Muscle cramps can be a huge problem for athletes and for those who try to keep themselves in shape – and athletes of the caliber of Rafael Nadal and LeBron James have been challenged by this problem in recent years. But the Wall Street Journal reports that new findings by a team of award-winning researchers (Nobel-prizing winning neuroscientist Rod Mackinnon and Harvard neurobiology professor Bruce Bean) have found new answers to the puzzle of what causes muscle cramps – and more importantly how they can be stopped in a healthy and natural manner.
Knowledge of Muscle Cramps Evolves
For most of the 20th century, Outside Online (a site dedicated to health and fitness), notes that doctors and researchers believed that muscle cramps happen when an athlete’s fluid or electrolyte levels become unbalanced or too low or when an athlete overuses his or her muscles while performing. However, for researchers that came later, that did not explain why cramps could occur when an athlete is at rest or stretching before or after a workout.
In the 1990’s, South African physician Martin Schwellnus theorized that muscle cramping is actually a neurological problem: when the muscles get overused, the signals between the brain and the muscles get confused: signals get sent that tell muscles to contract when they should be telling them to relax. As a result, cramping and pain occurs.
Flex Pharma is Born
Bean and Mackinnon were intrigued by the idea that muscle cramping is neurological in nature and began to do research on the subject. In doing so, they came across several studies that showed a connection between the ingestion of spicy or pungent foods (such as mustard and pickle juice) and an easing in muscle cramps.
The scientists realized that both mustard and pickle juice contain compounds called ion channel activators. These compounds appear to be able to, at the same time, stimulate nerves in the digestive system while relaxing nerves in other parts of the body. The two men then decided to experiment and see which spicy or pungent foods appeared to be able to ease muscle cramping, sometimes even experimenting on themselves to gauge the effects of the different foods.
What was born of these experiments is a patented supplement which will be available sometime in 2017 by the company Flex Pharma, that Bean and Mackinnon founded together. And this supplement has possible implications for more than just athletic performance: its creators are now in the process of applying to the FDA to be able to use this product to help treat the painful muscle cramping and spasms associated with serious conditions such as multiple sclerosis (MS) and Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS. While neither condition is curable, this kind of product could at least bring some relief to patients trying to manage their conditions from day to day and may even be able to improve quality of life.
The Study in Context
It shouldn’t come as too big a surprise, however, that spices (or rather, the active compounds that these spices contain) should be able to help with cramping or pain. After all, capsaicin, the compound which gives hot peppers their actual heat, is now widely used to treat pain and inflammation in joints and muscles both. It is well-known for both its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties. Turmeric, too, has an active ingredient called curcumin which has been shown to help reduce pain naturally and is widely used for this particular property.
In short, when the new supplement from Flex Pharma hits the shelves in America some time next year, it should give athletes, bodybuilders and others who stay fit and active a new way to help with the sometimes debilitating pain of muscle cramps. What’s more, it will be a way that is safe, natural and, above all, effective.