4 Research-Backed Benefits of Tart Cherry Juice - By Jessie Shafer, RD May 19, 2021
You may have seen tart cherry juice tucked in among the coconut water and sports recovery drinks at your grocery store. If you haven't bought a bottle yet, now may be the time to get one and drink the ruby red juice, especially if you want to improve your sleep. There is an astonishing amount of research that points to tart cherries as being beneficial for your health in key ways. But maybe you've overlooked tart cherry juice in the past. Or maybe you were skeptical, thinking, "What is tart cherry juice good for anyway?" Well, here are some compelling reasons it may be worth adding tart cherry juice to your cart.
What Does Tart Cherry Juice Taste Like?
Before diving into the benefits, you may also wonder what tart cherry juice tastes like. It's quite tart, yes, but also sweet. The experience is somewhat reminiscent of drinking an unfiltered red wine, where there's a bold richness and some slight sediment at the bottom. But in this case, you drink it chilled and the sweetness provides balance. Some even say it tastes like cherry pie. Because of the tartness, you'll sometimes find extra sugar added to tart cherry juice, so keep an eye on labels. Your best bet for health is to seek out 100% Montmorency tart cherry juice without added sugar - (AMAZON) to match what was used in most of the studies.
4 Research-Backed Benefits of Tart Cherry Juice
One of the most experienced researchers on the topic of what tart cherries can do for you is Malachy McHugh, PhD, director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City.
1. You May Sleep Better After Drinking Tart Cherry Juice
Does tart cherry juice help you sleep? That's the question professional athletes were asking McHugh shortly after they started drinking it. "The athletes were experiencing better sleep and were themselves attributing it to the tart cherry juice," says McHugh, who has been a consultant for the New York Rangers NHL hockey team since 2000. That observation led to multiple studies showing a positive connection between regular use of tart cherry juice and longer, better rest with less insomnia. Tart cherries are one of the few food sources that contain a significant amount of melatonin and "the presumption was that the high levels of melatonin in tart cherries were a sleep aid," McHugh says.
While studies did show that tart cherries increased melatonin levels in humans, McHugh points out that tart cherries also have an anti-inflammatory effect, which could be another reason the crimson juice can help you catch some Zs. "The dose of melatonin in tart cherry juice is the primary reason it's helpful for sleep, but the magnesium content and anti-inflammatory properties are important too," says Karman Meyer, RDN, and author of Eat To Sleep: What To Eat & When To Eat It for a Good Night's Sleep ($11, Amazon). "That's the wonderful thing about nutrient-rich foods—there's an entourage effect, meaning the whole food is greater than the sum of its parts."
So how much do you need to drink to get tart cherry juice sleep benefits? In the sleep studies, improvements were seen from drinking the equivalent of two 8-ounce servings of 100% tart cherry juice a day. In one study participants drank the juice once in the morning and again two hours before bed for two weeks. In another study, participants drank the juice twice each day for one week. "As with most 100% fruit juices, I recommend enjoying them at a meal or with a snack that contains fiber and protein to help stabilize blood glucose levels and keep you feeling satisfied," Meyer says.
And what about the natural sugar content in tart cherry juice? Might it be counterproductive to good sleep? Meyer and McHugh say no. "Drinking 100% tart cherry juice that contains its natural sugars [as opposed to tart cherry juice with added sugars] should not be a cause of sleep issues," Meyer says.
2. If Your Joints Hurt, Tart Cherry Juice Can Provide Some Relief
People who suffer from joint pain, osteoarthritis, or gout may find particular benefits from tart cherries. In fact, the use of tart cherry juice for gout and arthritis relief is a word-of-mouth remedy that dates back nearly a century, as many pain sufferers have cited feeling less acute pain after eating canned tart cherries or drinking tart cherry juice. This possible connection was first formally studied in 1950 when, after eating a can of tart or yellow cherries a day, 12 arthritis and gout sufferers displayed lower blood levels of uric acid.
"Increased uric acid in the blood is what has been found to lead to very painful episodes of a gout attack," says Toby Amidor, RD, and author of The Family Immunity Cookbook. A preliminary study found that eating about 2 cups of fresh pitted cherries after an overnight fast showed a 15% reduction in uric acid levels in healthy women. Other research has indicated similar reductions in markers of joint pain after participants drank the equivalent of 8 to 10.5 ounces of tart cherry juice—either as diluted concentrate or 100% tart cherry juice—twice daily in studies ranging from two to 21 days.
3. Tart Cherries Can Lower Your Blood Pressure
Doctors often use a blood test measuring C-reactive protein (or CRP) to foretell the development of high blood pressure and other cardiovascular diseases in patients. And an increase in CRP often comes along with a diagnosis of hypertension. Though actions like limiting sodium and eating more high-fiber foods are often nutritional recommendations for people with high blood pressure, "there are multiple studies showing reduced CRP with drinking tart cherry juice," McHugh says.
In one study, men with early hypertension who consumed 2 ounces of tart cherry juice concentrate had a reduction in systolic blood pressure within 2 hours. In another study, men and women with moderately elevated blood pressure who drank 2 ounces of tart cherry juice concentrate also had a significant reduction in systolic blood pressure within 2 hours. And in yet another study, men and women who drank 16 ounces of tart cherry juice a day for 12 weeks had significantly lower systolic blood pressure and LDL cholesterol compared to those who drank a placebo.
4. Tart Cherries Are an After-Exercise All-Star
When McHugh was first asked to study if tart cherry juice had any effect on exercise and muscle recovery, he was skeptical. "What most people do not realize is that it is very hard to prevent the soreness you get on the days after unfamiliar or intense exercise," he says.
"I called a colleague who had just finished a study showing that vitamin-C supplementation had no effect on muscle damage. We decided to repeat that study with tart cherry juice. No one was more surprised by the results than I was," McHugh recalls. "The fact that taking a drink for four days before and after damaging exercise prevented strength loss was flabbergasting to me. [Prior to this] no interventions—including nutritional strategies, massage, ice baths, or even anti-inflammatory medications—had markedly affected strength recovery." And since that first study, a lot of research on tart cherries has shown similar benefits.
So what makes tart cherries so good for your post-exercise muscles? Inside those bright red orbs are more than 30 phytonutrients that have an anti-inflammatory or antioxidant effect. "It's probably the diversity of phytonutrients in cherries that sets it apart from other foods and fruits in terms of the beneficial recovery effects," McHugh says.
And what type of athletes may need tart cherry juice the most? McHugh says it could be anyone, from teenagers to professional athletes and every workout warrior in between—but it depends on your schedule. If you have a training schedule that rotates the muscle groups you're working and incorporates rest days, McHugh says, there's no need to use tart cherry juice or any other intervention to accelerate recovery.
"However, if one has to compete or perform before having fully recovered from the prior performance, then interventions to accelerate muscle recovery are needed. In many sports leagues, athletes need to play multiple games a week involving high physical and physiological stress, plus a lot of travel with disrupted sleep. The seasons become a war of attrition with bodies breaking down slowly," he says. And that's where a daily dose of a nutrient-dense drink like tart cherry juice could help. It could also be beneficial if you're facing an upcoming strenuous activity that is out of the norm. McHugh uses the example of a recreational skier. "You may go away for a week of skiing every winter only to struggle on the second and third days as the damage from the first day of skiing kicks in."
Bottom Line: The Main Reason to Drink Tart Cherry Juice
In McHugh's opinion, after having studied the impact of tart cherries in many different ways, the main reason he would recommend consistent use of tart cherry juice is the benefit of accelerated recovery during a strenuous season or period of exercise.
He and Amidor also point out that the consistent factor across nearly all of these studies is the benefit of tart cherry juice for inflammation improvements. "Many of the [tart cherry] studies have to do with a reduction in inflammation," Amidor says. "The antioxidants found in tart cherries and tart cherry juice certainly can help decrease inflammation."
But for heart health in particular, Amidor says not to lean too heavily on any one thing. "The cumulative effect of eating a heart-healthy diet along with regular physical activity and weight loss (if necessary) is really what is needed to provide heart health benefits," she says. "Consuming tart cherry juice should be done, if desired, in addition to everything else."
How Much Cherry Juice Should You Drink?
As McHugh points out, it's not just that we have strong evidence that we can benefit from tart cherry juice for arthritis, inflammation, pain relief, recovery, and sleep. "The key is that we know how many cherries you need to eat to have medicinal effects," he says. That medicinal amount is 16 ounces, or two 8-ounce bottles, of 100% fresh tart cherry juice a day, which is the equivalent of eating 100 tart cherries. "That dose has been used to good effect in multiple studies," McHugh says. He adds, "In practice, if taking the drink habitually, one bottle [8 ounces a day] may suffice."
And what about eating, say, a 1-cup serving of fresh or frozen tart cherries, or a ¼-cup serving of dried tart cherries, or taking a daily cherry extract supplement? While you would gain some of the anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and melatonin effects from any of these forms, McHugh says you wouldn't get enough to reach the efficacious dose used in these studies.
If the benefits of tart cherry juice intrigue you, the good news is that one or two 8-ounce servings a day isn't an outrageous amount. "Comparatively, people often talk about the health benefits of the antioxidant resveratrol in red wine," McHugh says, "but one would need to drink more than 100 bottles of red wine a day to get sufficient resveratrol to see medicinal effects." And there's not a health professional out there who would recommend that.
Additional studies on Montmorency tart cherries and heart health: