There has been a lot of talk recently about tart cherry juice benefits, particularly for health.
The topic is still a relatively new one – but tart cherry juice does actually have significant potential to improve health.
A key reason is the tart cherries themselves.
Tart cherries are a powerhouse of natural chemicals that can influence inflammation, sleep and a range of other factors. They also contain a high level of antioxidants and can easily be included in your diet on a daily basis.
As they do not have the side effects associated with typical anti-inflammatory medication, there is simply no reason not to include tart cherries in your diet.
Sweet Cherries versus Tart Cherries
Most people are familiar with the sweet cherry. This is the type of cherry that you would eat as a snack or as part of a dessert. Sweet cherries are also very common, largely because they are so popular.
However, there is also a second type of cherry – the tart cherry. This type of cherry is largely grown in Michigan and some of the key varieties include Balaton and Montmorency varieties.
The majority of research studies have focused specifically on the health benefits of the Montmorency variety of tart cherries.
Most of the time, it is sweet cherries that you will see in the grocery store. Rarely you might find some tart cherries for sale, but most grocery stores don’t sell them fresh.
While most research has focused on tart cherries, some studies have found health benefits associated with sweet cherries, such as reductions in inflammation (1).
In general, these health benefits tend to be lower than for tart cherries, and tart cherries contain more compounds that promote health benefits. This makes tart cherries a better option overall.
Both types of cherries contain phenolics (also called phenols). These are naturally-occurring compounds in plants that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects.
In general, the level of these chemicals is indicated by the color of the cherry skin, as darker cherries have more phenolics. Many of the chemicals are the same across sweet and tart cherries, such as the levels of most vitamins (excluding vitamin K) and most minerals.
One of the biggest differences between tart and sweet cherries is that sweet cherries tend to have more sugar.
Tart cherries are also a significant source of vitamin A while sweet cherries contain much less vitamin A. This does make tart cherries a bit healthier, particularly if you plan on having a large amount of them.
Additionally, most of the research on the health benefits of cherries has focused specifically on tart cherries and often on tart cherry juice benefits. This means that we know much more about the impact that tart cherries have on health than we do about sweet cherries.
A final difference is that tart cherries tend to have a higher concentration of a group of compounds known as anthocyanins. I’ll talk about these later, but they are very important to the health benefits of tart cherries.
Nevertheless, both types of cherries do have some amount of anthocyanins present, and the amount tends to be higher the darker the skin of the cherry is.
Research about Tart Cherry Benefits
One of the key tart cherry juice benefits is in promoting an improved night’s sleep.
One study looked at this in elderly adults with insomnia. In this study, the participants had 8 ounces of juice per day.
The authors found that the tart cherry juice increased sleep time by an average of 85 minutes versus the placebo (4).
A second study found similar outcomes for a tart cherry juice blend in 15 older adults with insomnia (5).
Tart cherry juice has also been linked to increases in the quality of sleep by increasing the level of melatonin (6). Melatonin is a brain hormone that helps the body to regulate its internal clock.
Obtaining more melatonin can sometimes be an effective solution for insomnia and improves sleep quality and duration overall. This may prove to be particularly relevant for people with sleeping disorders.
Likewise, an additional study looked at the effects of a specific cherry product on sleep for people from different age groups. The authors found that the cherry juice did act to improve sleep time and the efficiency of sleep for all age groups studied. Furthermore, the positive effects of the juice were higher for the older participants (7).
Another study found similar outcomes for middle-aged participants and elderly participants. The authors attributed the outcomes to the presence of melatonin, serotonin and tryptophan in the cherries (8).
This suggests that tart cherry juice may be particularly relevant for preventing the sleep disorders that commonly arise as people age.
Gout and Arthritis
Tart cherry juice is strongly associated with reduced levels of inflammation and this is important for anyone suffering from arthritis. As such, drinking tart cherry juice has the potential to decrease the pain associated with arthritis (9).
Tart cherry juice is also associated with a reduction in the risk of gout. Specifically, tart cherries help to reduce the level of uric acid in the blood (10).
This is an important impact because uric acid is one of the key compounds in the development of gout. In fact, the consumption of cherries has been associated with a significant decrease in the risk of gout attacks (11).
On a related note, there is some evidence suggesting that tart cherry juice may help in the treatment osteoarthritis because of the role of inflammation in the disease.
One study on this topic looked at symptom relief for non-diabetic patients with osteoarthritis. In the study, participants were consuming two 8 oz bottles daily for six weeks. These bottles were either placebo or tart cherry juice.
In this particular case, the pain was measured using the WOMAC (13) scale, which accesses physical function, stiffness and pain for people with osteoarthritis. Despite the non-significant result, this study does still offer an indication that tart cherry juice may be relevant for some people with osteoarthritis.
Cardiovascular disease is a serious problem for much of the developed world. Now, more than ever, it is important that people make lifestyle decisions to improve their cardiovascular health and reduce their risk for heart disease.
Tart cherries are one type of food that has been linked to protective benefits for the heart.
One of the reasons for this is the prevalence of anthocyanins, which are very common in dark red and purple fruits. These compounds have been associated with lower risk of myocardial infarction (14).
This benefit has also been shown in research, with one study showing that the consumption of tart cherry juice was associated with lower levels of triglycerides in blood plasma and a decreased risk of cardiovascular disease (15).
Some of the heart health benefits of tart cherries may be equal to that of prescription medication, and can offer additional benefits when taken in conjunction with prescription medication. An element of this is the way that tart cherries have been linked to a decrease in the risk of stroke (16).
Physical Activity and Recovery
Tart cherry juice has many of health benefits in general, but it may be especially significant for runners and people who exercise heavily. Many types of exercise can create micro tears within muscles, particularly in cases where people have not exercised for an extended period of time.
These tears result in an inflammatory response and the production of free radicals as the body tries to cope with the damage. These responses lead to the muscle pain, stiffness and fatigue that comes after physical activity.
These symptoms affect the person’s ability to exercise and their strength. This makes reducing the amount of pain and the recovery time highly desirable.
Many athletes turn to NSAIDs (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs) as a way of minimizing their pain and recovering faster. However, NSAIDs can be associated with some side effects as the result of their use.
Tart cherry juice may act as a viable alternative for helping to reduce muscle pain and damage, speeding up recovery.
For example, one study looked at the levels of inflammation and oxidative stress in trained cyclists following simulated road cycle racing. The authors found that the group taking tart cherry juice had significantly lower levels of inflammation and oxidative stress (17). A second study found a similar outcome (18)
Another study examined the potential of tart cherry juice to prevent the symptoms of muscle damage, this time using college students as the sample group. In this study, the students experienced less muscle pain and stress loss in the tart cherry juice group compared to the placebo.
The biggest outcome of the study was that the placebo group experienced a 22% loss in strength while the tart cherry juice group experienced a 4% reduction in strength (19).
A 2010 study looked at muscle pain following a run of around 26km. In this study, participants had consumed either tart cherry juice or a cherry juice placebo twice a day in the week leading up to the event and on the day itself.
Pain levels were assessed before and after the race. Both groups experienced an increase in pain following the event. However, the group taking tart cherry juice experienced a significantly lower level of pain than the placebo group (20).
Other Health Benefits
The health benefits discussed so far are the main areas that research has focused on. However, there are other potential health benefits from tart cherries that have been examined in a more limited amount of research.
Research has indicated that the use of anthocyanins from tart cherries are able to reduce the growth of colon cancer cell lines and inhibit the development of tumors in mice. This suggests that tart cherries may offer some protective benefit in relation to cancer (23).
A study in humans did find that the consumption of tart cherry juice did increase the rate of apoptosis (cell death) in human breast cancer cells, but didn’t affect how fast the cells multiplied (24).
The phenolics in cherries have also been linked to protective benefits for neuronal cells, suggesting that they may protect against neurodegeneration (25).
Tart cherries have also been linked to decreased levels of weight gain. An animal study on this topic found that when rats were given a high-fat diet containing whole tart cherry powder, the rats did not gain as much weight as their counterparts (who didn’t get the tart cherry powder) (26).
Mechanisms behind Health Benefits
Inflammation has become a major issue in modern times and the process is associated with a number of diseases as well as with pain.
After all, inflammation is one of the reasons we take NSAIDs, like ibuprofen and aspirin.
Additionally, inflammation has been associated with the development of many diseases. This includes contributing to the development of cancer, heart disease, arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease (27, 28).
The chemicals present in tart cherries are highly effective as a form of anti-inflammatory product, producing anti-inflammatory activities at the level of commercial NSAIDs (29).
The major advantage of tart cherry juice concentrate is that they offer anti-inflammatory impacts without the side effects associated with NSAIDs. For example, one side effects that NSAIDs have been associated with the potential for kidney failure. Additionally, a fully natural drink is likely to offer much fewer side effects than a pill made in the lab.
Some of the compounds in tart cherry juice act to inhibit the enzymes associated with the inflammation reaction, specifically two enzymes known as COX-1 and COX-2 (cyclooxygenase-1 and cyclooxygenase-2, respectively) (30).
Tart cherry juice also naturally acts to calm some of the inflammation factors within the body (31). Additionally, tart cherry juice has an impact on the expression of some of the key genes involved in inflammation (32,33).
Tart cherries can be quite powerful for health because they contain antioxidants. Antioxidants play an important role in the body, helping to protect it.
Specifically, antioxidants help to prevent oxidation from occurring. Oxidation is a chemical process in the body that plays a number of different roles, some positive and others negative.
The reason that people are so interested in antioxidants is because of compounds known as free radicals or reactive oxygen species. These compounds are highly reactive because they are missing an election and this makes them unstable.
Because of this, free radicals can damage important components of the body, such as impacting cellular DNA and potentially leading to the development of cancer and other diseases. The body does have natural ways to protect against free radicals, but having antioxidants in the diet can help make sure the body’s systems do not get overwhelmed.
The free radicals themselves are generated naturally as part of the normal functioning of the body, but there are also environmental factors that can make free radicals more common.
One example of this is high-intensity exercise. This type of exercise can sometimes produce inflammatory and oxidative cascades that can negatively impact cells.
Tart cherries contain a relatively high level of antioxidants, which may be associated with many significant benefits to health (34).
One specific group of plant-based chemicals in tart cherry juice related to this topic are the anthocyanins. These chemicals are flavonoids and are thought to play a role in inflammation reduction and as antioxidants.
Specifically, anthocyanins are thought to inhibit two enzymes associated with inflammation and with reductions in levels of oxidative stress (35).
Anthocyanins are associated with protection against a range of different human diseases, but they have proven to be difficult to study because of the way that they interact with other compounds.
Nevertheless, it is likely that this group of compounds does significantly help to improve health (36).
One research study found that the consumption of tart cherry concentrated derived from Montmorency cherries did decrease the level of oxidative stress and inflammation in participants following simulated road cycle racing (37).
A second study looked at the impact of tart cherry juice on oxidative stress in older women and men. This study used a double-blind design with placebos and the authors found that the tart cherry juice was associated with lower levels of oxidative damage (38).
The Cherry Industry
There certainly are tart cherry juice benefits, but it is still important to approach the topic with a bit of caution.
In particular, the cherry industry in general does have a strong bias towards promoting the health benefits of cherries – to the extent that they have funded research into the topic.
This means that you should always think critically about any health claims about cherries (or about anything for that matter).
There has even been some controversy surrounding tart cherries and the cherry industry.
In 2005, the FDA sent out warning letters to a number of different companies as the result of claims on the food labels. These letters were focused on claims about the ability of cherries to protect against disease.
There are two key aspects of this issue.
First, companies often overemphasize the potential health benefits of their products – or they are misleading in some way about the potential benefits. Second, these warnings were sent out in 2005.
One of the key reasons for this type of warning is that the companies are making claims not supported/substantiated by evidence. Typically this refers to evidence from scientific studies.
Since 2005, there have been a number of scientific studies into the health benefits of cherries, particularly for tart cherries. This research has offered additional evidence that yes, there really are health benefits associated with cherries.
Research versus Experience
Talking about tart cherry juice benefits can be challenging because the research is still so new.
For example, there are relatively few studies on the topic compared to products like dark chocolate or coffee.
Additionally, many of the studies that are present are limited in their scope or design.
One example of this is a study I talked about that found that tart cherry juice can decrease oxidative damage.
The study did find a significant impact from the tart cherry juice and had a good experimental design. However, the sample size for the study was 12 (6 males and 6 females). For a scientific study, that is a really small number. The low sample size makes it harder to be confident in the outcomes of the study.
This means that scientific support for the health benefits of tart cherries and tart cherry juice is not as strong as it could be. Nevertheless, the outcomes of research are strong enough to say that tart cherries really do seem to offer some benefits to health, particularly in relation to inflammation and recovery from exercise.
It’s also worth noting that much of the research into tart cherry juice benefits has focused on recovery from exercise, enhancing sleep and preventing gout. In contrast, research in other areas has been much more limited and this makes it more difficult to draw conclusions.
However, there is also a large amount of observational information in relation to tart cherries. The idea of tart cherries being good for health has really been around longer than the research on the topic.
So, there are a lot of people out there that absolutely swear by tart cherries.
While this type of evidence is far from scientific, it is still important. After all, it offers an indication that a wide range of people from different backgrounds all found similar outcomes with tart cherries.
I initially started trying and researching tart cherries because of the amount of people who stand by them.
Personally, I had (and continue to have) a really good experience with tart cherries. I find that both the cherries themselves and the tart cherry juice concentrate help to reduce any joint pain I have and help me to sleep better at night.
Additionally, tart cherry juice tends to get highly positive reviews overall on sites like Amazon, suggesting that many people who buy it are very happy with what they get and the overall health benefits that the juice offers.
Things to Keep in Mind
As always, it’s important to keep your entire eating habits and lifestyle in mind when having tart cherry juice.
The juice does offer a large amount of health benefits, but it can still be a significant source of calories.
You need to take this into account when you plan your food choices and make sure that you don’t consume too much tart cherry juice.
Cherries, Cherry Juice and Cherry Juice Concentrate
The health benefits from tart cherry juice come from the cherries themselves. This means that you have a range of options for how you get the health benefits.
Specifically, you could choose tart cherries, tart cherry juice (or juice blends), or the tart cherry concentrate. All of these do offer similar health advantages. There are also other options, like snap-frozen cherries, dried or canned.
However, as is always the case, the way that the fruit is processed can affect its nutrient and phytochemical content. Research suggests that all the different variations of tart cherry do still contain anti-inflammatory and antioxidant activity.
Out of all of the options, the juice concentrate has the highest levels of phenolics and has the most advantages on a per-serving basis (39).
The serving size also varies considerably between the different ways of taking tart cherries. For example, you might typically take an 8 oz serving of a tart cherry juice blend, but only 1 oz or so of a tart cherry juice concentrate.
In contrast, you would have to eat a relatively large amount of tart cherries to get the same health benefits.
One way to get health benefits from cherries is to take a seasonal approach.
For example, you could eat fresh cherries (either sweet or tart) when they are in season. Then, when cherries are out of season, you switch to tart cherry juice instead.
This lets you get the best of both worlds, and you get the experience of fresh cherries when they are very common and inexpensive.
Organic tart cherry products are always a good idea when you can get them. In general, organic products do tend to involve fewer chemicals and may be more likely to offer health benefits overall. You can get tart cherries products from a range of locations, but online stores and whole food stores are normally your best options.
NSAIDs and Tart Cherry Juice
As I mentioned before, tart cherry juice performs many of the functions of NSAIDs and can replace them in some circumstances.
However, I’m not suggesting that you take tart cherry juice exclusively instead of NSAIDs. NSAIDs do still perform an important role in reducing inflammation and pain for injuries and issues like headaches.
It’s just that NSAIDs are not an effective tool to use regularly to reduce the pain from exercising.
While the risk of negative outcomes from using NSAIDs correctly is low, this risk dramatically increases when you start using them considerably more often – like in relation to exercise.
Using Tart Cherry Juice
How often you should drink tart cherry juice depends on the reason that you are drinking it for.
For example, if you are drinking tart cherry juice to decrease your recovery time and pain following exercise, then you don’t want to start taking the juice on the day of the exercise.
Instead, you want to ‘pre-load’ it.
This basically means taking the drink for at least a few days prior to the exercise, normally twice a day. In some of the studies that I mentioned, participants took tart cherry juice twice a day for a week prior to exercise.
As is the case with any supplement, make sure to consult your doctor if you are on medication or have a health issue that tart cherry juice can potentially interfere with.
Additionally, supplements are a relatively unregulated industry and the majority of supplements are not tested for safety prior to their entry into the market. So, do pay attention to the reputation of any company that you buy from, as well as other reviews.
What You Can Do
Tart cherry juice does have numerous of potential for health, and it is also relatively easy to include in the diet.
The best first step is to consider replacing whatever juice you currently drink with some form of tart cherry juice. This might be tart cherry juice concentrate or a juice blend that contains tart cherry juice.
Tart cherry concentrate is often a good way to go, because you get all the health benefits within a small serving. This makes it very easy to include in the diet as an independent drink or as an addition to a smoothie.
Ideally, you want to be taking tart cherry juice at least once a day (if not twice) to get the most from it.
However, even adding the juice to your diet irregularly may offer you health benefits that you didn’t see previously.
You can also add the cherries themselves into your diet. For example, chopped up or dried tart cherries can be easily added to oatmeal or to many dishes.
Tart cherries can also be used in a range of different recipes. In fact, some recipes work better with tart cherries than the regular sweet cherries, because they are nowhere near as sweet.
At the end of the day, tart cherry juice does not act as a cure for any health issues.
However, it is an important tool for reducing pain due to inflammation, recovery speed from exercise and improving sleep. It may also be important for reducing the risk for the development of some diseases.