Fighting off insomnia can be a demanding and frustrating task. People will often give vague suggestions, or suggest things you’ve tried that don’t work. The main way to combat insomnia without spending a good sum of money is simply to change your lifestyle, and it may not be clear where those changes need to be made. Some people opt for sleep tracking and scheduling; others try to exercise more while hoping to get physically exhausted enough that they can quickly fall asleep. The more desperate will use their alcohol supply to self-medicate, which can lead to all sorts of complications. On top of that, it’s hard to clearly isolate what’s causing your insomnia, since there are so many possible factors in both our lifestyle and chemical balance.
Prescription and over-the-counter medication often lead to undesirable side-effects. Some sleep medication has side-effects that ruin your sleep cycles, which is about as counterproductive as it sounds. To avoid this, a lot of people seek out all-natural sleep aids and dietary methods to fight off insomnia without risking their health in some unforeseen way. A common ingredient mentioned in a lot of recipes and medical articles is tart cherry juice. If public opinion is to be believed, it’s supposed to help deal with insomnia (and some other health-related issues, like muscle repair), both when consumed regularly and when ingested as part of a diet supplement or sleep aid. In this article, we will examine these claims to see if tart cherry juice really does help insomniacs sleep easier. Let’s begin.
Tart Cherry Juice as a Melatonin Supplement
The vast majority of natural sleep aids try to affect your melatonin production. Melatonin is typically called the “sleep hormone” in layman speak, as it helps your body regulate your natural sleep cycle. When your body decides it’s time to go to bed, more and more melatonin starts getting produced to induce drowsiness so you can fall asleep. Once you wake up, cortisol is instead produced to get you properly energized for daily activities.
Insomnia and other sleep-related problems can often stem from disrupted melatonin production. For example, alcohol consumption can seriously slow down melatonin production, crippling it by as much as 20% after moderate drinking. Other habits or conditions can affect how fast you produce melatonin, which can keep you awake for longer and thus make you tired during the day, forming a sort of vicious cycle of sleep deprivation. So how do tart cherries fit into all of this?
Semi-recently, melatonin was discovered in concentrated amounts in a variety of edible plants. Tart cherries are one of them, especially the Montmorency variety, which boast a six times higher melatonin percentage than another good candidate (Balaton cherries). Logically, this would make tart cherry juice a good substance for inducing sleep faster. This beneficial effect was confirmed in several studies where patients with insomnia were given tart cherry juice. It even performed better than most melatonin and valerian root supplements. However, we were just talking about sleep onset. What about the quantity and quality of sleep among people who consume tart cherries?
Tart Cherry Juice and Sleep Quality
Most of the time when sleep aids are talked about, the only thing anyone mentions is sleep onset latency – the time it takes a person to fall asleep. However, if that were all that mattered, then getting drunk would be an even more popular option for insomniacs and people with sleep deprivation in general. The main reason alcohol is considered counterproductive is that while it certainly does help you fall asleep faster, it ruins the quality of that rest and leaves you feeling drained and exhausted when you wake up. You want to make sure that your diet supplement or sleep aid also enhances the restorative function of sleep so that you can remain energized and healthy during the day.
Tart cherry juice has recently been tested for effectiveness as a natural sleep enhancer, and its performance has been noted in more than one area. Patients aged 50 or older had a staggering 84-minute increase in total sleep time after drinking two glasses of tart cherry juice per day (once after waking up, and once in the evening, right before bed).
Apparently, it’s not just the melatonin component that makes tart cherries and their juice a good sleep aid. They also contain strong amounts of procyanidins and anthocyanins. These chemicals aren’t exclusive to tart cherries, but they contribute to this healthy cocktail of sleep-enhancing properties, as they have an anti-inflammatory effect. A theory has popped up claiming that chemicals inside tart cherries prevent tryptophan from being fully broken down. Tryptophan assists in melatonin and serotonin production, so the effects on the consumer’s melatonin levels are strong enough to make a difference in their sleep quality. The degradation of tryptophan has been directly linked to insomnia in the past.
Are There Any Downsides to Tart Cherry Juice?
All of this sounds amazing so far, we know. And when you’re presented with an option this good, the first question in a lot of people’s minds is often “So what’s the catch?” Well, the studies we’ve told you about have not examined any potential risks with frequently drinking tart cherry juice. For example, if you have diabetes, the sugar found (in small but not insignificant amounts) in tart cherry juice could pose a problem.
Additionally, the studies were mainly focused on middle-aged and older adults with insomnia. Although they’re not entirely representative of the general population, these demographics experience the biggest inconveniences and problems as a result of insomnia. Their immune system gets compromised, and conditions such as Alzheimer’s or dementia get worse. Younger people don’t have these problems, or they’re much less severe, so treating seniors is considered a high priority due to those health risks.
Consuming too much tart cherry juice or including tart cherries in your cooked dishes too often can result in digestive problems, as the cherries contain sorbitol. Sorbitol is a sugar that is naturally indigestible and can have a laxative effect if consumed in excess. Additionally, you can experience gas and stomach cramping, which is obviously not something you want while you’re trying to fall asleep through insomnia.
Extra Benefits of Drinking Tart Cherry Juice
Being able to fix your sleep cycles by itself is already a huge selling point for tart cherry juice. But there are more upsides to consuming this juice, especially if you’re an athlete. For example, weightlifters often have to deal with muscle damage, as their strength exercises are very intense. Montmorency tart cherry juice helps attenuate the oxidative damage caused to the muscle by the intense exercise. The chemicals inside tart cherries also help alleviate joint pain and inflammation for patients dealing with osteoarthritis. Long-distance runners such as marathon runners often have to deal with acute muscle pain. As a result, they suffer from inflammation, and their legs can’t put out as much force as they normally would. The chemical compounds inside tart cherries have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties that directly counter this hindrance if the tart cherry juice is consumed regularly for a period before the strenuous exercise. The result is significantly reduced pain after each run, and since this is a primary point of concern for many runners, tart cherry juice is a welcome addition to their diet. Keep in mind, no matter what your athletic discipline, don’t treat tart cherry juice as a pre-exercise power-up drink. It has to be a regular part of your diet for at least a week straight before your sports event. The longer you can maintain the habit, the better the effect is.
If you regularly have to deal with jet lag, tart cherry juice can serve as both an all-natural remedy and a way to stay refreshed while traveling. It is also considered helpful in cases where the person is dealing with gout.
Here’s the thing, though. Not every cherry is a good melatonin supplement, and there are many brands that may declare massive health benefits on their packaging, without being able to back that up in testing. Tart cherries such as Montmorency (our recommendation), Balaton, Richmond, and English Morello cherries provide the best results. Avoid sweet cherries if you’re simply looking for health benefits as their effects are minor at best. Additionally, steer clear of any package that says “cocktail” on it. Even if there is some tart cherry juice in there, there are also some other varieties that weaken the sleep-enhancing effects you want. Always go for sugar-free juice.
Note: While tart cherry juice is an excellent food item to include in your diet, make sure it fits in with the planned caloric intake if you’re worried about weight loss. It’s not too hard to plan ahead for it since an 8-ounce serving of tart cherry juice contains around 128 calories. Regardless of your weekly caloric intake, don’t expect tart cherry juice to act as a miracle fix-all medicine if your diet is normally unhealthy. For example, it won’t help you sleep if you have a nasty alcohol habit or if you consume way too many caffeinated products such as coffee, tea or chocolate. Every major change in how healthy you are demands a sacrifice somewhere else.
Tart Cherry Juice Versus Other Sleep Aids
Tart cherry juice is far from the only recommended sleep aid out there. If you consult your doctor (which you should always do if you’re dealing with insomnia), you will be pointed towards an extensive list of options, including prescription medication. Natural sleep aids often come without nasty side-effects and aren’t extremely costly. And the best ones often include tart cherry juice to some degree, as it’s an all-in-one package of sleep-enhancing effects. This makes those natural sleep aids the best of both worlds, in a way.
OTC and prescription medication tend to have the strongest effect, but it can cause unwanted side-effects or addiction. The general rule with this type of sleep aid is to start with a lower dosage at first. Consult your doctor to figure out a nice dosage to use, and then gradually increase if the problems persist or you stop feeling the effect of your medicine. If the drug has an addiction risk, we strongly recommend switching to something else.
If you’re at your wit’s end after fighting with insomnia for a long time, nothing can help you as much as CBT-I therapy. This is a special technique used to isolate the problematic factors in your sleeping environment that cause or strengthen the effects of insomnia. It involves maintaining a sleep journal and, once the underlying causes of insomnia are identified, steps are taken to improve the quantity and quality of the patient’s sleep. These steps include stimulus control, sleep restrictions, and may or may not include taking special medication. CBT-I therapy isn’t something you can just do without making a commitment, so if your schedule is overbooked, consider sticking to simpler methods until you can afford the time.
Important Note: Always consult your physician about any sleep aid you wish to try. You can do an ingredient check together to find anything you may be allergic to, and make sure any medications you’re already taking won’t make a bad cocktail with this new sleep aid. Most doctors get asked about sleep aids a lot, so you’re almost guaranteed to be recommended something that works extremely well. If you feel any discomfort as a result of these medications, alert your physician immediately so that you can swap as soon as possible.
Co-founder of Counting Sheep and Sleepaholic