Monday, July 11, 2016

To prevent cramps, eat spicy

A shot of spicy liquid—think wasabi or hot chilies—may be a far more effective treatment [for cramps] than an energy drink or a banana. All it took was a Nobel Prize winner experiencing some untimely cramps while sea kayaking a decade ago for people to begin to understand that the causes of muscle cramps may not have much to do with muscles at all. ...

If muscles cramp simply because they are weary and poorly nourished, why do our muscles cramp when we are lying in bed doing nothing? Why would an elite triathlete like Craig Alexander, a former Ironman world champion, occasionally suffer from leg cramps in the first minutes of a race, when he was fully hydrated and the opposite of exhausted? ...

...cramps were on Dr. [Rod] MacKinnon’s mind. After perusing the existing research he and Dr. [Bruce] Bean hypothesized that they could modify the nervous system, including the motor neurons controlling muscle, by applying a strong sensory input and by stimulating receptors in the mouth and esophagus—which is how scientists describe ingesting pungent tasting foods. The pungent-taste overloads nerve receptors, producing a kind of numbing effect. ...

Using himself as a lab rat, Dr. MacKinnon began concocting spicy drinks in his kitchen with varying amounts of ginger and cinnamon and trying to induce cramps with electrical impulses. Over the course of the next decade, he grew convinced his hunch was correct. It was harder to induce the cramps after indulging in the spicy concoctions.

A series of randomized, scientific studies followed. The subjects produced results similar to what Dr. MacKinnon had experienced. Those studies were presented last year at meetings of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Sports Medicine.

The great irony of all this is athletes for years had already been trying to avoid cramps not simply with water and bananas but also with pungent liquids, such as juice from pickles, beets or sour cherries. They drank the pickle juice believing its high sodium content would replace an important electrolyte, and they drank the beet and cherry juice because they are rich in antioxidants that athletes thought could help prevent cramping.

The idea was to get those ingredients into the bloodstream and muscles. In some cases, the pickle, beet and cherry juice worked, but in the view of Dr. MacKinnon and a growing number of other scientists, not because the nutrients were reaching their muscles since research showed their blood content was largely unchanged. ...

...Dr. MacKinnon, working with biotech entrepreneur Christoph Westphal, launched the company Flex Pharma Inc., which went public in 2015.

Earlier this year, the company brought to market Hotshot, a mix of ginger, cinnamon and capsicum—spicy pepper plants—that comes in 1.7 ounce bottles.
--Matthew Futterman, WSJ, on another reason to eat kimchi