If a doctor diagnoses that crushing pain in your big toe as gout, relief just might be a bowl of cherries.
A new Boston University study has found that eating about 30 pieces of the sweet fruit within 48 hours of a gout attack may cut the risk of recurrence of the painful arthritic condition by 35 percent.
Though anecdotal evidence of gout-healing powers of cherries has been circulating since the 1950s, lead author Yuqing Zhang, professor of medicine and public health at Boston University, said he believed this was the first study to indicate that cherry consumption does indeed reduce gout flare ups.
In the study, 633 gout patients were followed online for one year and monitored for their gout symptoms, medications and risk factors as well as their intake of cherries and cherry extracts up to two days before a gout flare up. Eating up to three servings of cherries – about one and a half cups – appeared to be the magic number for preventing a gout attack.
"However, further cherry intake did not provide any additional beneficial effect," Zhang said.
Uric acid is a waste byproduct of metabolism which is normally excreted through the kidneys in urine. When the process is impaired, uric acid accumulates in the blood stream until crystals are deposited in the joints causing the pain, swelling and inflammation associated with gout. It usually attacks the big toes but can sometimes affect the rest of the foot, knees or ankles and less commonly, the elbows and shoulders.
More than 8.3 million Americans suffer from the disease. Men, especially older obese men, are the most susceptible though a woman's risk increases after menopause. In earlier studies, Zhang and his team showed that alcohol consumption, a high protein diet and foods such as shellfish which are rich in the chemical purine can also up gout frequency.
The secret behind cherries' gout-fighting powers isn't entirely understood. Dr. Allan Gelber who co-wrote the commentary to the study in the journal Arthritis & Rheumatism with Dr. Daniel Solomon, said it could be the vitamin C content of the fruit or perhaps the anti-inflammatory effect of their high antioxidant content.
"Anthocyanins are an antioxidant pigment found in cherries and other red and purple fruits and vegetables. They seem to stabilize the free radical molecules responsible for causing inflammation and cell and tissue damage."
Zhang said one limitation of the study is that it relied on the accuracy of each participant's recall of what they did and ate in the 48 hours before a gout attack. The next step would be to do a trial where some gout sufferers ate cherries while others did not.
Gelber said that anyone who suffers from gout should consider adding cherries to their diet as a preventative measure but shouldn't stop taking their medication. Patients in the study who ate cherries and also took the uric-acid reducing drug, allopurinol, lowered their risk of gout recurrence by up to 75 percent.
And, although the study also found cherry extract was useful for lowering the number of gout attacks, the researchers stressed that the sample size – only 15 people – was too small to draw definite conclusions. The FDA has sent a letter to various cherry-based product manufacturers warning them not to use the study results to make claims about the benefits of their products.