Nov. 11, 2010 (Atlanta) -- People with gout may be able to cut in half their risk of recurrent attacks by eating about 20 cherries a day, preliminary research suggests.
The findings support years of anecdotal reports from patients that cherries help keep the inflammatory arthritic condition in check, doctors here say.
Still, the study does not prove cause and effect, just that there appears to be an association between eating cherries and a lower risk of recurrent gout attacks. People with gout who eat cherries may share some other characteristic that makes them less prone to flare-ups.
20 Cherries Daily Linked to Fewer Gout Flare-Ups
In the study of 633 gout patients recruited via the Internet, 20 cherries -- equivalent to two servings or 1 cup -- appeared to be the magic number as far as preventing future flare-ups, says researcher Yuqing Zhang,MD, of the Boston University School of Medicine.
"Having one serving in the past 48 hours didn't help," he tells WebMD. And eating three or more servings of cherries offered no substantial protection beyond that associated with two servings, Zhang says.
Cherry extract, found in specialty and health food stores, did appear to do the trick, he says.
The findings were presented at the American College of Rheumatology's annual meeting.
Cherry Extract Linked to 40% Lower Risk of Gout Flare-ups
Gout occurs when uric acid builds up in the body, causing crystals to form in the joints and surrounding tissue. The resulting inflammatory reaction causes intense pain and swelling. Gout attacks tend to recur and frequently affect the big toe, knee, and ankle joints.
Previous, small studies have suggested that cherries and cherry products may reduce uric acid levels and inflammation in the body, Zhang says.
For the current study, the researchers turned to the Internet to recruit 633 participants who had experienced a gout attack within the past year. Medical records were used to confirm their gout diagnosis.
Participants were asked to log on after having their next attack and answer an extensive questionnaire that asked about various potential factors that could affect risk, including cherry and cherry extract consumption in the 48 hours prior to the attack. Three months after being free of flare-ups, they were asked to answer the same questions.
Among the findings:
- Having two servings of cherry fruit in the past 48 hours was associated with a 50% lower risk of having another gout attack.
- The use of cherry extract (any amount) in the past two days was associated with a 40% lower risk of recurrent gout flare-ups.
Antioxidants Credited for Cherries' Effect in Gout
The researchers credit anthocyanins -- antioxidant pigments found in red and purplish fruits and vegetables, including cherries, purple cabbage, beets, blueberries, raspberries, and purple grapes -- for the beneficial effect. Antioxidants stabilize unstable molecules called free radicals, which cause inflammation and damage cells and tissue.
Senior researcher Tuhina Neogi, MD, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, says that while the researchers plan to look at other fruits, "our suspicion is that it is an effect of cherries, which are thought to contain the highest levels of anthocyanins."
John S. Sundy, MD, PhD, a gout expert at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., tells WebMD that a lot of his patients have tried cherries. "It helps some and not others.
"I don't prescribe it and we don't know what dose to recommend. But as long as it's used as a complement and not an alternative to recommended treatments, it's hard to imagine any downside to it," says Sundy, who was not involved with the research.
The researchers hope to get funding for a more robust clinical trial in which some people with gout eat cherries and others do not.
This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.