Preliminary research results released today by Fruision Ltd show that sweet cherries grown in New Zealand's sun-rich Central Otago region are a natural source of melatonin at levels over 30 times higher than other cherry varieties grown in the Northern Hemisphere's major cherry production regions.
Melatonin is a hormone that is naturally present in the human body and aids sleep.
Previous studies published in the USA, have shown Northern Hemisphere whole tart cherries to have levels of melatonin at 2-15 ng/g per cherry. In the USA, tart cherry products are marketed heavily for their melatonin content.
Studies undertaken by an independent lab in Australia have shown Central Otago whole sweet cherries have 500 ng/g. And when the cherries are dried, the melatonin levels in the powder increase to 3100 ng/g.
Hamilton-based Moanui Laboratories has seized the opportunity to become the first New Zealand company to distribute the sweet cherry sleep aid in a capsule form from their online store.
"The sweet cherry powder is easily consumed in a capsule - two to four capsules will boost a person's natural melatonin, but it won't knock you out like a sleeping pill can. We're receiving anecdotal feedback from our customers that it's working well for a number of people with sleeping difficulties," says Lynley Moyle, General Manager of Moanui Laboratories.
For humans, the levels of natural melatonin peak during sleep at between around 0.03 and 0.17 ng/ml and levels are highly age dependent. The older one gets, the less melatonin is naturally present.
Melatonin supplementation is of much more value for older adults, because their natural production of melatonin is low. Night-time blood levels of melatonin are highest in children up to the age of puberty. By age 30, blood levels have fallen by half and, after age 60, the levels may fall to negligible levels.
Fruision believes the long days of intense sunshine in Central Otago is the primary factor that gives New Zealand sweet cherries over 30 times higher levels of melatonin than their Northern Hemisphere counterparts.
"It is well-known by climate scientists that New Zealand is a unique case study into the effects of increased ultraviolet irradiation on plants when compared to countries of similar latitude in the Northern Hemisphere. This is primarily due to the depletion of ozone in the atmosphere above our country.
"Many plants, including cherries, respond to these elevated levels of UVB by increasing the production of what is called, 'secondary metabolites.' The production of these secondary metabolites is a part of the plant's normal stress response to UVB irradiation. They act to protect the plant from further damage and repair previous damage.
"It is these secondary metabolites that the cherries produce that have such great human health promoting properties when eaten," explains Dr Judy Bragger, Senior Scientist for Fruision Ltd.
Fruision and Moanui Labs have seen increased interest in their product following news stories published over the past few months showing an alarming rise in the number of New Zealanders using sleeping pills as well as the link between sleeping pill use and premature death.
On 10 March, New Zealand's TV3 News broke a story uncovering evidence of a 42 percent jump in sleeping pill users in the past five years. It also found teenagers are increasingly turning to sleeping pills. It reported that two hundred and twenty thousand people used sleeping pills back in 2007, but now that has risen to 320,000.
Additionally, a study in the BMJ Open, an open access online journal based in the US, published in February showed a link between the use of sleeping pills and premature death.
"These recent stories have really highlighted the fact that many New Zealander's have trouble sleeping. But the potential dangers of taking sleeping pills are causing many people to look for natural sleeping aids. Much higher levels of synthetic melatonin are available over the counter in supplements. But, for some, sweet cherry powder may be the natural answer they're looking for," says Lynley Moyle.
One such person is Dr Laurie J Moore, based at Cairns Base Hospital's Mental Health Unit in Australia. She takes Moanui's capsules herself and says she takes, "two at night and if I have had an especially stressful day and wake up in the early hours of the morning, I take another two capsules. �I go back to sleep nicely and feel refreshed in the morning. �Our hospital has just approved the use of melatonin and it is great that you can get melatonin from a natural product that also has other properties that are beneficial for your health."
Dr Bragger says Fruision is just beginning to discover the health properties of sweet cherries, and providing melatonin as a sleep aid is just the start of what the fruit offers. "Tests conducted by an independent laboratory in New Zealand have shown Central Otago sweet cherries also have nearly 300% more antioxidant capacity than Northern Hemisphere sweet, Bing cherries.
"Antioxidants are widely known to have health-protecting properties against such things as heart disease and cancer," she explains.
Fruision sources its raw sweet cherries from Summerfruit Orchards in Alexandra. It utilises the non-premium grade fruit that would normally be sold for use in jams or simply discarded. Although in the early stages of production and marketing, developing the sweet cherry powder could help create an added-value industry for Summerfruit from this former by-product.
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