Can this drink help insomnia?

Part of an ongoing series on health claims.

Claim: Tart cherry juice can be a natural solution for insomnia, according to CherryPharm, which produces a tart cherry juice product called CheriBundi.

Reality: The idea that cherry juice can help promote sleep is one worth pursuing, say experts. But so far, there's only limited evidence showing it works.

In a recent pilot study published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, researchers gave 15 older adults either 8 ounces of a tart cherry juice (CheriBundi) or a placebo drink in the morning and evening for two weeks. The researchers repeated the trial for another two week period, giving the volunteers the drink they hadn't received in the first round. The study was funded by CherryPharm.

They found a modest reduction in the time spent awake for the cherry juice drinkers, an effect that should be used to support further, more definitive work, said Wilfred Pigeon, the Director of the Sleep and Neurophysiology Research Lab at the University of Rochester Medical Center and the study's lead author.

"It's premature to suggest this is a new treatment for insomnia, said Pigeon, who nonetheless finds the possibility "intriguing."

The body naturally produces melatonin, a hormone that helps regulate the body's sleep cycles. Tart cherries have a relatively high content of melatonin and the body is able to absorb the melatonin in the juice, said melatonin expert Russel Reiter, a professor in the department of cellular and structural biology at The University of Texas Health Science Center.

But Reiter said it's unknown whether the juice contains enough melatonin to help people get more sleep. It's also unclear whether melatonin is the mechanism by which tart cherries may improve sleep, said Pigeon. Tart cherries also contain a number of anti-inflammatory compounds which may also be associated with sleeping and waking mechanisms.

"Compared with prescription sleep medications and to cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia, the effects are not very impressive. Compared with melatonin, valerian root and other "alternative" or "natural" approaches it is as good or better," said Pigeon, adding that the study didn't compare the treatments directly.

Still, cherry juice has plenty of other nutrients, including antioxidant compounds called anthocyanins. And if a patient had failed with CBT and didn't want to take a medication for insomnia, then Pigeon would say, "go for it."

"It probably can't hurt and just might help," said Pigeon, the author of "Sleep Manual."

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