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The Science Behind How Tart Cherries Help You Sleep

Certain foods are known for their sleep-inducing properties (Thanksgiving turkey, anyone?). And vice versa—most of us try to avoid that double espresso after dinner. But not all foods that promote healthy sleep are as well known. Take tart cherries, which research has shown are super-effective as a natural sleep aid.

Here’s what you need to know about tart cherries and the many sleep benefits they carry.

How tart cherries help you sleep

Tart cherries aren’t just the latest food fad: There’s real science behind them. In a study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, participants with insomnia were given either two eight-ounce glasses of tart cherry juice each day or a placebo drink. After two weeks, the participants who had received the cherry juice were sleeping for an average of 85 minutes longer each night. That’s almost an hour and a half—and that extra time could make a huge difference in someone’s quality of life.

Why do cherries help with sleep? According to Amy Goodson, RD, tart cherries contain high quantities of melatonin and tryptophan.

“Melatonin is that hormone that’s going to be responsible for making you feel sleepy,” she says. “Lots of people will actually take melatonin if they have trouble going to sleep. And tryptophan is an amino acid that causes fatigue; on Thanksgiving when everyone says, ‘Oh, it’s the turkey,’ that’s tryptophan.”

Tart cherries also contain a category of antioxidants called anthocyanins, which help the body create melatonin. Thanks to these antioxidants, cherries can help your body recover in multiple ways.

Additional health benefits of tart cherries

Helping you get better shut-eye isn’t the only thing tart cherries do. This powerhouse fruit has other benefits as well, such as promoting muscle recovery and reducing inflammation.

“Tart cherry juice is really nutrient-rich,” Goodson explains. “It’s got a lot of vitamins and minerals in it, and it’s really high in antioxidants.” Tart cherries have a lot of vitamin A and vitamin C, both of which are high in antioxidants.

She says to think of it as an old-fashioned Pac-Man game: Antioxidants are the good guys (the Pac-Man) and they eat up the bad guys (the excessive amounts of free radicals, which damage cells, in your body).

Some research even suggests that tart cherry juice can reduce symptoms of arthritis; in one study, twice-a-day doses of juice resulted in significantly less pain and inflammation in people with osteoarthritis. Antioxidants help reduce inflammation, and they also boost your immune system to fight off disease and illness. For older people, exercise might be difficult due to joint pain, but tart cherry juice could help reduce that pain and promote recovery after a workout.

How to add tart cherries to your diet for better sleep

Goodson recommends focusing on tart cherry juice rather than trying to eat dried or frozen cherries; drinking is a much more efficient way to get in those nutrients.

“Depending on the brand of tart cherry juice that you purchase, usually an eight-ounce glass has the equivalent of anywhere from 40-60 cherries in it,” she explains. “That would be a lot harder to eat.”

Goodson points out that tart cherries are so named for a reason—they can make your mouth pucker. So tart cherry juice is the best option all around.

Try adding tart cherry juice to a smoothie by mixing it with yogurt and protein powder; that’s a great post-workout snack to get the protein and carbs you need to recover. The combination of protein and carbs helps keep blood sugar levels stable, which can ensure you don’t wake up in the middle of the night.

You can also simply mix whey protein and tart cherry juice together. And if you work out in the morning, a glass of tart cherry juice with breakfast can get those antioxidants in and kickstart your day in the best way.

How much tart cherry juice should you consume? Research suggests 16 ounces a day is the optimal amount to start seeing benefits. Goodson adds, however, that it’s important to stay aware of the calorie count: “An eight-ounce serving of tart cherry juice has around 120 calories in it and around 28 grams of carbohydrates,” she says. “So if you’re going to consume 16 ounces of tart cherry juice, you also just have to consider consuming that 240 calories as well.”

Looking for more ways to get some extra shut-eye? Check out these nine surprising things to help you sleep.

Hailey Hudson is a full-time freelance writer and content marketer based out of Atlanta. She writes primarily about marketing, fitness, health, and education for clients such as Mailup, Sitejabber, and Barnes & Noble Education. In her spare time, Hailey writes YA novels, snuggles with her cat, and dances in local theater productions.