I had a patient come into the office the other day saying that she was eating tart cherries to help with her knee and back pain. She had heard about this from a well-known health column in the newspaper. She had been eating the cherries this for a couple of weeks and thought it is helping. I had never heard about eating tart cherries for arthritis and inflammation. Over the years I have heard of a number of home remedies from patients, but this was the first for tart cherries. So if you’re like me and never heard of this, here’s what a little research taught me:
Drinking tart cherry juice or eating tart cherries can help reduce arthritis pain and inflammation. It also may be beneficial for people with gout, diabetes, muscle pain, back pain or neurodegenerative diseases. The tart or sour cherry is also known as the pie cherry, Montmorency cherry, or the Balaton cherry. They are different from the sweet cherries like the Bing, Ranier, and Lambert cherries that you normally find in the grocery stores. Tart cherries are slightly lower in sugar, and most research studies I have seen tout the benefits of the tart varieties. However, there was one study from 2004 showing that eating fresh Bing cherries may reduce arthritis inflammation and may help lessen the severity of other inflammatory conditions like cancer and cardiovascular disease. Tart cherries are thought to be overall better because they have a higher concentration of therapeutic chemicals such as phenolic acids and anthocyanins than sweet cherries.
Phenolic acids are plant metabolites that have gained interest recently because of their antioxidant properties that protect against coronary heart disease, stroke and cancers. Phenolic acids are simple molecules which are easily absorbed in the human systems and offer a host of anti-aging benefits. Apart from making the cells stronger and decay-resistant, the most important phenolic acids anti-aging benefits relate to reducing anti-oxidant activity and preventing growth of abnormal cells. The most important sources of phenolic acids anti-aging benefits are blueberries and coffee, but they are found in cherries as well. Phenolic acids are also known to be useful in controlling inflammation, boosting the immune system, and improving blood circulation, all of which produce significant anti-aging benefits in the body.
Anthocyan is a chemical found in plants that is part of the flavonoid family. It is responsible for the dark red color of the cherry. They are richly concentrated in the pigments in berries. Laboratory-based evidence shows they have potential health effects against cancer, aging and neurological diseases, inflammation, diabetes, and bacterial infections. Cancer research on anthocyanins has found that it stalls the growth of pre-malignant cells; accelerates the rate of cell turnover effectively making the cancer cells die faster; reduces inflammatory mediators that initiate tumor onset; inhibits growth of new blood vessels that nourish tumors; and minimizes cancer-induced DNA damage. Anthocyanins have also been found to block cyclooxygenase 1 and 2 (Cox 1 and Cox 2) enzymes. Therefore, tart cherries may have some similar effects or properties as Cox-2 inhibitor drugs like Celebrex. While anthocyanins are found in other berries like strawberries and raspberries, tart cherries have the highest concentration of them.
In addition to the phenolic acids and anthocyan, cherries also contain high levels of beta carotene (vitamin A), vitamins C and E, and are a good source of potassium, magnesium, iron, folate, and fiber. Interestingly, cherries are also a natural food source of melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate sleep.
If cherries are out of season or you cannot find the tart cherries in your local grocery store, you have other options. You can purchase tart cherry juice or tart cherry juice concentrates at most grocery stores. According to the Cherry Marketing Institute, one 8 ounce glass equals about 100 cherries. However, some of the beneficial compounds can be lost during processing. Tart cherries can also be purchased dried. One serving of dried tart cherries is about ½ cup. Tart cherries can also be bought canned or jarred, but again, cooking destroys many of the compounds. This also means that not much benefit would be gained from a piece of cherry pie. Whole cherries can also be eaten raw or frozen (one serving equals about 1 cup), or blended into a smoothie with cherry juice, ice, banana, and other fruit.