Muscle soreness or pain is inevitable for athletes, especially after hitting it hard during training or competition. Many turn to analgesics such as over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) for muscle pain relief. But if you like more natural alternative means, ever heard of tart cherries? Tart cherry juice or pill supplements claim to have the same muscle pain relieving effects as NSAIDs. Cherries are reported to be high in anti-inflammatory properties and anti-oxidative capacity. Because of this, it is proposed to have similar analgesic effects as NSAIDs. Cherries, both tart and sweet, have sparked the interests of many researchers because of their role in both exercise and clinical populations.
So, what’s so great about cherries? On the nutritional side, cherries are a good source of fiber and contain high levels of antioxidants like anthocyanins. A study on recreational marathon runners were randomly assigned to consume 16 fl oz of tart cherry juice or placebo 5 days prior to and 48 hours after a marathon. The study suggested that the anthocyanins in tart cherries may help reduce muscle damage, oxidative stress, and inflammation that help speed up recovery.(1) Furthermore, a journal article that reviewed several studies found evidence to suggest the beneficial role of cherries to the topics that are important to endurance athletes: muscle function, oxidative stress, inflammation, and pain. Here is a snapshot of what the evidence suggested:
- Muscle function: The muscle actions of exercise cause primary mechanical damage to sarcomeres, which are a structural unit of muscle fiber. With compromised sarcomeres, a cascade of events leads to secondary damage. Results of the studies indicated that consumption of cherry juice was protective against the secondary damage response from exercise.(2)
- Oxidative stress: Exercise increases the endogenous production of free radicals, altering the redox balance (cellular pro-oxidative to anti-oxidative ratio). Free radicals have been associated with muscle fatigue and disruptions with cellular performance. Without anti-oxidants to counter the increase in free radicals, physical performance may be reduced.(2)
- Inflammation and pain: Anti-oxidants, such as components in cherries, have been found to limit exercise-induced inflammation that helps with maintaining muscle function and minimizing pain. (2)
Although the studies have demonstrated the beneficial effects of cherry supplementation to the exercise population, there is still a lack of evidence to uncover the exact mechanism of how this works. Additionally, concerns have been raised on whether the protective effects inhibit adaptation to training and exercise. Some suggested that inflammation and oxidative stress were necessary to gain the benefits of training adaptation. Others argued this was not as important as achieving optimal recovery because it would propel your physical ability to get back into training and competition. Bottom line, ask yourself which goal is more important to you: optimal recovery time or physiological adaptation to training? It may befit you to do research to weigh your options.
Currently, there is no specific recommendation for cherry supplementation and dosing strategy (to see the beneficial effects) because the mechanism of action is not yet clear. However, studies suggested anthocyanin volume per supplement should not exceed 380 μmol (322.7 mg) because of the diminishing efficiency in absorbance.(2) No negative effects of cherry supplementation have been reported as of yet. A good rule of thumb when it comes to a situation like this is to keep your intake in moderation and pay close attention to how your body response. If you choose to supplement, keep in mind that more is not always better when it comes to sports nutrition.
Zen Huynh, B.S. Nutrition Sciences
Fuelixir Content Creator
- Howatson, G., McHugh, M. P., Hill, J. L., Brouner, J., Jewell, A. P., van Someren, K. A., et al. (2009). Efficacy of tart cherry juice in reducing muscle damage, inflammation and oxidative stress following marathon running. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 41, 507-508.
- Bell, P. G., McHugh, M. P., Stevenson, E., & Howatson, G. (2014). The role of cherries in exercise and health. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 24(3), 477-490. doi:10.1111/sms.12085