Is Pickle Juice Good for You? A Registered Dietitian Explains Potential Benefits
A registered dietitian settles the debate on if pickle juice is a remedy for muscle cramps.
Optimal recovery, energy, focus, metabolism and mood are all positively affected by proper hydration. Water aside, there is no shortage of electrolyte-rich beverage options to use to rehydrate. However, there might be one option you haven't tried: pickle juice.
For now, supermarkets don't sell many bottled pickle juice options that are geared towards athletes' recovery—which means you have to drink the juice straight out of the pickle jar. Though sipping on the briny, tangy liquid may seem like the least refreshing post-workout drink, some athletes swear by it. In fact, some say the beverage can thwart or alleviate muscle cramps brought on by physical activity. Individual reports of pickle juice relieving muscle cramps (of which are probably due to dehydration) are fine, but more studies are needed to back up whether or not pickle juice is a viable option to suggest to athletes.
Does Pickle Juice Help with Muscle Cramps?
Limited research has been done to examine whether or not pickle juice can help alleviate muscle cramps or rehydrate, for that matter. The hypothesis as to why pickle juice may help is due to the fact that it's high in sodium and vinegar-based. When sweat, which contains sodium, is lost during a workout, it's important to replenish with electrolytes to prevent muscle cramps and dehydration.
A randomised clinical control trial, published in a 2009 issue of the Journal of Athletic Training, examined electrolyte changes in the blood after consuming three different fluids: pickle juice, water and a common carbohydrate-electrolyte solution. This study had a small sample size consisting of nine men, but researchers found that there were no significant differences in electrolyte concentrations among the different beverages.
In 2010, a research article published in the Journal of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise looked at whether or not pickle juice shortens the duration of muscle cramps. In this small-scale study (again, only nine participants), muscle cramps were induced in nine men who were in a fluid deficit. Following nerve stimulation and muscle cramping, participants consumed either a small amount of pickle juice or deionised water (water without ions).
The study found that pickle juice shortened the duration of cramps compared to water and relieved cramps faster than when water or nothing was consumed. The interesting part of this study was that changes in electrolyte levels were not significant, meaning it was probably not the pickle juice's electrolyte content that affected the muscle cramps.
If electrolytes were not the solution to shortening muscle cramps, researchers assumed that there had to be another mechanism at play. In that same 2010 research article, it was suggested that the effect pickle juice had on muscle cramps was due to its acetic acid (vinegar) content. It's thought—though, there's still not enough research to support this idea—that the sour taste of acetic acid stimulates the nervous system receptors at the back of the throat. This, in theory, triggers a reflex that increases what's called inhibitory neurotransmitter activity. Inhibitory neurotransmitters block messages (like a message telling a muscle cell to contract) from being carried throughout the nervous system By inhibiting neurotransmitter activity, muscle cramps are reduced.
Is Pickle Juice Good for You?
Whether or not science supports the idea that pickle juice can help with muscle cramps is still up in the air, but for athletes interested in trying it, there is no harm as long as consumption is kept to roughly one millilitre per kilogram of body weight. For example, this would mean a 68-kilogramme adult would consume about 68 millilitres of pickle juice. It is important to bear in mind that the benefits of pickle juice are mostly due to the fact that it can help relieve muscle cramps (thanks to vinegar) and not because of its electrolyte content.
If muscle cramp relief is your main goal, pickle juice might help, as might other sources of vinegar-based brine such as kimchi or sauerkraut juice. For rehydration purposes, the research articles above suggested that pickle juice is no more efficient at rehydrating individuals than water.
Again, it's important to remember that pickle juice is high in sodium, so it's best for individuals with high blood pressure to keep their intake of pickle juice to a minimum. And folks with gastrointestinal disorders or irritable bowel syndrome might experience GI upset from the vinegar content of pickle juice.
Tips for Staying Hydrated
If hydration is your goal, there are many ways to prevent dehydration from happening. According to the US National Academy of Medicine, adult men should consume about 13 cups of water per day and women should consume about nine, with each cup equalling 240ml. Of course, those needs will increase for athletes participating in exercise that results in a lot of sweat loss. Staying hydrated is one of the best ways to prevent dehydration and related symptoms such as muscle cramps.
In general, the best way to consume enough fluid is to make sure you are enjoying the taste. If water is not exciting, try adding a fruit (like lemon or lime slice) for flavour. Another way to make water more appealing is by freezing fresh fruit in ice cube trays and using the frozen cubes to flavour the water. Herbal teas count towards a daily fluid goal—as does carbonated water. When you engage in sport or if you live in a hot climate, it might make sense to consume a sports drink or coconut water to help adequately replenish electrolytes.
The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, pickle juice is not bad for you, but it's probably not doing much for you, either. Anecdotal evidence and very little research suggest it can help with muscle cramps, but, other than that, it's no better at hydrating you than water.
Words by Sydney Greene, MS RDN.