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How Does A Teaspoon of Mustard Cure Muscle Cramps?

A Nobel prize winning scientist has come up with an explanation for why mustard, pickle juice or hot chile peppers could ease muscle cramps.
How Does A Teaspoon of Mustard Cure Muscle Cramps?
A bottle of yellow mustard with white background

For years people have been insisting that a teaspoon or two of yellow mustard eases the pain of muscle cramps within a minute or two. We have even tried it ourselves with amazing success. But health professionals often roll their eyes when we mention this or other kitchen cabinet treatments.

That’s because they cannot imagine a reason why mustard might work. It defies their understanding of how a drug is absorbed from the stomach and exerts a pharmacological effect on the body. The mustard cure works too darned fast for standard scientific explanation.

Home Remedies Often Defy Logic:

Home remedies have been with us since the dawn of civilization. Before there were drugs there were herbs, spices and a variety of natural products to help us when we were in distress.

With the advent of modern medicine and pharmaceuticals, home remedies fell into disfavor. Doctors did not learn about them in medical school and drug companies were not about to invest millions of dollars into products that could not be patented. As a result, doctors often sneer at old wives’ tales or other seemingly silly solutions for common ailments.

When we discuss home remedies, as we frequently do, people often ask us, “How does that work?” We rarely have a good answer, which is why physicians are so understandably skeptical. Without a plausible explanation for the mechanism of action, they don’t believe a spoonful of mustard can stop a leg cramp within a minute or two.

If It Might Help and Won’t Hurt and Is Affordable:

We always figure that if something works, is not dangerous and doesn’t cost very much, that’s what matters. After all, doctors did not know how aspirin worked for at least 70 years after it was brought to market by the Bayer company. That didn’t keep aspirin from easing pain or lowering fevers.

An Explanation for Mustard vs. Cramps:

Now we have an ingenious explanation for why mustard or pickle juice works to relax muscle cramps. For decades physicians and athletic trainers assumed that muscle cramps originated in muscles and were caused by dehydration or imbalances in electrolytes such as sodium, potassium or magnesium.

Researchers have established that pickle juice promptly eases electrically induced muscle cramps (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May, 2010).  They have also demonstrated that the mechanism of action of pickle juice or mustard is not through electrolyte replenishment (Journal of Athletic Training, May-June, 2014).

Nobel prize winner Rod MacKinnon, MD, and his colleague Bruce Bean, PhD, are neurobiologists. They are also prone to muscle cramps. While kayaking several miles off Cape Cod, Dr. MacKinnon suffered debilitating cramps, which was dangerous that far out in the ocean. Fortunately, they made it back to land and began a quest to better understand the causes of such incapacitating cramps.

By thinking creatively, they discovered that muscle cramps are actually triggered by misfiring nerves rather than dehydration or electrolyte imbalances. These brilliant scientists came up with a revolutionary idea that might transform the treatment of muscle cramps.

They hypothesized that strong flavors would trigger nerves in the mouth, throat and stomach. This neuronal stimulation might in turn overwhelm the misbehaving nerves that were causing muscle cramps. They concocted a spicy beverage containing cinnamon, ginger and a hot pepper extract that “directly influence and regulate nerve function.” They call the product Hotshot (online at www.Flex-Pharma.com).

Strong Flavors and Relief from Muscle Cramps!

We suspect that yellow mustard, hot peppers or pickle juice may also work by stimulating the same nerves. Visitors to our website report fast cramp relief with such remedies that cannot otherwise be explained by the slow absorption of sodium in the case of pickle juice or turmeric in the case of yellow mustard.

Lessons to be Learned From the Mustard Cure:

Perhaps it’s time for skeptics to recognize that just because a remedy may seem strange does not mean it should be rejected. The research of Drs. MacKinnon and Bean offers a novel explanation for why so many people have reported success with home remedies for leg cramps. It might even help explain why soap under the bottom sheet works to prevent leg cramps for so many people. It is entirely possible that the fragrance in soap triggers a neuronal reaction that eases the cramps. Here is a link to one hypothesis in this regard.

Here is another link you may find intriguing:

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About the Author
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist who has dedicated his career to making drug information understandable to consumers. His best-selling book, The People’s Pharmacy, was published in 1976 and led to a syndicated newspaper column, syndicated public radio show and web site. In 2006, Long Island University awarded him an honorary doctorate as “one of the country's leading drug experts for the consumer.” .
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