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Tart Cherries for Insomnia

The melatonin content in certain plant foods such as almonds, raspberries and goji berries may explain the improvement in sleep quality associated with tart cherry consumption.

July 22, 2013 |
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Supplementary Info

Sources Cited

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D. A. J. Connolly, M. P. McHugh, O. I. Padilla-Zakour, L. Carlson, S. P. Sayers. Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med 2006 40(8):679 - 683

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Acknowledgements

Images thanks to joka2000 and Donovan & Meggin Eastman via Flickr; Aadx, Rumun999, User:FoeNyx, Nataraja, J. Dncsn, Softeis, Sanjay Acharya, and www.bluewaikiki.com via Wikimedia Commons; and Dr Frank Gaillard.

Transcript

We know that not sleeping enough is associated with changes in diet—people tend to eat worse, but what about the opposite question-- can food affect sleep? We saw from the kiwifruit study that this seemed possible, but the mechanism they suggested for the effect—the serotonin levels in kiwifruit, doesn't make any sense, since serotonin can't cross the blood-brain barrier. So you can eat all the serotonin you want and it shouldn't affect your brain chemistry. A different brain chemical, though, melatonin, can get from our gut to our brain.

Melatonin is a hormone secreted at night to help regulate our circadian rhythms by the pineal gland in the center of our brain. Supplements of the stuff are used to prevent and reduce jet lag, and about 20 years ago MIT got the patent to use melatonin to help people sleep. Melatonin is not only produced in the pineal gland, though, but is also naturally present in edible plants.

That might explain the results of this study, the Effects of a Tart Cherry Juice Beverage on the Sleep of Older Adults with Insomnia. This research group had been doing an earlier study on tart cherry juice as a sports recovery drink. See, there's a phytonutrient in cherries with anti-inflammatory effects on par with drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen, so they were trying to see they could help reduce muscle soreness after exercise and some of the participants in the study just anecdotally said they were sleeping better on the cherries. That was unexpected, but the researchers realized that cherries are a plant food source of melatonin, so they put them to the test.

The reason they chose older subjects is that melatonin production tends to drop as we age, which may be one reason why there’s a higher insomnia rate in the elderly. So, they took a group of older men and women suffering from chronic insomnia and put half on cherries and half on placebo. Now they couldn't use whole cherries for the study, because how could you fool people with a placebo cherry? So they used cherry juice versus "cherry Koolaid," and found significant but modest improvements in sleep. Some, for example, fell to sleep a few minutes faster and had 17 fewer minutes of waking after sleep onset, meaning waking up in the middle of the night. So it was no insomnia cure, but it helped without side effects.

How do we know it was the melatonin, though? They repeated the study, this time measuring the melatonin levels and indeed saw a boost in circulating melatonin levels after the cherry juice, but not after the koolaid. Similar results were found in people eating the actual cherries—7 different varieties, boosting melatonin levels and actual sleep times. The effects of all the other phytonutrients in cherries can't be precluded, maybe they helped too, but if it is the melatonin, there are more potent sources than cherries.

Orange bell peppers, an ounce of walnuts. A tablespoon of flaxseeds has about as much as a tomato, all less than the tart cherries, but people may eat a lot more tomatoes than cherries, especially tart cherries. Sweet cherries have 50 times less melatonin than tart. Dried cherries appear to have none.

In fact the melatonin content of tomatoes was suggested as one of the reasons traditional Mediterranean diets were so healthy.

A few spices are pretty potent, just a teaspoon of fenugreek seeds, or mustard seeds has as much as a few tomatoes, but the bronze, silver, and gold go to almonds, raspberries, and goji berries off the chart.

Now even gojis just have 15 micrograms an ounce, but melatonin is potent stuff. You inject 10 into people you can boost their blood levels 50 fold in 5 minutes.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by Ariel Levitsky.

To help out on the site please email volunteer@nutritionfacts.org

Dr. Michael Greger

Doctor's Note

The mention of kiwifruit is in reference to Friday's video of the day Kiwifruit for Insomnia.

I've previously explored Human Neurotransmitters in Plants in the context of boosting serotonin levels in the brain to improve mood. See:

Melatonin may also play a role in cancer prevention. See Melatonin & Breast Cancer.

Aren't goji berries really expensive, though? Not if you buy them as lycium berries. Check out my video Are Goji Berries Good for You?

For some context, please also check out my associated blog post:  Raspberries Reverse Precancerous Lesions and Two Kiwifruit an Hour Before Bedtime and Foods with Natural Melatonin.

If you haven't yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

  • Gregg Stern

    Shouldn’t the title be Gogi Berries & Raspberries for Insomnia? Was your point that these 2 should have even a bigger impact on sleep than tart cherries but tart cherries had the research?

    • http://nutritionfacts.org/ Michael Greger M.D.

      Great question! If the reason tart cherries work is the melatonin content (as the researchers speculate) then indeed one would assume gojis and raspberries would work even better. But that’s a big if. We’re not sure why the tart cherries work. But fingers crossed Big Berry will fund some research and we’ll have your answer! :)

      • Gregg Stern

        Thanks.

      • GreenSmoothie

        Dr G,
        The question about whether goji berries need to be fresh or will dried gojis work is valid. Any research on this?

      • AliceJ

        Great stuff! Thank you. If gojis have 15 melatonin micrograms an
        ounce, how many dried goji berries should one consume — pre-bedtime — to adequately boost brain melatonin levels? Thanks, again.

  • Cynthia

    But do dried goji have the high melatonin or only fresh? There was apparently none in dried cherries.

    • Goji girl

      Goji berry juice is brilliant, I have been drinking it for 7 years, the dried berries don’t have the active polysaccharides in them.

  • Terri

    Thanks for another great video! I’m curious as to the serving size of the “gold, silver, and bronze” of melatonin foods mentioned. Also, do you know if the sweet cherries tested were fresh whole cherries, or was it a sweet juice? Surprising they had “50 times less” melatonin than tart cherries. Sweet whole bing cherries a have worked wonders for me in the past! :)

  • ko

    “Now they couldn’t use whole cherries for the study, because how could you fool people with a placebo cherry? “…simple: order chinese cherries lol

  • Stephen Lucker Kelly

    What about calamine tea? It makes me tired. It also relaxes me too.

  • Stephen Lucker Kelly

    To do a placebo you could make two smoothies. One with cherries and one with something else, and then they might not be sure if it had cherries in. They then would not know if it would work or not. As long as both where a similar colour and a food was used to masks the taste of cherries. They would never be sure it had cherries in.

  • Thea

    A lot of people have smoothies for breakfast. Perhaps those with insomnia problems should try having their berry smoothies for dinner instead. Would be interesting to see what happens.

    Or maybe it doesn’t matter. I didn’t catch how long the extra melatonin stays in the body. So, maybe having it for breakfast is just fine.

    • veggivet

      You are better off getting your melatonin shortly before you plan on going to sleep.

      • Thea

        Thanks for the clarification! I’ll pass that on to a family member who has sleep issues.

  • Coacervate

    OK if that works for people great. I do wish to sound a warning because I suffer horribly with long stretches of wakefulness on alternate nights. I read about the decline in melatonin as folks enter geezerdom so I started taking 3 mg tabs. I immediately got soooo depressed I just knew it was the pill. I am normally quite giddy. In desperation I tried it again some weeks later and sure enough, the world turned grey and I had to stop even though I was sleeping soundly.

    FWIW, recently my sainted spousal unit forced me to do a 10 min workout she got off Dr Oz (whom I’ve seen but don’t trust). Anyway we are a week into it and I seem to be sleeping much better. I hate exercise but really this is quite painless and she always makes me laugh with the rabbit thing…you have to see it to understand but I still don’t. The back pain is better too. hmmmm.

    heres the link if you want to try it:
    http://www.doctoroz.com/videos/tony-hortons-10-minute-workout

    • Coacervate

      Please diregard the second (bottom) url…I don’t know where that came from? looks phishy to me.

    • Lloyd

      Hey Coacervate,

      I’m sorry to hear about your experience. I take melatonin pills from time to time and have never experienced any mood changes or negative effects. I also read, “Melatonin: Nature’s Sleeping Pill” by Ray Sahelian (http://www.amazon.com/Melatonin-Natures-Sleeping-Ray-Sahelian/dp/0895297752), and I found it an honest portrayal of this hormone pill: he listed both bad and good experiences, but they were overwhelmingly good. Some people close to me also use it from time to time and it works very well for them.

      However, I’m glad you found a different remedy regardless.

  • BPCveg

    Dr. Greger,
    What if you added a section to NF with recommended meal plans and recipes, which could be linked to specific videos and blog entries. I am sure many of your followers would be interested in hearing how you put all this great science into practice. This could be a section of your website that you update regularly with new discoveries (e.g. eating cherries at the end of the day for better sleep).

  • lovestobevegan

    Berry Berry Good Karma Bowl

    – ½ cup regular rolled oats
    – 1 cup water
    – ½ tsp Ceylon cinnamon http://nutritionfacts.org/video/the-safer-cinnamon/
    – ⅛ tsp each, ground cloves, ground ginger, nutmeg
    – 1/3 cup raspberries
    – 1/3 cup blackberries
    – 1/3 cup organic* blueberries
    – 24 almonds
    – 2 tbsp flaxseed meal^

    Bring water to a boil and cook oats with spices and fruit (only if using frozen fruit). Lower heat and simmer oats to desired consistency. Add remaining ingredients to a bowl and top with cooked oats. Stir and top with a sprinkling of uncooked oats and dash cinnamon.

    *Conventional blueberries were found to have the residues of 52 different pesticides so choose organic. http://www.whatsonmyfood.org/food.jsp?food=ST

    ^ Seeds need to be ground for proper digestion. A coffee or seed grinder works well or you can buy ground flaxseed meal.

    ~Complements of lovestobevegan

  • Tom M

    Sleep doctors recommend melatonin some 2-3 hours before bedtime (in pill form). How long before bed should the raspberries / goji berries be consumed for effectiveness?

  • Liya

    Thanks for the video! I’m going to try Goji, I’m willing to try anything for my insomnia by now. But do you think dried Goji will do the trick? and how much of it?
    Thanks!

  • Pizzicato

    If those foods can really rise your melatonin levels why do they not make you feel tired when they are eaten at daytime?

  • Noor Pekala

    Don’t know about the rest of the folks in this country but here in Californee ai ay no one ever hears of sour cherry unless it’s in a roll of life savers. I have lived for a while in Hungary where they have very real, killer 5 story sour cherry trees – mej (spelled there: megy), sour cherries they’re really a TINY bit sour or just taste ever so slightly different then regular cherries or cheresnee (spelled there: csereszni) like we have here. Now that’s the real Mc Coy, the genuine article, everyone talks about sour cherry but I can never find them! Where on earth besides Central Europe of course can a poor soul get fresh sour cherries here??? They’re to die for, I love ‘em!!

  • PeggyL

    Dr. Greger, I missed this video when you first posted it, so I don’t know if/when you will see this response. I am very interested in melatonin, though. I have a 4 year old grandson with autism. It usually takes him several hours for him to finally fall asleep each night and he often wakes up afterwards. Naturally, this just exacerbates his autistic symptoms and he is so tired when he gets up in the morning and off to school — it is heartbreaking to see how he has to struggle so each day (not to mention the wear and tear on his parents). He has been on a casein and gluten-free diet for a couple of years now. He eats pretty healthfully, at least compared to his peers, but introducing new food to him can be more than a little challenging. Recently, my daughter began giving him a melatonin supplement. It has worked like magic. He takes his bath, they read him a couple of stories and he happily goes to sleep, sleeps through the night, wakes up happy and refreshed in the morning. This is a life-changing event for all of them. Are there side effects to a melatonin supplement that we should be concerned about? I would be interested in your thoughts about this or resources you might point us to. I am so afraid that this is too good to be true. Thank you so much for all you do.

  • ML

    Does almond milk have the same effect (melatonin) as whole almonds?