Tart cherries have powerful anti-inflammatory benefits. According to new research from Oregon Health & Science University presented at the American College of Sports Medicine Conference (ACSM) in San Francisco, tart cherries have the “highest anti-inflammatory content of any food” and can help people with arthritis manage their disease long-term without pain medications.
Michigan researchers had previously shown that a cherry-enriched diet not only reduced overall body inflammation, but also reduced inflammation at key sites (belly fat, heart) known to affect heart disease risk in the obese.
“Chronic inflammation is a whole body condition that can affect overall health, especially when it comes to the heart,” said Mitch Seymour, PhD, at the University of Michigan. “This study offers further promise that foods rich in antioxidants, such as cherries, could potentially reduce inflammation and have the potential to lower disease risk.”
In a study of twenty women ages 40 to 70 with inflammatory osteoarthritis, the researchers found that drinking tart cherry juice twice daily for three weeks led to significant reductions in important inflammation markers — especially for women who had the highest inflammation levels at the start of the study.
“With millions of Americans looking for ways to naturally manage pain, it’s promising that tart cherries can help, without the possible side effects often associated with arthritis medications,” said Kerry Kuehl, M.D, Dr.PH., M.S., Oregon Health & Science University, principal study investigator. “I’m intrigued by the potential for a real food to offer such a powerful anti-inflammatory benefit — especially for active adults.”
Often characterized as “wear and tear” arthritis, osteoarthritis is the most common type of arthritis. Athletes are often at a greater risk for developing the condition, given their excessive joint use that can cause a breakdown in cartilage and lead to pain and injury, according to the Arthritis Foundation.
“The current treatment of osteoarthritis is largely focused on controlling pain through use of over-the-counter acetaminophen or prescription pain medications as well as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs,” explains John J. Cush, M.D., rheumatologist. “These conventional medications are widely used, but have not been shown to alter the natural history of the disease. In some cases, overuse may contribute to significant gastrointestinal, cardiovascular, hematologic, renal and liver toxicity.”
Darren E. Huxley, MD says that a natural alternatives to pain medications are proving effective without unwanted side effects. “In this case we have cherries, another potent, natural antioxidant proving to be as, if not more effective than pain medications because of the ability for sustained long-term use without side effects in common anti-inflammatory drugs.”
The inflammation benefits could be particularly important for athletes, according to Kuehl’s previous research. In a past study he found that people who drank tart cherry juice while training for a long distance run reported significantly less pain after exercise than those who didn’t.
Go Red Instead to Manage Pain
Along with providing the fruit’s bright red color, the antioxidant compounds in tart cherries — called anthocyanins — have been specifically linked to high antioxidant capacity and reduced inflammation, at levels comparable to some well-known pain medications.
Previous research on tart cherries and osteoarthritis conducted by researchers at Baylor Research Institute found that a daily dose of tart cherries (as cherry extract) helped reduce osteoarthritis pain by more than 20 percent for the majority of men and women. And the same compounds linked to cherries’ arthritis benefits have now shown promise for athletes and sports recovery to help relieve muscle and joint soreness.
According to Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pennsylvania Medical Center for Sports Medicine, Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, CSSD, LDN, who has incorporated tart cherries into the training menu of both her professional athletes and active clients as a natural and easy way to manage pain that also tastes great, “Why not eat red when there’s so much science to support the anti-inflammatory benefits of this Super Fruit? And for athletes whose palates prefer the tart-sweet flavor profile of tart cherries, it’s the optimal ingredient.”
Available every day of the year in dried, frozen and juice forms, tart cherries are a versatile ingredient to include in any training or inflammation-fighting diet.
Marco Torres is a research specialist, writer and consumer advocate for healthy lifestyles. He holds degrees in Public Health and Environmental Science and is a professional speaker on topics such as disease prevention, environmental toxins and health policy.