Some of the 44 pounds of tart cherries the author picked. (Lena H. Sun/The Washington Post)

I wrenched my neck a few days ago and wondered whether there was something else I could take for the pain instead of ibuprofen. Based on what I'd read in magazines, I searched for the answer in my fridge, which happened to contain more than 40 pounds of tart cherries I had just picked.

Actually, a ton of research has found that these cherries are packed with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory compounds that help relieve inflammation, pain and damage to cells, organs and blood vessels. That's probably why nearly 100 professional and collegiate sports teams in the United states have their athletes drinking the stuff, according to sports medicine experts.

And now is the season for this super-fruit.


The author picking tart cherries at Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Md. (Lena H. Sun/The Washington Post)

I use them to make the most fabulous pies, or so my co-workers say. Tart cherries are different from the sweet cherries typically sold in the supermarket. You're not going to find fresh tart cherries in the grocery store because they're so perishable. But you can find tart cherry juice and dried tart cherries in stores and online. Depending on where you live, you can get fresh tart cherries at farmers' markets. If you're really lucky, you might even be able to get them at pick-your-own orchards.

"What we found is that this food is as good as ibuprofen in terms of pain reduction," said Kerry Kuehl, a practicing internist and chief health promotion and sports medicine at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. "It worked as well as 600 to 800 milligrams of ibuprofen, post vigorous exercise."

Kuehl and other Oregon University researchers found that runners who drank tart cherry juice before and the day of the Oregon Hood to Coast relay race -- a 198-mile course that crosses two mountain ranges -- had much less pain than runners who drank a fruit punch. (The amount of juice they drank each day was equivalent to eating about 90 to 100 tart cherries.)

Tart cherries are among the foods with the highest levels of anti-inflammatory compounds and antioxidants of any studied food, Kuehl said. Some foods are high in one or the other, but tart cherries are high in both.

All cherries contain these nutrients, including anthocyanins and flavonoids, but tart cherries have much higher amounts. Here's what the research shows: tart cherry juice has benefits for people suffering from arthritis, gout and fibromyalgia, a common chronic pain disorder.

Montmorency is the variety of tart cherry most commonly grown in the United States, and what scientists use in their research.


This way to the tart cherry trees at Homestead Farm in Poolesville, Md. (Lena H. Sun/The Washington Post)

British cycling teams have been using tart cherry juice for years, and most athletes use a concentrate of cherry juice, says Malachy McHugh, director of research at the Nicholas Institute of Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, based at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.

In the United States, athletes use not-from-concentrate tart cherry juice, which has become increasingly popular with those playing contact sports, sports with multiple games in short periods of time, and sports with long seasons and a lot of travel, said McHugh, who is a consultant for a tart cherry juice manufacturer and for the New York Rangers ice hockey team, one of the teams using the juice.

I ate a lot of tart cherries -- probably four big bowls -- for my neck pain and went to bed. I woke up the next morning and felt much better. I've been eating several handfuls a day.

By the way, they taste great. I've been baking pies too.


(Courtesy of Lena H. Sun/The Washington Post)

(Lena H. Sun/The Washington Post)