Cramps. The bane of existence for many athletes and weekend warriors.
Despite the many products claiming to reduce cramping, the efficacy of all the different “cures” to cramps is mostly lacking substantial evidence.
However, there is a small amount of research to suggest that pickle juice may actually assist with reducing the duration and intensity of cramps. And may even prevent them!
But not for the reasons you might initially think.
What Are Cramps & Why Do They Occur?
Exercise-induced muscle cramps (EAMC) typically occur in single, multijoint muscles (eg, triceps surae, quadriceps, hamstrings) when contracting in a shortened state.
Although some cramps do not affect athletic performance, other times, they can be completely debilitating.
With cramps being so common in exercise and having the potential to completely stop an athlete in their tracks, research in this space is vast.
One of the original theories behind the cause of cramps was the dehydration–electrolyte imbalance theory.
Typically, when exercising, there is some level of fluid and electrolyte depletion through sweat losses.
This theory suggests that this depletion, namely of sodium and potassium, results in the sensitization of select nerve terminals.
Research shows that exercise in hot and humid conditions is more likely to facilitate cramping. Leading experts to believe that it was indeed the amount of fluid and electrolytes lost, that made cramping more likely to occur.
However, there is very little research that directly links shifts in fluid and electrolytes with the occurrence of cramps. In fact, it may have more to do with fatigue which can also occur sooner and/or with more severity in hot and humid conditions.
The neuromuscular theory of EAMC proposes that fatigue causes an imbalance between excitatory impulses from muscle spindles and inhibitory impulses from Golgi tendon organs, resulting in cramps.
Basically, when you are fatigued, the motor reflex that sends the “relax” signal to the spine and through to the muscles becomes tired. When this occurs, instead of the muscle being told to relax, the “contract” signal keeps firing which results in a cramp.
The evidence for the neuromuscular theory appears to be stronger than that for the dehydration-electrolyte balance theory. But we still cannot be totally sure why cramps occur during exercise even if we know how they occur.
The Evidence For Pickle Juice & Cramps
Using pickle juice for cramps is actually not a new phenomenon. Athletes and coaches have been using pickle juice as a sport supplement since the late 90’s and early 2000’s.
During the 2012 Olympics, members from the Australian Institute of Sport would actually go into the nearby McDonald’s to ask for their leftover pickle jars. They would then give the pickle juice to their athletes.
So even in 2012, we had highly qualified sports dietitians and coaches giving their elite, Olympic athletes pickle juice to help manage cramping.
The common misconception is that pickle juice which is high in sodium, is causing an electrolyte shift to assist with the cramps.
However, that is not true and this specific theory has been studied.
A 2009 paper investigated what would happen when someone consumed a small amount of pickle juice versus distilled water at the onset of an artificially induced cramp.
In this study, they found that pickle juice did in fact have a significant effect on lessening cramp duration by 45%.
However, they also found that despite the high salt content of the pickle juice, no substantial changes occurred to the electrolyte distribution within the participants.
So even though the pickle juice was more effective than the water, it had nothing to do with its electrolyte content.
The proposed mechanism is that the acetic acid in the pickle juice actually stimulates the lining of the oral pharynx (the back of the throat).
This can trigger reflexes that send neurological signals down the spinal cord. These signals can actually suppress and inhibit the muscle reflexes that result in cramps. Therefore, stopping them in their tracks.
Preventing Cramps With Pickle Juice
Many companies selling pickle juice sports supplements state that the pickle juice also prevents the onset of cramps.
Most of these companies point to a single case study of a basketball player who suffered severe calf cramps.
This athlete was given pickle juice and within 30 seconds, the cramping had stopped. He even continued to play without cramping until the last five minutes of the game. During that last five minutes, he did cramp but was able to take another 60ml of pickle juice and the cramp again ceased within 30 seconds.
This case study shows that the consumption of pickle juice may allow a window of time where cramping is prevented from occurring. Although, a single case study is not sufficient evidence to draw any conclusions.
One published journal article has alluded to pickle juice possibly being able to prevent muscle cramping.
A proprietary product containing TRP activators (the component of pickle juice said to be effective against cramps) effectively prevented electrically-induced muscle cramps in the foot across three studies involving a total of 37 participants.
Researchers stated that the product even demonstrated an effect lasting up to 6-8 hours when compared to untreated subjects.
Unfortunately, the specifics of this study are not readily available for review. It is also important to note that the study did not specifically use pickle juice but a product designed to mimic pickle juice. It is unclear if and how this product differs from other pickle juice products on the market.
The study was completed by researchers at FlexPharma who created the product called HOTSHOT. Their research will be discussed further down below.
But if pickle juice actually prevents cramps, that would be groundbreaking and very relevant to athletes across a range of sports.
The Issue With Pickle Juice Research
For the most part, naturally occurring cramps are sporadic in that they vary in duration and severity. Even for electrically induced muscle cramping, their is no verified way to induce the same cramp in all participants or even reliably induce the same cramp more than once in the same individual.
With so much variation in both naturally occurring and induced cramps, it is hard to investigate cramping interventions.
One study published in 2021, found no statistical differences in cramp duration or severity when participants received pickle juice versus water at the onset of an artificially induced cramp.
This study was a randomised crossover trial using three interventions
- Mouth rinse with 25ml pickle juice
- Ingesting 1ml/kg body weight of pickle juice
- Ingesting 1ml/kg body weight of room temperature water
The interventions were given at the onset of an electrically induced muscle cramp and measures were taken for cramp duration and level of discomfort.
Median time to cramp cessation for the control (water) condition was 50.68 seconds.
The median cramp duration was reduced by 17.2% and 31.4% in pickle juice ingestion and the mouth rinse respectively. However, this was not deemed statistically significant due to the high variability seen between participants.
Despite the lack of statistical significance, what is interesting is that the mouth rinse seemed to be slightly more effective than the pickle juice ingestion.
As far as I am aware, there is no other research looking into the effectiveness of pickle juice as a mouth rinse but since this research was only published this year, hopefully it inspires further research into this area.
Nonetheless, the researchers behind this paper noted that it is difficult to determine any meaningful effect of pickle juice on muscle cramps due to the large variability in cramping episodes even when artificially induced.
What is required to allow for effective research on cramping interventions is a consistent protocol for cramp induction as well as a verified way to test for effectiveness in stopping the onset of cramps.
Pickle Juice, A Start-up Company & Ion Channel Activators
MacKinnon and Bean first became interested in solving the issue of cramps following an ocean kayaking trip. Both men experienced severe episodes of cramping.
Upon looking into what causes cramping and its potential cures, the researchers discovered that there was actually very little known about why cramps occur.
They did, however, find some research suggesting that pickle juice as well as mustard helps with cramping episodes.
The two set off to learn more about the link between these foods and cramping. They heavily focused on the neuromuscular theory of cramps.
The pair knew that pickle juice and mustard contained molecules called ion-channel activators. They were the ones to theorise that the topical effect of these activators on the mucosal lining of the esophagus and stomach is what leads to the reduction in cramping.
They have since launched what is known as FlexPharma which is based around a product called HOTSHOT.
Not too much information is available to the public, but it appears there has been ongoing research into the effectiveness of this product since 2014.
The product which contains transient receptor potential (TRP) channel activators, has been presented at several conferences but is yet to be published in a peer-review journal. It does not contain pickle juice, but it works through similar mechanisms.
FLX-787 is the substance that is being tested. Some clinical trials, as well as conference presentations on its effectiveness in relieving and preventing cramps, can be found online.
A series of five studies using FLX-787 (HotShot) used healthy, but cramp-prone athletes as subjects. The athletes consumed the proprietary TRP-activator beverage within 30 minutes of their normal training sessions and recorded the following in association with episodes of cramping:
- Pain ratings
Other training sessions were completed without any intervention or, with some subjects, using a placebo control beverage.
The results consistently showed a reduction in the frequency of cramps. In addition, the athletes reported a quicker return to training after a cramping episode.
The researchers have also been focusing on testing the efficacy of their product for reducing cramps in neurological conditions such as ALS and multiple sclerosis with some promising results.
Pickle Juice: Suggested Usage
The ideal dosage for pickle juice is unknown at this time. Or at least there are no publicly available or published studies that investigate this in detail.
The previously mentioned study where participants were given either water or pickle juice at the onset of their cramps used a dosage of 1ml/kg body weight, which was shown to be effective.
In the case study of the basketball player, the player was given 60ml doses and was 81kgs. This equates to just under ¾ of a ml per kg bodyweight.
A string of other studies also used 60ml doses. However, the relative weight of the participants is unknown due to the studies not being easily accessible by the public.
Since pickle juice is not the best-tasting food in the world, having data on the lowest effective dose would be helpful.
Nonetheless, data on whether higher doses are more effective or have longer-lasting preventative effects would help greatly with being able to provide specific dosage recommendations.
At this time, you are likely best to take 1ml/kg body weight of pickle juice at the onset of a cramp.
Or potentially even prior to exercise or when you are anticipating a cramping episode.
For example, if you find that you tend to cramp the final quarter of a game, you can take pickle juice before starting the final quarter to potentially prevent cramps from occurring.
However, if you are a larger individual such as a powerlifter, taking 1ml/kg of body weight may be overkill and logistically difficult to achieve. Perhaps trialling doses around 60mls could be a good place to start.
In regards to specific supplements that use ion-channel activators, dosages should be advised by the company.
Cramps have always plagued athletes. From your weekend warriors to your elite athletes competing in the olympics or making millions a year on professional sporting teams.
For years, it had been thought that dehydration and sodium losses were the cause of exercise induced cramping.
When Lebron James famously dropped out of the first game of the 2014 NBA finals due to a severe cramping left leg, Gatorade even teased him on Twitter. They suggested that it was due to a lack of electrolytes and that he should have been drinking their product.
Nevertheless, advances in sports research show that it may actually have nothing to do with fluid and electrolyte balance. Cramps are actually due to disruptions in neurological pathways secondary to fatigue.
Research on pickle juice (or more specifically, ion-channel activators) and cramps looks quite promising, especially when compared to other common strategies like magnesium supplementation and salt tablets.
As always, proper hydration and nutrition should always be the first priority for athletes as this will ultimately reduce the fatigue-induced risk of cramping.
Stretching is also typically effective in releasing a cramping muscle but most athletes don’t want to have to stop and stretch to alleviate a cramp.
So, if you struggle with cramps, pickle juice (as weird as it sounds) may actually be worth a try.
Leah is an accredited practising dietitian from Brisbane. She also competes as an under 75kg powerlifter with Valhalla Strength Brisbane. As both an athlete and dietitian, she spends much of her time developing her knowledge and skills around sports nutrition, specifically for strength-based sports. Although, she works with a range of athletes from triathletes to combat sports and powerlifting.
Leah also follows a plant-based diet and her greatest passion is fuelling vegan/vegetarian athletes and proving that plant-based athletes can be just as competitive as their non-vegan counterparts.