Tart cherries, those little red bursts of flavor that are often baked into pies, may satisfy your sweet tooth, but did you know they are also packed with nutritional benefits? Tart cherries are a particularly rich source of a class of antioxidants called anthocyanins, phytochemicals that are responsible for the red, purple, and blue colors of many fruits and vegetables. Anthocyanins have a proven anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effect and research is finding that these colorful compounds go a long way to support cardiovascular health.
Our understanding of cardiovascular disease and its causes has changed dramatically in recent years and while there is still much to learn, one factor that has clearly emerged as an underlying cause is chronic inflammation. This is where anthocyanins come into play. Tart cherries (and their high anthocyanin content) have been found to inhibit inflammatory COX-1 and COX-2 enzyme activity and to lower C-reactive protein (CRP), a marker of chronic inflammation.
In addition to their role in lowering inflammation, anthocyanins also play the role of antioxidant, protecting LDL cholesterol from oxidation. This is important because damaged LDL cholesterol can lodge in artery walls, leading to arterial plaque. Anthocyanins have also been found to be powerful scavengers of the free radical nitric oxide, a short-lived neurotransmitter in the body that promotes vasodilation (the relaxing and widening of blood vessels). Nitric oxide-induced vasodilation can contribute to lowering blood pressure, which can certainly be beneficial, but excess nitric oxide can damage the arteries.
A study of healthy older men and women found that tart cherry juice extract provided significant protection from oxidative damage caused by ischemia, a restriction of blood supply to tissues related to blood vessel dysfunction. Another study looked at the effect of dietary anthocyanins on the blood vessels of 1,898 women in the United Kingdom. Anthocyanin intake was associated with less stiffness and thickness of the arterial walls, as well as lower central blood pressure, blood pressure measured in the aorta (central blood pressure has been shown to have a stronger correlation to vascular disease compared to blood pressure measured in the upper arm). The authors concluded that higher anthocyanin consumption could be used as a strategy to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.
Beyond cardiovascular health, researchers have also found that tart cherries reduce inflammation and pain associated with osteoarthritis. They also appear to improve recovery time after intense exercise by reducing inflammation and pain. And in addition to containing anthocyanins, tart cherries also contain melatonin, the “sleep” hormone. One study found that daily consumption of tart cherry juice for one week significantly increased melatonin levels and improved quality of sleep in both male and female subjects. You can get the benefits of this versatile super fruit by drinking tart cherry juice or by taking a tart cherry supplement.