Health & Fitness

If you can stand it, drink pickle juice to calm cramps

Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.
Mehmet Oz, M.D., and Michael Roizen, M.D.

Q: I trained all summer for a swim across the Hudson River. My trainer and I made sure I stayed hydrated, but I still cramped up during the swim. Is there any way to avoid muscle cramps?

Brent H., Nyack, New York

A: People believe muscle cramps are caused by a lack of hydration; a lack of electrolytes, such as salt and potassium; or a combination of both. And that’s true. But there’s a relatively new theory that muscle cramps also can be a result of the misfiring of motor neurons. In other words, some muscle cramps don’t start with the muscle, they start with the nerves. This would explain why athletes who are well-hydrated get cramps, why folks get them in bed at night and why loading up on potassium and salt doesn’t necessarily prevent them.

And it could be why drinking dill pickle juice (or other highly spicy or tart liquids) seems to prevent and relieve symptoms.

This new approach to controlling muscle cramps is being championed by Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist and biophysicist Rod MacKinnon. After experiencing what could have been deadly hand and arm cramps while kayaking, he and his fellow seafaring pal, Harvard neurobiology professor Bruce Bean, set out to find out how to prevent them.

What the duo came up with was a theory about the effect on the nervous system of drinking spicy or highly tart substances: They think that a strong sensory input can stimulate receptors in the mouth and esophagus to the point of overloading (calming) the nervous system’s excessive misfiring, thereby preventing muscle cramps. This year, after presenting the results of a series of randomized studies to the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Sports Medicine, they started marketing a spicy drink that they claim will prevent muscle cramps for five hours. Does that new marketing ploy bias their science? No matter; you also can try a good swig or two of dill pickle juice the next time you feel a cramp coming on (or to prevent one), and see for yourself what happens.

Q: My 50th birthday is coming up, and I’m getting to be a bit overweight and more sedentary. I guess I need to turn things around. What can I do?

Charlene G., Lexington, Kentucky

A: You ALWAYS have a chance for a healthy do-over, and it’s not as hard as you think. (Start by reading Dr. Mike’s book “This Is Your Do-Over”). In the meantime, here are some recent discoveries about healthy aging that should inspire you to get started working on a younger RealAge today.

1. A study published in the journal Neurobiology of Aging found that being overweight is associated with brain shrinkage! Seems overweight folks at your age begin to lose white matter -- the very stuff that keeps brain functions zipping along -- and their brains end up with the volume of a normal-weight person who is 10 years older!

So aim for a healthy weight by losing one pound a week. No need to “diet”: Enjoy five to nine servings of fresh veggies and fruit daily, cut out all red and processed meats, and eliminate added sugars and syrups, and refined grains.

2. Talking about brain volume, turns out regular exercise when you’re 60-plus (and especially if you are 75 or older) protects you against brain atrophy and helps stave off dementia! That’s what researchers from the David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA, and colleagues determined after looking at data from the Framingham Study.

We suggest you get a buddy and a pedometer, and start a walking routine (heading for 10,000 steps a day); also start a strength-building program using stretchy bands or hand weights.

When you make your RealAge younger by upgrading your nutrition and increasing physical activity, you’ll earn a bonus: You’ll have a more positive attitude about getting older, and that will help you be better able to handle whatever challenges the next decades dish up.

Mehmet Oz, M.D. is host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” and Mike Roizen, M.D. is Chief Wellness Officer and Chair of Wellness Institute at Cleveland Clinic. Email your health and wellness questions to Dr. Oz and Dr. Roizen at youdocsdaily@sharecare.com.

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