What does pickle juice have to do with cramps?

Pickle juice has become a popular remedy for leg cramps over the years — specifically for the cramps runners and athletes get after a workout.

Some athletes swear by it, attesting that pickle juice really works. Still, the science behind it is unclear.

On the one hand, skeptics have doubted that pickle juice works for leg cramps at all. There’s no solid scientific reason yet proving how it works, so some write it off as a placebo effect.

On the other hand, some research suggests that pickle juice is way more effective than a placebo. However, it’s still unclear why.

One longstanding theory for how pickle juice works is its sodium content. The juice contains salt and vinegar, which may help replenish electrolytes. But is this actually true?

Keep reading to learn more.

Does it actually work?

Because pickle juice is such a widely used remedy for leg cramps in the sports world, there’s been some research and studies investigating its effects — though not much.

Very few studies fully explain or prove how it works. Nor do they explain how it doesn’t work, or how it’s just a placebo effect. To date, the efficacy of pickle juice is still uncertain.

Some have theorized that pickle juice’s electrolytes prevent leg cramps after exercise — but one study in 2014 debunked this.

After checking blood plasma levels of nine healthy men for signs of increased electrolytes following consumption of pickle juice after exercise, researchers found that electrolyte levels remained the same.

They also stayed level no matter what the study participants drank: water, sports drinks, or pickle juice. This is because it takes a lot longer for electrolytes to be fully absorbed into the body, and long after a muscle cramp would come and go.

The same set of researchers also did a test on pickle juice for cramps earlier in 2010. They found that it did work to shorten cramp duration. On average, it relieved cramps in about 1.5 minutes, and 45 percent faster than when nothing was taken after exercise.

Cramp relief also had nothing to do with placebo effect. This led to the more intense exploration of pickle juice’s effects on electrolyte levels later in 2014.

How to use pickle juice for cramps

In studies where pickle juice was effective for muscular cramps, researchers used about 1 milliliter per kilogram of body weight. For the average study participant, this was somewhere between 2 to 3 fluid ounces.

To use pickle juice for muscular cramps, measure out the pickle juice and drink it quickly. Taking a rough “shot” is also acceptable.

You can use pickle juice from store-bought cucumber pickles or safely fermented homemade pickles, if you desire. Make sure the natural vinegar acids and salts are present. It also doesn’t matter if the pickle juice was pasteurized or not.

Because it’s thought that cramp relief comes from the vinegar specifically, avoid watering the juice down. Drink it raw and experience the taste. However, this may be difficult for some people who don’t enjoy the taste so much.

The science behind why it works

While it hasn’t been proven yet, researchers posit that pickle juice may help cramps by triggering muscular reflexes when the liquid contacts the back of the throat.

This reflex shuts down the misfiring of neurons in muscle all over the body, and “turns off” the cramping feeling. It’s thought that it’s specifically the vinegar content in pickle juice that does this.

Still, more research is needed to prove if this is exactly how pickle juice works to prevent cramps. While there are no studies proving that pickle juice doesn’t work, or that it’s a placebo, more research supports that it does indeed work by this mechanism.

Does it have to be pickle juice?

Over time, pickle juice has been unique and popular in the way it helps with muscle cramps. Thus far, there haven’t been many other natural foods or remedies to rival it.

Foods of a similar vein haven’t been studied as much as pickle juice for cramps. But they could be just as good.

Could you eat a pickle and have the same effect? Scientifically speaking, maybe.

As researchers supposed in 2010, the cramp relief may have more to do with the vinegar content. If you eat a pickle brined with vinegar, it might also work.

However, eating a pickle isn’t as well-studied as pickle juice.

What about other similar fermented products? Liquids like sauerkraut juice, kimchi juice, apple cider vinegar, and even kombucha are similar to pickle juice. Some have both vinegar and salt content, while others have just vinegar content.

Following the vinegar theory, these may also work. They just haven’t been studied or tested like pickle juice has.

There’s no harm in giving them a try if you consider any of the possible side effects beforehand.

What should I know before using pickle juice?

Some doctors and health professionals warn that pickle juice could possibly worsen dehydration. They say it curbs thirst when you drink it, but doesn’t rehydrate like water.

According to both the 2010 and 2014 studies, this isn’t true. Pickle juice won’t dehydrate you, and it doesn’t curb thirst. It’ll also rehydrate you just as much as water, another similar study in 2013 suggests.

If small amounts are taken — such as 2 to 3 fluid ounces occasionally — there should be little to no health or dehydration concerns.

Pickle juice tends to have a lot of salt, and is thus high in sodium. People with high blood pressure and those who are watching dietary sodium may want to be careful not to take too much pickle juice and use it only occasionally.

Pickles, especially homemade, have high levels of probiotics for gut health and immune system function.

Be careful taking it if you have digestive ailments or disorders. Some pickle juices are high in acetic acids, which can worsen certain symptoms. There are also some other possible side effects, too.

The bottom line

The verdict thus far is that pickle juice can work for leg cramps after exercise. Though there isn’t a whole lot of research on it, the studies so far are quite supportive.

Use of pickle juice to occasionally get rid of cramps postexercise should also generally be quite safe. If you have any concerns, talk to your healthcare provider before using it.