Tart Cherries for Insomnia

Tart Cherries for Insomnia
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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.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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 twenty years ago, MIT got the patent to use melatonin to help people sleep. Melatonin is not only produced in the pineal gland, though, but also is “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.” The 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 if they could help reduce muscle soreness after exercise. And, some of the participants in the study just anecdotally said that 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 it 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 higher insomnia rates 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 fake placebo cherry? So, they used cherry juice versus cherry Kool-Aid, 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? Well, they repeated the study, this time measuring melatonin levels, and, indeed, saw a boost in circulating melatonin levels after the cherry juice—but not after the Kool Aid.

Similar results were found in people eating the actual cherries—seven 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 have a bit; an ounce of walnuts. A tablespoon of flax seeds has about as much as a tomato. All less than the tart cherries that were tested, but people may eat a lot more tomatoes than cherries—especially tart cherries. Sweet cherries have fifty times less melatonin than tart, and 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 about 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 have just 15 micrograms an ounce, but melatonin is potent stuff. You inject 10 into people, and you can boost their blood levels fifty-fold in five minutes.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

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 twenty years ago, MIT got the patent to use melatonin to help people sleep. Melatonin is not only produced in the pineal gland, though, but also is “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.” The 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 if they could help reduce muscle soreness after exercise. And, some of the participants in the study just anecdotally said that 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 it 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 higher insomnia rates 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 fake placebo cherry? So, they used cherry juice versus cherry Kool-Aid, 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? Well, they repeated the study, this time measuring melatonin levels, and, indeed, saw a boost in circulating melatonin levels after the cherry juice—but not after the Kool Aid.

Similar results were found in people eating the actual cherries—seven 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 have a bit; an ounce of walnuts. A tablespoon of flax seeds has about as much as a tomato. All less than the tart cherries that were tested, but people may eat a lot more tomatoes than cherries—especially tart cherries. Sweet cherries have fifty times less melatonin than tart, and 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 about 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 have just 15 micrograms an ounce, but melatonin is potent stuff. You inject 10 into people, and you can boost their blood levels fifty-fold in five minutes.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Images thanks to joka2000, BlueWaikiki, and Donovan & Meggin Eastman via flickr; Aadx, Rumun999, FoeNyx, Nataraja, J. Dncsn, Softeis, and Sanjay Acharya via Wikimedia; and Dr Frank Gaillard.

Nota del Doctor

The mention of kiwifruit is in reference to my video Kiwifruit for Insomnia.

I’ve previously explored boosting serotonin levels in the brain to improve mood (see Human Neurotransmitters in Plants). Also 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; see Are Goji Berries Good for You?

For further context, also check out my associated blog posts:  Raspberries Reverse Precancerous LesionsTwo 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.

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