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  Last updated: 10/22/2015

Pickle juice and muscle cramping
(and maybe mustard?)

Some of you may have noticed the jars of pickles at many rest stops on supported rides. This NYT article nicely summarizes the reasoning. The original published medical study demonstrated a rapid improvement in cramping, often within 2 minutes of drinking the pickle juice. But as the authors noted (supported by a second study) this effect was too fast to be explained by any changes in blood or body chemistries.

Remember the central governor? And the placebo response? Both strongly support a central nervous system, or central governor, moderation of our physical performance. The rapid response to pickle juice supports a centrally (from the brain) mediated response (via nerve modulation of muscular activity). And most likely from the sour taste (vinegar) rather than the saltiness as pure vinegar worked just as well, and perhaps even more effectively, than the pickle juice (I couldn't find that referenced comparison study).

With in the NYT post we again find a reference that suggest more than MILD dehydration is at work as an etiology although I personally experienced my only severe on-the-bike cramps when I was severely dehydrated on a long hot ride. The common theme, which pops up again, is muscle fatigue as the culprit - exercising at a level greater than, or longer than, your usual training. To quote " Dr. Miller suspects that that mechanism is exhaustion, either directly or through biochemical processes that accompany fatigue. Certain mechanisms within muscles have been found, in animal and limited human studies, he says, to start misfiring when a muscle is extremely tired. Small nerves that should keep the muscle from over contracting malfunction, and the muscle bunches when it should relax. Pickle juice may work, Dr. Miller says, by countermanding the malfunction. Something in the acidic juice, perhaps even a specific molecule of some kind, may be lighting up specialized nervous-system receptors in the throat or stomach, he says, which, in turn, send out nerve signals that somehow disrupt the reflex melee in the muscles. Dr. Miller suspects that ultimately, it's the vinegar in the pickle juice that activates the receptors. "

So how does it all fit together? A fatigued muscle (over worked, dehydrated, glycogen depleted) is the final common pathway to cramping. And for a temporary response, ingestion of something that is sour (vinegar or pickle juice) can break the cycle. How do we take advantage of this bit of wisdom?

Mustard may be an equally effective treatment (take a packet from McDonald's next time you are there and give it a try.) Simple yellow mustard includes water, vinegar, mustard seeds, turmeric, and salt. Football players and other athletes are sometimes told by their coaches to swallow a few spoons of mustard to fight off leg cramps. One reason mustard may be effective for this purpose is it contains acetic acid (vinegar).

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