The Benefits of Berries and Cherries
Berries and cherries are powerful, health promoting foods—and I recommend including them in your daily diet.
What makes berries and cherries unique and beneficial? Berries and cherries are high in nutrients, phytochemicals, and fiber—all of which protect your health. Notably, berries have the highest nutrient-to-calorie ratio of all fruits.
Berries and cherries are full of beneficial phytochemicals, many of which act as antioxidants. Berries are some of the highest antioxidant-rich foods in existence and cherries—which are not berries, but rather a stone fruit (like peaches and plums)—are also rich in flavonoid antioxidant compounds.1,2
Antioxidants are critical for your health as they protect against oxidation and minimize damage to your cells from free radicals. Free radicals are molecules with unpaired electrons, so they are unstable, and can potentially injure cells, negatively affect genetic material and cause destructive chain reactions. Accumulated free radical damage over time ages the body and catalyze a host of chronic diseases, including heart disease and cancer.
Antioxidants can neutralize free radicals and slow or stop their reactions. Some familiar types of antioxidants we get from foods include vitamin C, vitamin E, the minerals selenium and manganese, and carotenoids like beta-carotene. Other types of antioxidants are called flavonoids. Flavonoids occur as pigments in fruits and flowers. Berries and cherries are abundant in flavonoids, which are concentrated in their skins and give rise to their deep hues of red, blue, and purple.3 Flavonoids are thought to have a number of additional beneficial effects in the body, beyond their antioxidant capacity. In fact, flavonoids, in contrast to other dietary antioxidants, are believed to contribute to health primarily due to their ability to modify cell signaling pathways, not their antioxidant capacity. Flavonoids affect pathways leading to changes in gene expression, detoxification, inhibition of cancer cell growth and proliferation, and inhibition of inflammation and other processes related to cancer and heart disease.4
Reduction in heart disease risk
Likely due to these cell signaling actions of flavonoids, several studies have shown that high flavonoid intake lowers the risk of heart disease by up to 45%.5-8 Berry and cherry flavonoids appear to act in several different ways to maintain heart health including by reducing inflammation, improving blood lipid, blood pressure, and blood sugar levels, and by preventing plaque formation.3,9,10
Protection against cancers
The antioxidants in berries and cherries help to protect against cancers. In studies conducted in the 1980s, ellagic acid, another type of antioxidant abundant in berries, blocked the formation of tumors, providing the initial evidence that these fruits were anti-cancer foods.11,12 Flavonoids have powerful anti-cancer effects including reducing inflammation, preventing damage to genetic material, preventing cancer cells from multiplying, slowing the growth of cancer cells, preventing tumors from acquiring a blood supply, and stimulating the body’s own antioxidant enzymes.13,14
Improvements in brain function
Berries are excellent foods for the brain. Substances present in blueberries can both reduce oxidative stress and improve communication between brain cells. Blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries have all been shown to slow or reverse age-related cognitive decline in animal studies, and blueberries have now been tested for their effects on human memory.15 Older adults with mildly impaired memory were given wild blueberry juice as a supplement, and after as little as 12 weeks, measures of learning and memory had improved.16 The antioxidants in cherries have also been shown to protect brain cells against oxidative stress, implying that eating cherries may help to prevent neurodegenerative diseases like dementia.1,17
Pain reduction and exercise recovery
Cherries have a unique anti-inflammatory function that may offer natural pain reduction. Cherry extracts inhibit the action of cyclooxygenase-1 (COX-1) and COX-2 enzymes. These enzymes are important components of the inflammatory process and the sensation of pain. These are the same enzymes that are inhibited by many common pain medications, such as ibuprofen and naproxen. In fact, the COX inhibitory activity of cherry flavonoids is comparable to that of equal concentrations of these medications.18,19 Cherries and cherry juice have eased symptoms of gout and arthritis in human subjects, and may also help athletes reduce post-workout muscle pain. Distance runners training for a race who drank tart cherry juice twice daily for 8 days (7 days prior to race plus race day) experienced less post-race pain than those who drank a placebo.20 Similarly in strength training workouts, those who drank tart cherry juice experienced less pain and strength loss over the four following days, compared to those in the placebo group.21
Improvements in sleep
Cherries may help you sleep. Tart cherries are one of the few food sources of the hormone and antioxidant melatonin, which regulates the sleep-wake cycle in the human brain.22 Tart cherry juice supplementation has been associated with improvements in sleep quality.23
Reductions in uric acid (gout)
Evidence has emerged that the anti-inflammatory effects of tart cherry juice could benefit those with gout. In this study, overweight and obese people consumed 8 ounces per day of tart cherry juice or took a placebo for 4 weeks. Those in the group who drank tart cherry juice experienced reductions in uric acid levels and inflammation markers.
In summary, berries and cherries are important components of a natural, high-nutrient diet. I recommend eating them daily to provide the body with protection against free radicals, inflammation, heart disease, and cancers. Include them as part of your variety of fruits, in addition to a bounty of vegetables, beans, nuts, and seeds, which together can provide an abundant and varied mix of antioxidants, further protecting your health.
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2. Phenolic compounds in sweet and sour cherries. Cornell University. http://ecsoc2.hcc.ru/ecsoc-2/dp260/dp260.htm. Accessed May 2, 2011.
3. Erdman JW, Jr., Balentine D, Arab L, et al: Flavonoids and heart health: proceedings of the ILSI North America Flavonoids Workshop, May 31-June 1, 2005, Washington, DC. The Journal of nutrition 2007;137:718S-737S.
4. Higdon J, Drake VJ: Flavonoids. In An Evidence-Based Approach to Dietary Phytochemicals and Other Dietary Factors. New York: Thieme; 2012: 83-108
5. Huxley RR, Neil HA: The relation between dietary flavonol intake and coronary heart disease mortality: a meta-analysis of prospective cohort studies. Eur J Clin Nutr 2003;57:904-908.
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7. Mursu J, Voutilainen S, Nurmi T, et al: Flavonoid intake and the risk of ischaemic stroke and CVD mortality in middle-aged Finnish men: the Kuopio Ischaemic Heart Disease Risk Factor Study. The British journal of nutrition 2008;100:890-895.
8. Mink PJ, Scrafford CG, Barraj LM, et al: Flavonoid intake and cardiovascular disease mortality: a prospective study in postmenopausal women. The American journal of clinical nutrition 2007;85:895-909.
9. Martin KR, Bopp J, Burrell L, et al: The effect of 100% tart cherry juice on serum uric acid levels, biomarkers of inflammation and cardiovascular disease risk factors. In Experimental Biology 2011. Washington, D.C.: The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology; 2011.
10. Kelley DS, Rasooly R, Jacob RA, et al: Consumption of Bing sweet cherries lowers circulating concentrations of inflammation markers in healthy men and women. J Nutr 2006;136:981-986.
11. Smart RC, Huang MT, Chang RL, et al: Disposition of the naturally occurring antimutagenic plant phenol, ellagic acid, and its synthetic derivatives, 3-O-decylellagic acid and 3,3'-di-O-methylellagic acid in mice. Carcinogenesis 1986;7:1663-1667.
12. Smart RC, Huang MT, Chang RL, et al: Effect of ellagic acid and 3-O-decylellagic acid on the formation of benzo[a]pyrene-derived DNA adducts in vivo and on the tumorigenicity of 3-methylcholanthrene in mice. Carcinogenesis 1986;7:1669-1675.
13. Kang SY, Seeram NP, Nair MG, et al: Tart cherry anthocyanins inhibit tumor development in Apc(Min) mice and reduce proliferation of human colon cancer cells. Cancer Lett 2003;194:13-19.
14. Stoner GD, Wang LS, Casto BC: Laboratory and clinical studies of cancer chemoprevention by antioxidants in berries. Carcinogenesis 2008;29:1665-1674.
15. Shukitt-Hale B: Blueberries and neuronal aging. Gerontology 2012;58:518-523.
16. Krikorian R, Shidler MD, Nash TA, et al: Blueberry supplementation improves memory in older adults. J Agric Food Chem 2010;58:3996-4000.
17. Traustadottir T, Davies SS, Stock AA, et al: Tart cherry juice decreases oxidative stress in healthy older men and women. J Nutr 2009;139:1896-1900.
18. McCune LM, Kubota C, Stendell-Hollis NR, et al: Cherries and health: a review. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2011;51:1-12.
19. Seeram NP, Momin RA, Nair MG, et al: Cyclooxygenase inhibitory and antioxidant cyanidin glycosides in cherries and berries. Phytomedicine 2001;8:362-369.
20. Kuehl KS, Perrier ET, Elliot DL, et al: Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle pain during running: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 2010;7:17.
21. Connolly DA, McHugh MP, Padilla-Zakour OI, et al: Efficacy of a tart cherry juice blend in preventing the symptoms of muscle damage. Br J Sports Med 2006;40:679-683; discussion 683.
22. Burkhardt S, Tan DX, Manchester LC, et al: Detection and quantification of the antioxidant melatonin in Montmorency and Balaton tart cherries (Prunus cerasus). Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemis ry 2001;49:4898-4902.
23. Pigeon WR, Carr M, Gorman C, et al: Effects of a tart cherry juice beverage on the sleep of older adults with insomnia: a pilot study. J Med Food 2010;13:579-583.