Can a glass of juice improve the quality of your sleep at night? Perhaps so — researchers have found evidence that drinking tart cherry juice at bedtime helps insomniacs sleep through the night.

About seven years ago, scientists at a new company called CherryPharm began studying the health benefits of juice made from fresh tart cherries, a type of cherry that is loaded with phytochemicals and antioxidants. Several company-sponsored studies indicated that this juice helps ease inflammation and sore muscles in marathoners and heavy exercisers. Coincidentally some of the people in those studies mentioned that they also slept better after drinking the juice. This prompted the company to ask the University of Rochester Medical Center’s sleep research lab to investigate whether the juice might ease insomnia in older adults. The result? They conducted an eight-week double-blind study, which included 15 men and women, average age of 71.6, in good health and of normal weight, who experienced moderate-to-severe insomnia, especially wakefulness in the night. For two weeks, one group drank two eight-ounce glasses of tart cherry juice a day (one in the morning and the other one to two hours before bed) and the other drank a placebo — then, after two more weeks to wash out any effect of the juice, the groups switched their regimens. Findings:Drinking the tart cherry juice brought significant improvement in sleep continuity. In fact, the juice worked better than the popular herbal sleep aid valerian and at least as well as melatonin, which had been evaluated in similar sleep studies. However, tart cherry juice did not help any other types of sleep problems, such as trouble falling asleep, and overall the researchers noted that engaging in cognitive and behavior modification therapies (such as adhering to a regular sleep schedule and developing a bedtime routine) work better for improving sleep in general.

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Two Theories on Why It Works

But the cherry juice — simple, safe and natural — did help. When I contacted Wilfred R. Pigeon, PhD, head of the study and author of The Sleep Manual, he told me that researchers have two theories about how tart cherry juice helps keep people asleep. First, tart cherries naturally contain melatonin, which is known to improve sleep in some people. The other possibility relates to the juice’s anti-inflammatory properties — it’s known that inflammatory substances that naturally occur in the body are associated with the regulation of sleep and that poor sleep is associated with elevated levels of these substances. This was just a small study, Dr. Pigeon was quick to point out. While further investigation is needed, he said that these preliminary findings suggest that tart cherry juice may provide some aid for insomnia.

The study used Montmorency tart cherries, available at specialty and high-end supermarkets. One eight-ounce bottle of tart cherry juice contains the juice from 50 tart cherries along with a bit of apple juice and has a fresh, slightly sour taste — and, it must be noted, it packs quite a sugar wallop, with 28 grams of sugar. (You can buy tart cherry juice that is sweetened with stevia, which contains 17 g of sugar.) Another option is to take a cherry supplement that contains freeze-dried extract of tart cherries in capsule form. As always, check with your doctor first.