Tart cherry juice: a potential anti-inflammatory aid for athletes

Many athletes say they drink tart cherry juice to help with inflammation and muscle pain. Members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team drink it for exercise recovery.

Tart cherries, particularly Montmorency cherries, and their juice contain antioxidants and have anti-inflammatory properties. And studies have shown that tart cherry juice may help prevent muscle damage after excessive or prolonged exercise, reduce pain for some people with fibromyalgia, and decrease inflammation for some people with osteoarthritis.

Tart cherries

One randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of 54 healthy runners showed that athletes who drank tart cherry juice – one 12-ounce bottle twice daily for seven days before a race – to help prevent pain from muscle exertion had “a significantly smaller increase in pain” than those in the placebo group.

“The equivalency of the pain reduction was … about 800 milligrams of ibuprofen,” said Kerry Kuehl, an internist and chief of health promotion and sports medicine at Oregon Health & Science University, who led the study.

A systematic review and meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism analyzed 14 studies on tart cherry supplementation, including juice, powder and other forms. The findings showed a small effect in reducing muscle soreness and a moderate effect in aiding muscle strength recovery. Some blood markers for muscle damage or inflammation in the body also saw a small reduction.

“The key with cherries or cherry juice is trying to figure out what the right dose is, which is going to be dependent on the product and how potent it is,” said Malachy McHugh, a physiologist and director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma at Northwell Health, who wrote his own review on the effects of cherry juice on exercise recovery.

While some research appears promising, experts said, the studies typically have been small, have focused on exercise recovery and have looked at tart cherry juice as a preventive measure, not a treatment. Also, some studies were funded by the cherry industry.

Large-scale studies would be needed to prove that tart cherries or tart cherry juice has any pharmacological benefit, said Pieter Cohen, an internist at Cambridge Health Alliance and associate professor at Harvard Medical School.

Researchers have studied sweet cherries, too, and the findings suggest that they may have health benefits as well, including in reducing inflammation.

Tart or sweet, cherries alone would have only a minor anti-inflammatory effect, said Kuehl, who specializes in nutrition.

“But in concert together, when you eat an anti-inflammatory diet, my personal opinion is that it will incur a significant anti-inflammatory effect,” he said.

Kuehl said other foods that are rich in flavonoids and phenolic content, which provide the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, include a wide range of fruits and vegetables, fish oil, flaxseed, curcumin or turmeric, and green tea.

Try to avoid foods that may lead to inflammation such as processed carbohydrates, processed and smoked meats, and alcohol, he said.

The bottom line:

Small studies suggest that when used preventively, tart cherries – more specifically, tart cherry juice – may help with inflammation and muscle damage associated with muscle exertion after strenuous exercise. Experts say, however, that more comprehensive studies are needed.