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Health benefit of pickle juice: Why athletes drink it for muscle cramps

A sports doctor calls it "an age-old remedy."
/ Source: TODAY

Pickle juice, the humble liquid inside the jar of gherkins in your fridge, is getting attention on the world stage.

When tennis player Carlos Alcaraz won Wimbledon in July 2023, commentators pointed out he was drinking pickle juice during breaks of the grueling almost five-hour final match.

Dr. Elliot Tapper, a liver specialist at the University of Michigan Hepatology Program, says his phone “blew up” as it was happening. He's been studying the impact of pickle juice on muscle cramps and has found sips of it can make them less severe.

Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, says using pickle juice as an anti-cramping agent during exercise is one of his favorite topics.

“It definitely works, and I use it for a lot of my patients, particularly tennis players,” Metzl tells TODAY.com. “It’s a good trick to have.”

Why does pickle juice stop cramps?

Muscle cramps — sudden, involuntary and often painful muscle contractions — are very common and often happen in the context of exercise or at night, according to the National Library of Medicine. They usually affect the legs, feet, arms, hands or abdomen.

Weeks before he won Wimbledon, Alcaraz lost a key match at the French Open when he "started to cramp (in) every part of my body," he said, according to ESPN.

Tapper began researching prickle brine as a simple way to treat muscle cramps after he noticed cyclists and other athletes using it.

Josh Mansour of the Panthers drinks a shot of pickle juice
Athlete Josh Mansour drinks a shot of pickle juice during a National Rugby League match in 2017 in Sydney, Australia. Mark Kolbe / Getty Images

His study, published in 2022 in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, involved people with liver damage who often experience life-disrupting muscle cramps.

In the trial, almost 70% of patients who sipped pickle juice when an episode began said their cramps stopped, compared to 40% who drank water, Tapper found.

The findings would apply to anyone who is experiencing muscle cramps because the mechanism is the same, Tapper says.

People may assume athletes drink pickle juice to boost their levels of electrolytes, but that’s not the case — the effect is due to the acid in the brine triggering a nerve reflex in the throat and happens before the pickle juice even hits the stomach, he notes.

“When the acid enters the mouth and it splashes the back of the throat, there is a nerve receptor there that is sensitive to acid. When that receptor fires, it communicates down the spinal cord where the cramp is happening,” Tapper tells TODAY.com.

“It’s just a nerve firing in a loop. And then that signal says ‘Stop.’”

Pickle juice doesn't prevent muscle cramps from developing; rather, it stops them from happening in the moment, Tapper says.

But Metzl believes replenishing electrolytes is the reason pickle juice, with its high sodium content, works for people who are exercising, especially during hot, humid weather when they sweat profusely.

“Getting them to replenish their electrolytes is a big piece of preventing muscle cramping from happening,” he says. “Drinking salty water is not always super palatable, but dill pickle juice has been an age-old remedy.”

How much pickle juice should you drink?

Just one sip, a tablespoon or so, as long as it splashes the back of the throat and comes from vinegar-based pickles since the acid is key, Tapper says.

“In order to make this work, you’ve got to be near pickle juice,” he adds. “If you’re a person who cramps in the middle of tennis, you have to come up with a way to keep it on your person.”

Metzl suggests trying a little shot glass full.

Pickle juice nutrition

There are two types of pickle juice, says Matthew Black, a registered dietitian at Ohio State Wexner Medical Center.

One is a solution of salt and water, which leads to fermentation and contains good bacteria in the form of probiotics.

The other is a solution of salt and vinegar, which doesn’t involve fermentation and doesn’t contain probiotics.

Black was worried about the sodium content of both and advised against drinking any pickle juice.

“It’s very salty,” Black tells TODAY.com.

Most Americans each too much salt, which is associated with high blood pressure. That, in turn, increases the risk for heart disease.

The probiotics in fermented pickle juice could offer some benefit for maintaining healthy levels of gut bacteria, Black says. But he recommends consuming other fermented, less salty products like yogurt and kefir for that purpose.

Still, Tapper says one tablespoon of pickle juice doesn’t contain that much sodium and is a simple, safe and low-cost therapy. Both he and Metzl say they’d recommend people give it a try for muscle cramps.