Be Fit For Life

with Ellen Cohen-Kaplan

What you can do about those painful muscle cramps

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Hot Shot, the drink that reduces muscle spasms

Summer is an excellent time to discuss the following problem. Have you ever felt a searing spasm in any of your muscles? It may happen in the middle of the night, just as you lay down, during the day when you’re active, or after your body has been in an awkward position.  There are many theories as to what causes muscle cramps,  and what can be done to relieve them, but a Nobel prize winner thinks he may have found an answer.  “The primary origin of the cramp is the nerve, not the muscle,” said Rod MacKinnon,  a fitness enthusiast and Nobel Prize winning scientist who studies molecular neurobiology and biophysics at Rockefeller University and has led the new thinking on cramps. He conceived this idea when he experienced painful muscle cramps when kayaking with his friend, Bruce Bean, a Harvard professor who is also a molecular biologist.  Go to this link from the Wall Street Journal’s Tuesday edition here> to see the full story.

In the past, people thought that the cramp was a result of a problem with the muscle itself.  The usual reasons given for the problem were dehydration, insufficient electrolytes and/or micro-tears in the muscles . Through several experiments and replications, Bean and MacKinnon discovered that the problem involved misfiring of the neurons.  Electronic impulses gone awry make the muscle continue firing without release. Antidotes such as being well hydrated, getting enough electrolytes, and rubbing or rolling the muscle definitely can help, but he found the best cure was drinking or eating beverages or foods with pungent flavors and smells. “He found that applying a strong sensory input and stimulating receptors in the mouth and esophagus—which is how scientists describe ingesting pungent tasting foods- overloads nerve receptors, producing a kind of numbing effect.” It’s interesting to note that pickle juice has been touted as useful for this problem, but it may have worked for reasons other than the high level of sodium contained within it.

When your nervous system is overstimulated, it cannot send signals to fire excessively to the muscles. So what did the researchers do?  They tested to see what constitutes enough of a jolt to prevent muscles spasms, and came up with the ingredients cinnamon, ginger and peppers, which contain capsicum. They realized that many athletes would have difficulty ingesting these organic substances  before or during an endurance feat, so they decided to solve the problem another way. Bean and MacKinnon began their own company that produces HotShot, a 1.7 ounce bottle of a cinnamon, ginger and capsicum mixture.  I’m not selling it, condoning it, and I haven’t tried it yet, but one year, riding the PMC, I did get an intense muscle cramp in my calf, and although I made it the last 5 miles to the finish line in Bourne, I wasn’t sure at one point if I’d be able to continue. Elite athletes (unlike myself) experience muscle cramps fairly regularly, and some have lost out on Olympic medals as a result of having them during a competition.

Although I can’t imagine how they made it palatable, I’ll try it, because I want to see for myself if it can be effective. I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, if you fall victim to bad muscle cramps, you may want to try that pickle juice (or eat pickles, which is much more enticing). You may also try to eat some cinnamon, ginger and/or peppers to occupy your nervous system, so it can’t send excessive signals to trigger those painful muscle cramps!

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