Eating cherries over a two-day period reduced the risk of gout attacks by 35%, according to a new study led by Boston University (BU) in the US that is being published in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism.

Lead author Yuqing Zhang, Professor of Medicine and Public Health at BU, says in a press statement:

“Our findings indicate that consuming cherries or cherry extract lowers the risk of gout attack.”

Estimates suggest about 8.3 million adults in the US have gout, an inflammatory arthritis that occurs when uric acid crystals form in the joints, causing great pain and swelling.

There are several standard treatments, but with these gout attacks tend to re-occur, so researchers and patients are on the look-out for alternatives. Cherries have been mentioned as having urate-lowering and inflammation-reducing properties, but there have been no rigorous studies of whether they can reduce the risk of gout attacks.

For their case-crossover study, Zhang and colleagues recruited 633 people with gout and followed them online for a year. 88% of participants were white, had an average age of 54, and 78% of them were male. They answered questions about gout onset, symptoms, risk factors, medications, and whether they ate cherries or took cherry extract, and for how long.

Consuming cherries or cherry extract may lower your risk of developing a gout attack by 35%. The researchers classed any cherry intake in servings, with one serving being half a cup, or 10 to 12 cherries.

When they analyzed the participant responses, they found of those who had eaten cherries in one form or another, 35% ate fresh cherries, 2% took cherry extract, and 5% consumed both.

They also counted 1,247 gout attacks over the one-year follow-up, 92% of which were in the joint at the base of the big toe.

They compared the cherry consumption against the gout attack incidence, and found those participants who ate cherries for two days, had a 35% lower risk of gout attacks or flares compared to participants who did not have them at all.

They also found that the threat of gout flares fell by as much as 75% when cherry intake was combine with allopurinol, a drug that lowers uric acid levels, compared to not taking the drug or having the cherries.

These benefits persisted even after taking into account factors that can affect gout risk, such as gender, obesity (BMI), purine intake (in foods that can increase gout risk), plus use of alcohol, diuretics and anti-gout medications.

Zhang says:

“The gout flare risk continued to decrease with increasing cherry consumption, up to three servings over two days.”

He and his colleagues found cherry intakes above this number of servings did not give any additional benefit.

In an accompanying editorial, Allan Gelber from Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, and Daniel Solomon from Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Harvard University Medical School in Boston, say the study is significant because it looks at diet and the risk of gout flares recurring.

But while these findings are promising, they urge patients who currently suffer from gout not to “abandon standard therapies”.

They agree with the study authors that further randomized clinical trials should now be done to confirm the findings.

As does Alan Silman, professor and medical director of Arthritis Research UK.

He says in a press statement from the charity that he welcomes the findings, because for some time there has been talk of fruits like cherries being of benefit to people with gout and rheumatoid arthritis, both of which occur with chronic inflammation.

The study shows good evidence that perhaps cherries, together with traditional drugs that reduce uric acid, could significantly lower the risk of painful gout attacks, and, “it has been suggested that antioxidant compounds found in cherries may be natural inhibitors of enzymes which are targeted by common anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen” says Silman.

“Eating cherries, in fact, is not dissimilar to taking ibuprofen on a daily basis. However, we’d like to see additional clinical trials to further investigate and provide confirmation of this effect,” he adds.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD