In the United States, 70% of adults report insufficient sleep at least one night per week, with 11% reporting insufficient sleep every night. The numbers are so distressing that the Centers for Disease Control have declared insufficient sleep a public health epidemic. Over the last three decades, as the lines between work and our personal lives have blurred and digital technology has taken an ever-increasing role in our lives, the odds of sleep deprivation have increased. The National Institutes of Health predicts that by the middle of the 21st century, more than 100 million Americans will have trouble falling asleep.
During sleep, our bodies make metabolic, hormonal, cognitive and muscular repairs. Insufficient sleep, therefore, comes with a multitude of health risks, including weight gain, weakened immunity, increased risk of heart disease and diabetes, decreased muscle recovery, high blood pressure, low sex drive and memory issues. Enter one superhero of a superfood, shown to have an incredibly positive impact on our ability to sleep faster, longer and better: the tart cherry.
Also known as sour, dwarf or Montmorency cherries, tart cherries are native to southwest Asia and Europe but are now grown in mass quantities in Michigan. They are most often consumed dried, frozen or juiced, rather than fresh like their sweeter cousins, and tart cherry powder and extract is found in many supplements, like VitaHustle’s Reds & Greens. Consuming tart cherries in supplement form allows you to avoid the substantial amounts of added sugars used to make the extra-sour juice palatable.
Several studies have shown the power of the tart cherry as a sleep aid. A 2012 randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed consumption of tart cherry juice significantly increased melatonin levels, time in bed, total sleep time and total sleep efficiency, meaning less frequent wake-ups.
A 2014 study completed by researchers at Louisiana State University showed tart cherry juice is an effective treatment for insomnia in people over 50 years of age, because it increased sleep time (by a whopping 84 minutes!) and sleep efficiency.
Tart cherries are a natural source of melatonin, the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. They also contain anthocyanins – five times more than sweet cherries – which are the phytochemicals responsible for their ruby red color. In addition to being very anti-inflammatory, researchers believe the anthocyanins in tart cherry juice prevent the breakdown and increase the availability of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to serotonin, “the happy chemical,” which helps with sleep, and tryptophan also increases the body’s natural ability to make melatonin; tryptophan degradation is a known predictor of insomnia.
Side note: If you have heard of tryptophan, it’s likely due to Thanksgiving. The amino acid is present in turkey – and other meats, in roughly the same quantity – and is often blamed for your post-meal food coma.
While the amount of tryptophan in tart cherry juice is smaller than a dose that would be given to facilitate sleep, it is more effective than other sleep aids because the anthocyanins allow the tryptophan to work longer and more effectively in the body. So think about that, next time you reach for a prescription or over-the-counter sleeping pill.
Two More Notable Benefits Of Consuming Tart Cherries
Tart cherries can increase strength and reduce soreness
A 2010 study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition found that ingesting tart cherry juice for seven days prior to and during a strenuous running event reduced post-run muscle pain. The athletes also showed improved muscle recovery and function. Many subsequent studies have backed up these results, including a 2014 study published in the same journal that showed tart cherry can reduce muscle breakdown and soreness and speed recovery in during resistance training. The anthocyanins in tart cherries are believed to decrease soreness and speed recovery by decreasing excess inflammation.
Tart cherries improve brain function
It is well-documented that tart cherry juice has a positive effect on brain power. A 2013 study in the Journal of Medicinal Food showed Alzheimer’s patients given tart cherry extract performed better on cognitive tests. A 2017 study published in the European Journal of Nutrition showed cognitive improvement in dementia patients after supplementation with tart cherry juice. A 2019 study by researchers at the University of Delaware discovered that regular consumption of tart cherry improved cognitive abilities, including short- and long-term memory and decision-making skills. It is believed the anthocyanins in tart cherry juice reduce oxidative stress, degeneration and inflammation in the brain.