Move aside, warm milk. There’s another beverage that belongs in your bedtime wind-down routine: tart cherry juice.
Long thought to boost athletic performance, the ruby-red drink may also have the power to alleviate sleep struggles. It has become the secret weapon for better sleep and activity performance among athletes, from marathon cyclists to Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman, who even signed on in 2017 as a brand ambassador for tart cherry juice brand Cheribundi.
Here’s what to know about the benefits of tart cherry juice for sleep, according to scientific research and sleep specialists.
What Are the Benefits of Tart Chery Juice?
Tart cherry juice comes from a variety of sour cherries called Montmorency. They’re grown in Canada, Europe, and the U.S, primarily in parts of Michigan and Wisconsin. More research has been conducted on Montmorency tart cherries than any other cherry varietal.
Tart cherry juice is similar in color to cranberry juice with a pucker-inducing sourness. Some producers cut the tartness of the juice by blending it with apple juice, but purists just drink it straight.
Tart cherry juice (or its various forms, including powders and capsules) has been shown to have benefits for a variety of conditions, including diabetes, cholesterol levels, heart disease, anxiety, arthritis, and other afflictions that are influenced by inflammation and oxidative stress.
For people who like gains, tart cherry juice is also known for its positive effect on exercise performance. A meta-analysis shows that tart cherry juice helps with muscle function, from reducing damage to soreness. A small 2015 study also looked at marathon runners who drank tart cherry juice or a placebo, and saw that for the group who drank tart cherry juice, there was less indication of upper respiratory tract infection. This suggests that tart cherry juice as a good option for athletes who compete in long endurance exercises.
We also know how important sleep is for full-body recovery, and tart cherry juice helps with that as well. In addition to being a natural source of melatonin, tart cherry juice can improve quality and duration of sleep.
How Does Tart Cherry Juice Impact Sleep and Muscle Recovery?
1. It may reduce symptoms of insomnia
One 2010 study found that when older adults with chronic insomnia drank eight ounces of tart cherry juice in both the morning and at bedtime, they reported fewer insomnia symptoms, including time awake after sleep onset.
The researchers concluded that tart cherry juice was just as effective for insomnia as melatonin or valerian root, two highly studied substances generally accepted as natural sleep aids.
2. It can boost sleep time
Another report built upon these findings and found that drinking approximately eight ounces of tart cherry juice an hour or two before bedtime for two weeks helped adults with chronic insomnia. Using a comprehensive sleep test that records brain waves and other functions and questionnaires for both an objective and subjective view of participants, they found that drinking tart cherry juice boosted sleep time — by nearly an hour and a half! — and sleep efficiency (that is, the time in bed actually spent asleep compared to time awake in bed).
Results in younger adults are just as promising. In a 2012 study, healthy younger adults had better sleep duration and quality after just one week of drinking tart cherry juice concentrate twice a day.
3. It has lower risk than melatonin and prescription sleep aids
Compared to supplemental melatonin, tart cherry juice may have fewer negative effects on working memory and cognitive function. However, it’s worth noting that many studies on tart cherry juice and sleep have only involved a handful of people, so more research is needed to understand just how beneficial the beverage can be.
Despite this, many sleep experts are optimistic about exploring tart cherry juice for sleep.
“There’s very little risk of trying tart cherry juice for insomnia, and potentially big benefits for those who find it to be helpful,” says Dr. Katherine Green, medical director of the UCHealth Sleep Medicine Clinic at the University of Colorado Hospital and assistant professor and director of sleep surgery at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
“Trying a non-invasive and safe substance like tart cherry juice may be a very appropriate first step for sleep issues before jumping into a prescription sleep aid or something that does have potential side effects.”
OK, But How Does Tart Cherry Juice Work?
Researchers haven’t figured out a clear-cut answer as to why tart cherry juice can help people drift off with ease, but some experts think it might have to do with the melatonin in the beverage.
“Melatonin is the key that starts the engine for sleep,” says Dr. Michael J. Breus, a clinical psychologist who is both a diplomate of the American Board of Sleep Medicine and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. “Tart cherry juice works in the same way as if you added a melatonin supplement to your diet in the evenings.”
Green also points to tart cherry juice’s ability to suppress an enzyme that breaks down tryptophan. That essential amino acid is important in the production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in sleep.
Tart cherry juice also has anti-inflammatory properties that may, in turn, help make it a little easier for people with certain chronic conditions and pain to get some shuteye. These are the same properties that can also help with exercise-related muscle pain and recovery.
“There’s good evidence to show that things like chronic pain and chronic inflammatory conditions, like autoimmune disorders, tend to be a disruptor of sleep quality and can lead to sleep fragmentation,” Green explains. “The idea that something that reduces an inflammatory state in the body can improve sleep is not a novel concept.”
How You Can Use Tart Cherry Juice for Better Sleep
If you’re looking to incorporate tart cherry juice into your sleep routine, try replicating the dosage and timing in the above studies by sipping eight ounces an hour or two before bedtime, says Breus. You can also try drinking tart cherry juice when you wake up, too.
Some people love the ultra-tart flavor of the juice, while others have a hard time adjusting to the taste. If you fall into the latter camp, you could try mixing the tart cherry juice into a smoothie or diluting it with sparkling water to make it more palatable. The one thing you shouldn’t do is turn it into a nightcap, warns Breus.
“While alcohol is the number one sleep aid in the world, it’s not a good one. It destroys your sleep, particularly in stages three and four of sleep, and you’ll feel terrible,” he says.
You'll also want to make sure the tart cherry juice you drink come from healthy, clean sources. Cherries are on the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list for having two pesticides or more. Looking for cherry juice that is made from farms that don't use pesticides can help.
There’s no guarantee that tart cherry juice will be a miracle for your insomnia, but it has the potential to help. As you experiment with the drink, keep track of any changes in how quickly you fall asleep, how long you sleep, and how rested you feel in the morning to see if it’s working for you.
“Tart cherry juice is a good example of something that we have limited but legitimate evidence that shows that it may be helpful for sleep and causes almost no harm,” says Green. “If someone wants to try it as a first step, I say go for it.”
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