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  • Writer's pictureMelissa Mathes


Pickle juice and mustard for cramping is all the rage these days.  In fact pickle juice (PJ) is being capitalized as a sports drink called  “Pickle Juice Short”. What is it that makes pickle juice (PJ) and mustard help sport induced muscle cramps??

Lets consider that 95% of athletes have experienced exercise-induced cramps during or after exercise (Miller 2014) . Exercise induced cramps aside from being painful can literally stop you in your tracks. You can understand why athletes will do anything to help alleviate those cramps,  from consuming  packets of mustard or putting pickle juice in their water bottles.. Muscle induced cramps are caused by several different factors; in fact scientists still don’t completely understand them.  Dehydration is one of the most common reasons, this is can be induced from exercising in hot weather due to lack of  fluid consumption that includes electrolytes.  They can be caused from beginning your exercise already dehydrated, which means you won’t be able to catch up, the reasons can go on and on.  Other causes of exercise muscle induced cramps are biomechanical issues (poor form, lack of flexibility, etc.) while exercising or hypoglycemia (yes, low blood sugar can be a cause).  For the purpose of this article I am sticking to the typical induced by dehydration and a brief summary of why this occurs.  When you sweat you lose electrolytes, one of the most abundant electrolytes lost is sodium.  In fact some people are what I consider “salty sweaters” (no not an article of clothing). Salty sweaters may notice white smudges on their clothes, hats and little crystals on their faces when they engage in endurance type of exercise or exercise in hot weather.  The loss of electrolytes can cause cramping, especially in hot weather. Electrolytes are magnesium, potassium, calcium and chloride. Muscle cells (and other cells in the body) use these electrolytes for both electrical impulses that produce contraction of the muscle and to maintain fluid balance in the cells/muscle. Sodium is abundant in PJ and mustard and is the electrolyte responsible for getting fluid into the cell. This may simply be the reason why PJ and mustard work so well for athletes, IF that is the sole reason for their cramps.  However, a salt stick capsule, NUUN tabs and other sports drinks can do the same thing, without the danger of hyperosmolality (big word, basically cause major GI disturbances to put it lightly) and possible hyperkalemia (too high potassium in the blood)  that PJ can cause.  The research on PJ does state that in low doses 2oz. at a time seems to decrease the risk of osmolality issues and hyperkalemia (McKenny 2015).

ANOTHER form of cramping has been discovered, and this may truly be the reason athletes are finding the benefits of PJ and mustard.   There is other evidence of cramping  caused by hyperneuromuscular responses, from transient receptor potential (TRP) ion channels found throughout the nerves in the body (I know, big words, follow me here).  These TRP channels are located in the mouth, esophagus and stomach, they communicate with the brain and spinal cord nerves that control the skeletal muscles.  These are highly responsive channels to heat, cold, pain, pungent spices and apparently acetic acid. These food extracts contain TRPA1 and TRPV1 (in the mouth) channel antagonists that might help decrease/block the intensity and duration of electrically stimulated cramps.   In a randomized, double blind controlled crossover study, 34 participants volunteered to reproduce muscle cramps.  When they ingested these TRP antagonist extracts there was a significant decline in cramps.  Recent research indicates that  ingested acetic acid from PJ and mustard has a mild temporary effect (Craighead, 2016) on these channels.  There are other spices that seem to be more responsive and effective than PJ and mustard, like mustard oil(not in mustard sold in stores unless there are seeds in it), wasabi, garlic, chili peppers, etc.    A product called “Hot Shot” claims to block the hyper-active nerve stimulation causing cramps and have a longer lasting effect vs. PJ and mustard..  This particular product has a propietry blend of these food extract substances and has been recieveing positive resulst from athletes, and outcomes in the research.

My take, try the easy methods first, hydrate well (American College of Medicine hydration guidelines) and drink while exercising with electrolytes (if >30mins.).   Typically an electrolyte that contains >150mg/serving of sodium often does the trick for most of my clients.  In fact some of my athlete clients consume up to 1,000mg/hour, however most only need about 300-500mg/hour.  Sodium over 500-800mg may irritate the stomach lining causing nausea and bloating, so increase slowly and pay attention to how your body feels. Make sure your electrolyte drink has all the electrolytes in it, sometimes magnesium is a player in cramping too.  If those attempts don’t seem to alleviate your cramps, I would suggest skipping the PJ and mustard and, getting a hold of some “Hot Shot”.

Melissa A. Mathes, MPH, RDN, CSSD

Daniel H Craighead, Sean W Shank, Lacy M Alexander and W. Larry Kenney Orally Ingested Transient Receptor Potential (TRP) Channel Activators Attenuate the Intensity-Duration of Voluntarily Induced Muscle Cramps in Humans  April 2016 The FASEB  Journal vol. 30 no. 1 Supplement lb706

Michael A. McKenney, MS, ATC, NASM-CES*; Kevin C. Miller, PhD, AT, ATC†;

James E. Deal, PhD‡; Julie A. Garden-Robinson, PhD, LRD§; Yeong S. Rhee,

PhD, RD§  Plasma and Electrolyte Changes in Exercising Humans

After Ingestion of Multiple Boluses of Pickle Juice  J of Athletic Training 2015 Feb; 50(2): 141–146.  Sports Performance, Northeastern University, Boston, MA; †School of Rehabilitation and Medical Sciences, Central Michigan University, Mount Pleasant; Departments of ‡Human Development and Family Science and §Health, Nutrition, and Exercise Sciences, North Dakota State University, Fargo

Kevin C. Miller, PhD, AT, Electrolyte and Plasma Responses After Pickle Juice,

Mustard, and Deionized Water Ingestion in Dehydrated Humans Journal of Athletic Training 2014;49(3):360–367

doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-49.2.23 by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, Inc

School of Rehabilitation and Medical Science, Central Michigan University

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