Wild cherry isn’t just a popular flavor of Smith Brothers cough drops. This tart fruit has become a sweet sensation with savvy healthcare practitioners because of its many medicinal properties.
Traditional healers have known about tart cherries’ anti-inflammatory and antibacterial characteristics for centuries. Henry VIII was said to be a fan of the fruit’s ability to relieve inflammation of the joints caused by gout. And in later years, a variety of studies have found that tart cherries contain the natural sleep hormone melatonin, making them a good option for insomnia and jet lag.
Now, researchers are discovering that this ruby-red fruit is also a powerful antioxidant that may significantly reduce the risk factors for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. Evidence also suggests tart cherries may even help you lose weight (as long as you don’t bake them into a pie, of course).
I’ll tell you all about the exciting new research on tart cherries in a moment. But first, it’s interesting to look at the history and folklore of this popular fruit.
Cherries’ surprising family tree
Wild cherries are actually members of the plum family. And we all know that dried plums—better known as prunes—have powerful medicinal properties.
But, of course, the government doesn’t like to acknowledge that. At a conference I organized and chaired in Washington, D.C. during the 1990s, I witnessed a dramatic debate between a FDA rep and the world-famous botanist Varro Tyler.
The FDA rep warned that we can never say that prune juice is a laxative. Dr. Tyler dared him to drink a bottle of prune juice there and then, and still try to claim it was not a laxative. Of course, the FDA flack didn’t drink the prune juice. But he and his successors all drink the Kool-Aid when it comes to their anti-scientific and anti-common sense regulations.
Prunes don’t get “grandfathered” (or “grandmothered”) past these ridiculous regulations even though they’ve been used as laxatives for a very long time—and are certainly safer than the packaged commercial laxatives relentlessly marketed for “regularity” to people who don’t need them.
Like prunes, cherries are one of nature’s original dietary supplements. The wild cherry is thought to be a natural hybrid between the sweet cherry and another species grown in or near Persia.
The tart fruit was cultivated around the Caspian and Black Seas and introduced to the Greeks by Alexander the Great. The Romans then discovered it and passed it on to the Britons more than 2,000 years ago.
Around 1640, Massachusetts Bay colonists planted the first cherry tree in America. Of course, by the 1700s, cherry trees had spread south to the Potomac River, where George Washington introduced them into American folklore. However, the famous cherry trees that grow in Washington, D.C. today were actually a gift from Japan before World War II. They are about the only thing that still blooms in that blighted location.
Tart cherry studies show sweet benefits
The most well-known use of tart cherries is to relieve the symptoms of gout. The famous medicinal botanist Jim Duke, PhD, formerly of the USDA Agricultural Research Center, told me that cherry juice is the best treatment for inflammation of the joints caused by gout, and there’s plenty of research to back him up.
In recent years, tart cherry research has blossomed even further. Here’s a look at the most fruitful findings.
Cardiovascular disease. Mice that were given tart cherry powder for five months had significantly reduced C-reactive protein and hardening of the arteries—risk factors for heart disease and stroke. In addition, the cherry-eating mice lived longer than their counterparts. Researchers believe these effects are due to reductions in inflammation—a well-recognized risk factor for cardiovascular disease.1
Insomnia. People ages 59 to 77 with insomnia were given either 8 ounces of tart cherry juice twice a day for two weeks, or another type of fruit juice. Researchers found that the cherry juice drinkers slept nearly an hour and a half longer per night, on average, than the people who drank the other kind of juice.2
Obesity. Rats that were fed tart cherry powder for just three months had lower body weight and fat mass than their non-cherry eating counterparts. They also had fewer markers of cancer risk. Because chronic inflammation is linked to obesity, researchers believe the rats’ weight loss was due to tart cherries’ anti-inflammatory properties.3
Diabetes. Rats given tart cherry powder for eight weeks had improved blood sugar and insulin balance—key factors in the prevention of diabetes.4
The popular wild cherry varieties grown today ripen in mid to late summer. While it may be getting a little late this year to find the fresh fruit, frozen and dried tart cherries are available year round. So is tart cherry juice, but it’s best used in moderation because of its high sugar content. There are some tart cherry juices with no added sugar—dilute them in seltzer if you’re not a fan of puckered lips.
However, to get enough of the active ingredients in wild cherries, I suggest not relying on cherry juice alone, but also to use extracts, syrups, and dietary supplements.
Because much of the research so far has been done on animals, I can’t recommend an optimal daily dosage of tart cherries or cherry supplements. It’s best to work with a physician who is knowledgeable about natural remedies to help you determine the best use for your particular needs
A different kind of “cherry” with powerful healing potential
Winter cherry, also known as ashwagandha, has long been used in India’s Ayurvedic medicine tradition.
Winter cherry is not actually a cherry at all. Rather, it’s a member of the plant family that includes Chinese lantern and Jerusalem cherry. But that doesn’t make it any less medicinal than its wild cherry cousin. In fact, its Latin name is Withania somniferum, which implies the same sleep-inducing power as wild cherry.
Winter cherry/ashwagandha has been used for centuries as an effective remedy for joint inflammation. It’s so powerful, in fact, that I recommend it instead of the tired old glucosamine and chondroitin supplements, which have never really worked for joints.
To keep your joints at their healthiest, I recommend 500 mg a day of ashwagandha, together with two other Ayurvedic remedies: boswellia (450 mg a day) and turmeric (200 mg a day).
1Seymour EM, et al. Tart cherry-enriched diets reduce atherosclerosis and mortality in mice. FASEB J. April 2011. 25 (Meeting Abstract Supplement) 980.10.
2Liu A, et al. Tart cherry juice increases sleep time in older adults with insomnia. April 2014. The FASEB Journal, vol. 28 no. 1 Supplement 830.9.
3Seymour EM, et al. Tart cherry intake reduces plasma and tissue inflammation in obesity-prone rats. FASEB J. April 2010. 24 (Meeting Abstract Supplement) 335.1.
4Stull A, et al. Tart cherries improve glucose tolerance and insulin signaling in obese Zucker rats. April 2014. The FASEB Journal vol. 28 no. 1 Supplement 121.4.