Muscle cramps can end an athlete's dreams of victory in an instant.
They normally crop up during pivotal situations late in a competition, and their crippling effects can bring even the toughest athletes to the ground. You can eat right. You can hydrate. You can warm up properly. But sometimes, nothing seems capable of preventing a muscle cramp.
However, one home remedy has been helping athletes stave off muscle cramps for decades—pickle brine. Jars of the stuff can be found on sidelines across the country. But one company is hoping to make that old-school approach a thing of the past. They've plucked the functional ingredients of pickle brine and turned it into a full-blown sports drink.
What is a Muscle Cramp?
The Mayo Clinic defines a muscle cramp as a "sudden and involuntary contraction of one or more of your muscles. . . Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle."
That probably jives with what you already know about muscle cramps. But what causes them? Researchers have identified some potential causes, but the exact reason why a muscle cramps up is still largely unknown. Per the Mayo Clinic, "Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the cause isn't known."
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Why Does Pickle Brine Work?
The reason pickle brine has earned a reputation as a cramp-stopper is simple—it works. But why?
For a long time, no one really knew. They figured it had something to do with electrolytes—pickle brine is very high in sodium—or that is was simply an efficient way to replace fluids.
But in 2010, Dr. Kevin Miller—then a Ph.D. student at BYU—dug deeper into the pickle brine phenomenon. By running a series of tests, Miller was able to determine that pickle brine's effectiveness at stopping cramps has nothing to do with electrolyte levels. Instead, it has to do with the acid in the vinegar. When your brain detects a circulatory issue or an electrolyte imbalance in a muscle, it sends a signal to engage that muscle in an attempt to correct the imbalance. This signal is sent repeatedly, which causes the muscle to seize up—which is what we refer to as a muscle cramp or Charlie Horse. But something in vinegar appears to override these neural signals in the brain, thus stopping the cramp.
"This effect could not be explained by rapid restoration of body fluids or electrolytes. We suspect that the rapid inhibition of the electrically induced cramps reflects a neurally mediated reflex that originates in the oropharyngeal region and acts to inhibit the firing of alpha motor neurons of the cramping muscle," writes Miller.
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The Evolution of Pickle Brine
While plenty of athletes still take swigs out of a pickle-less glass jar to combat cramps, one company has created a more efficient product.
The Pickle Juice Company produces a product that harnesses the power of pickle brine but also supports elite athletes with other important nutrients. The origin of the product dates back to a game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Dallas Cowboys in Irving, Texas on September 3, 2000. It still stands as the hottest game in NFL history. The temperature was 109 degrees and the on-field temperature was 115 degrees at one point. The Eagles were able to fend off the brutal heat to beat the Cowboys 41-14. Several Cowboys cramped up during the contest, but the Eagles seemed invincible. After the game, Eagles head trainer Rick Burkholder told reporters the reason the Eagles seemed impervious to the hellishly hot conditions was simple—his team drank pickle brine. The Cowboys didn't. The story inspired Brandon Brooks—who would go on to become the founder of the Pickle Juice Company—to see if there was a chance to create a pickle brine-based product.
He did exactly that in 2001, and the product has been tweaked in the marketplace since. Today, an 8-ounce serving of Pickle Juice Sport—their signature product—contains 820 mg of sodium, 70 mg of potassium, 30 percent of your daily vitamin E, 30 percent of your daily vitamin C and 40 percent of your daily zinc. Its ingredients are simple—dual filtered water, vinegar, salt, natural flavors, potassium, zinc, vitamin C and vitamin E. The included electrolytes help athletes retain fluid and enhance nutrient absorption.
However, the vinegar used in the product differs from the kind you find floating in a Vlasic jar in your fridge. "We experimented with a ton of different vinegars to find a proprietary grain that we found to be the most effective at engaging those neural receptors. We don't make pickles. There's no fruit involved in our process at all," says Filip Keuppens, VP of Global Sales and Marketing at The Pickle Juice Company. "[Our product] kind of functions to reset that neural signal and disrupt them for up to 45 or 50 minutes. So not only does it stop the muscle cramp, it will stop them from reoccurring for a long period. Which is huge in sports."
Pickle Juice Sport tastes like the stuff you sip out of a jar. While few would argue that it's an enjoyable taste, it's almost unavoidable due to the vinegar content. "I joke with people that we could call this stuff CrampStopper 9000 if we wanted to, but people would drink it and say, 'hey, that tastes like pickle brine.' We just kind of embrace that flavor," Keuppens says.
While the vinegar is the biggest cause of Pickle Juice Sport's cramp thwarting powers, its extra electrolytes help you retain fluid after a would-be cramping incident. According to their website, the product contains 10 times the electrolytes found in other sports drinks while also being 100 percent natural and sugar-free.
If drinking vinegar sounds like it could cause some not-so-fun digestion issues, you aren't alone. The acidity in vinegar certainly has the potential to cause stomach trouble, but Keuppens says that the vinegar is softened by other ingredients in Pickle Juice Sport so digestion issues are rare. I can say that when I drank some before a recent running and plyometric workout, my stomach felt fine. I also didn't cramp up—though I'm not a prodigious cramper to begin with, and it was not a particularly hot day.
In addition to 8- and 16-ounce bottles of Pickle Juice Sport, the company also produces 2.5-ounce shots. The shots are primarily for endurance athletes where portability is a factor, while the larger sizes are for sports such as football and basketball where they can be kept on the sideline. "We recommend about 10 ml per 10 kg of body weight. So, for a 178-pound person, a 2.5-ounce shot is appropriate," Keuppens says. However, those more prone to cramping can feel comfortable upping their dosage. "If someone's a prolific cramper, we recommend drinking an 8-ounce bottle before the game and then again at halftime, depending on how bad they get it."
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