for fighting inflammation does make a lot of sense.
After all, why would you want to pump your body full of drugs when there are natural alternatives that can achieve a similar goal?
Additionally, if you include anti-inflammatory foods in your diet then you have the chance to lower your overall level of inflammation significantly. In turn, doing so could potentially decrease the pain you experience and may even decrease the risk of some diseases.
Now, there is a range of different foods out there that combat inflammation to some degree or another. But, research supporting the use of tart cherry juice for inflammation is particularly strong, which makes tart cherry juice a particularly powerful tool for fighting inflammation.
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One potential reason that tart cherries may play a role in fighting inflammation is the anthocyanins that they contain. Anthocyanins are a specific type of plant-based compound and they may play a key role in inhibiting enzymes connected to inflammation, along with a whole range of other potential health benefits (5,6,7,8).
These have been found in tart cherries and there are strong indications that the compounds are effective at fighting inflammation (9).
Researchers have also noted that the strength of anti-inflammatory activities in compounds from tart cherries are comparable to commercial products for fighting inflammation (12).
In addition to the theory and mechanism-based research surrounding tart cherry juice and inflammation, there has also been some experimental studies that have specifically looked at this area.
Some of these are summarized below.
Oxidative Stress and Inflammation following Cycling
One fairly recent research study into this field looked at tart cherry concentrate for participants who had been engaged in simulated road cycling. The study used 16 individuals. Half of them received a placebo twice per day for 7 days, while the other half were given the tart cherry concentrate.
In the study, the authors were interested in changes in muscle damage, oxidative stress and inflammation.
The authors found that indications of inflammation were lower in the group taking the tart cherry concentrate. Oxidative stress was also lower in this group. The authors argued that the observed effects occurred because the tart cherry juice was able to fight the sets of inflammation and oxidation reactions that occur in the body.
Even though the study only had a small sample size, it does support the idea that tart cherry juice can fight inflammation. The authors also felt that the tart cherry concentrate could be particularly significant for sporting situations where individuals need to perform back-to-back events (16).
Tart Cherry Juice and Osteoarthritis
One study looked into the effectiveness of tart cherry juice in reducing biomarkers of inflammation. Specifically, the study focused on women who had inflammatory osteoarthritis, which is one of the many diseases that is associated with inflammation.
Individuals with this condition often use NSAIDs to help combat the pain associated with the osteoarthritis.
The study involved 20 female participants with the disease. The participants consumed 10.5 oz bottles of either tart cherry juice or a placebo twice per day for 21 days.
The authors found that there was a statistically significant reduction in biomarkers of inflammation in the tart cherry group (17).
While animal studies do have their limitations, they can be an important tool for understanding the potential effects that a compound or treatment might have on humans.
One study on this topic looked at the impact of tart cherry anthocyanins on pain behavior associated with inflammation. The study found that the anthocyanins did reduce behavior connected to inflammation pain (18).
That outcome reinforces the idea that tart cherry juice can help to fight inflammation and also that it is the anthocyanins in the juice that play a key role in that action.
A second animal study found that regular intake of tart cherry powder reduced levels of inflammation in rats that were obesity-prone and fed a high fat diet (19). That same study also found rats consuming the tart cherry powder had lower abdominal fat and a decrease in other symptoms associated with metabolic syndrome.
Another study also found similar outcomes when looking at freeze-dried whole tart cherries (20).
These outcomes suggest that tart cherry juice may help to protect against some of the negative outcomes associated with a high-fat diet. However, research in humans is needed to confirm the research conclusions.
Research studies support the idea that tart cherries fight inflammation in humans and in animals, although more research is still needed.
It is worth noting that there is some controversy surrounding tart cherries and tart cherry juice. A key factor of this issue was that cherry growers were making significant claims about the health benefits of cherries. The controversy got so significant that the FDA sent out letters warning companies not to make those claims (21).
In general, the FDA does tend to take a conservative stance when it comes to health benefits, partly because it is concerned about buyers buying mislead, especially when research into a field is still relatively new.
To make matters worse, some of the studies into tart cherries (and cherries in general) have been funded by the cherry industry
But, it is also important to note that the warnings about promoting the health benefits of cherries were given in 2006 (22). Since that point in time, there has been a significant amount of research into tart cherries and inflammation. Indeed, many of the studies I highlighted above were published after that point.
In some ways, the research in this field is still in the early stages, which I will discuss next.
Regardless, there is no evidence that tart cherries or tart cherry juice do any harm – and tart cherries are certainly appealing as an alternative to NSAIDs or just as a general way to protect against inflammation. So, even though the FDA didn’t like the health claims being made in 2006, that controversy doesn’t change the fact that there certainly is evidence of tart cherry health benefits.
Most of the controversy surrounding cherries and health is related to old claims and old research.
Implications and Future Directions
Inflammation is a complex process in the human body and the impacts of inflammation on health are substantial.
However, this is also an area that we are still learning about. For example, researchers don’t completely know what is causing the extensive levels of inflammation that are present across the population. Likewise, inflammation has the potential to affect many different areas of the body (23).
At the same time, inflammation isn’t always associated with pain.
This means that people can suffer from chronic inflammation but not be aware of it. Likewise, inflammation may have direct and indirect effects on our bodies that research hasn’t identified. For example, one researcher claims that inflammation may be a key factor in the development of depression, along with issues such as anxiety and fatigue (24).
One of the biggest challenges with inflammation is that it is hard to study.
In particular, researchers can’t really see when and where inflammation is occurring in the body.
For example, the most significant tool that is used for looking at inflammation is a blood test that looks at your levels of C-reactive protein, which is a compound released when inflammation occurs.
However, the test isn’t especially specific. So, it can show that inflammation is present but it offers little information about the potential causes or location of that inflammation.
This issue makes it much more difficult to truly understand the impacts of inflammation or how to fight it.
For example, the challenges in researching inflammation mean that researchers can only see when overall levels of inflammation are decreased. There is no real way of knowing whether a given approach decreases inflammation only in some areas.
This limitation also affects research into the use of tart cherry juice for inflammation.
At the same time, it’s easy to see that many of the studies specifically looking at tart cherry juice and inflammation have been limited. For example, most of the studies that I discussed above had small sample sizes, which means that their accuracy is limited. Larger and more rigorous studies are really needed to give us a more in-depth understanding of the topic.
As such, there is still a long way to go in research for inflammation in general, as well as in research surrounding the impacts of tart cherry juice. Nevertheless, the balance of evidence does suggest that tart cherry juice may play a key role in fighting inflammation.
There are also a number of other health benefits of tart cherry juice, as well as the fact that it acts as an antioxidant. Those benefits just reinforce the idea that tart cherry juice really is good for our health.
However, one question remains.
If you are going to take tart cherries to reduce inflammation, which type is the best?
After all, you can get tart cherry juice and concentrate, as well as freeze-dried, canned and dried cherries. One research study looked into this topic and found that tart cherry juice concentrate had a higher per serving amount of beneficial compounds than other forms of tart cherries (25).
That outcome isn’t especially surprising but it is something to keep in mind when you are looking for benefits from tart cherries.
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What about you personally? Do you like the taste of tart cherries or tart cherry juice?