Ibuprofen or Tart Cherries?

Chiropractors have been some the most prolific educators about the dangers of medication, but even so, many patients with painful conditions such as Fibromyalgia, Arthritis and Gout still take drugs such as aspirin and ibuprofen are called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for their pain. As you may know, these medications work by inhibiting two enzymes, cyclooxygenase I and II (popularly known as COX 1 and COX 2), which are produced by the body as a response to pain. NSAIDs prevent chemical messages from binding to cyclooxygenase. The normal messages are not delivered, so the body does not feel the pain and doesn't become inflammed (1). Unfortunately, many patients take pain medication daily that can cause numerous side effects, including upset stomachs, vomiting, kidney damage and, possibly, ulcers. This is because NSAIDs inhibit both COX 1 and COX 2, but the COX 1 enzyme is also important for maintaining normal cell function within several organs (2).

Tart cherries contain flavonoid compounds that function in the same manner as NSAIDs and can inhibit both COX enzymes. However, research also shows that flavonoids can protect against stomach damage, unlike their NSAID counterparts (3). It is suspected that the high levels of antioxidants found in cherries, particularly melatonin, provide a protective function and prevent unwanted symptoms. This makes concentrated cherry products superior to over-the-counter pain relief because cherries block pain in the same manner and reduce potential side-effects (4).

But that is not all! New studies at Michigan State University (MSU), which were recently published in Cancer Letters, suggest that tart cherries may reduce the risk of colon cancer because of the anthocyanins and cyanidin contained in the cherry. Dr. Mauraleedharan Nair and Dr. Leslie Bourquin along with several graduate students worked on experiments that are part of ongoing research on the components of tart cherries.

"Based on previous observations that tart cherries can inhibit the Cox enzymes, we conducted experiments to test the potential of tart cherry anthocyanins to inhibit intestinal tumor development in mice," says Dr. Bourquin, an associate professor in food science at MSU. The laboratory mice can very quickly produce the same type of tumors as humans. Mice consuming the tart cherry anthocyanins had significantly fewer and smaller cecal adenomas (colon tumors) than the mice consuming the control diet.

Pain is often a big factor in the quality of life and Dr. Nair thinks that the pain relieving power of tart cherry anthocyanins may have direct applications in cancer. While the research on tart cherry anthocyanins at MSU is ongoing, Dr. Nair also has teamed up with researchers at other universities to study the pain relief of tart cherries (especially as related to cancer). A project at Johns Hopkins University in which Dr. Nair collaborated with Dr. S. Raja studied tart cherry anthocyanins in relation to chronic pain.  The current interest in the health benefits of whole foods, including cherries, will continue, according to Dr. Bourquin. "It will eventually be possible to identify the compounds in dietary ingredients that can reduce chronic disease. We will continue to move in that direction.

"Recently published research conducted at Michigan State University (5) investigated a range of fruits and berries for the level and activity of anthocyanins found in each. Researchers analyzed the ability of the fruits to inhibit cyclooxygenase and act as antioxidants to destroy free radicals. Researchers discovered that the antioxidant activity of anthocyanins from cherries was superior to vitamin E at a test concentration of 125 g/ml. The COX inhibitory activities of anthocyanins from cherries were comparable to those of ibuprofen and naproxen at 10 M concentrations. Anthocyanins 1 and 2 are present in both cherries and raspberries. The yields of pure anthocyanins 1 and 2 in 100 g in cherries and raspberries were the highest of the fruits tested at 26.5 and 24 mg, respectively. Fresh blackberries and strawberries contained only anthocyanin 2 at a total level of 22.5 and 18.2 mg/100 g, respectively; whereas anthocyanins 1 and 2 were not found in bilberries, blueberries, cranberries or elderberries. According to Dr. Muraleedharan Nair, a professor in the Department of Horticulture at Michigan State University and with the National Food Safety and Toxicology Center at MSU in East Lansing, Michigan, twenty cherries provide 25 milligrams of anthocyanins.

According to the article "Fresh Cherries May Help Arthritis Sufferers, published in put out by the USDA (6), Results of a preliminary study by ARS scientists and their university colleagues suggest that some natural compounds in plump, juicy Bing cherries may reduce painful arthritic inflammation. Eating cherries may also help lessen the severity of other inflammatory conditions, such as cardiovascular disease or cancer. 45 fresh, pitted Bing cherries for breakfast. Ten healthy women, aged 22 to 40, agreed to eat 45 fresh, pitted Bing Cherries.

While Bing Cherries were the focus of this study, research conducted at Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston and Brunswick Laboratory in Wareham, Massachusetts demonstrates that Montmorency dried tart cherries have a score of 6,800 ORAC (oxygen radical absorption capacity) as compared to only 670 for sweet or black cherries (7). The ORAC test accurately quantifies the antioxidant capacities of foods by taking into account the fact that most natural products are a complex mix of phytochemicals of which many are antioxidants.In addition, tart cherries were found to contain significant levels of antioxidant activities against peroxyl radicals, peroxylnitrite, hydroxyl radicals (known as NORAC and HORAC). Just like the superoxide anions, these human-cell killing species are known to be involved in the pathogenesis of aging and neurodegenerative diseases. Brunswick Labs only recently developed assays to measure NORAC and HORAC. Few food products have been measured for NORAC and HORAC. They found that cherries contain a class of compounds that act like super oxide dismutase (SOD), which is a powerful enzyme and cellular antioxidant. Testing showed that one serving of canned tart cherries is equivalent to 1.41 grams of aspirin, a higher value than one serving of tart cherry juice, indicating that the cherry in its whole form may be the most potent.

(1) H. M. Berman, et al, "The Protein Data Bank," Nucleic Acids Research, 28, 2000: 235-242.
(2) Perazella, Mark A., "COX-2 Inhibitors and the Kidney," Hospital Practice, September 15, 2001.
(3) Blank, M.A., et al, "flavonoid-induced gastroprotection in rats: Role of blood flow and leukocyte adherence," Digestion, 58 1997: 147-154.
(4) Wang, Haibo, "Antioxidant and anti-inflammatory Compounds in tart Cherries," doctoral dissertation, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI 1998.
(5) Seeram N. P., et al. Cyclooxygenase inhibitory and antioxidant cyaniding glycosides in cherries and berries. Phytomedicine. 2001 Sept 8 (5): 362-9.
(6) Wood, Marcia, "Fresh Cherries May Help Arthritis Sufferers, May, 2004, issue of Agricultural Research magazine put out by the USDA.
(7) Research conducted at Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston and Brunswick Laboratory in Wareham, Massachusetts.