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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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July 25, 2016

Dear Mark: Muscle Cramps and Parasympathetic Overtraining

By Mark Sisson
40 Comments

crampus finalFor today’s edition of Dear Mark, I’m answering two questions from readers. First one comes from Debbie, a prolific hiker and backpacker who can’t seem to shake terrible thigh muscle cramps during steep climbs. She’s tried all the conventional advice. She’s taking electrolyte tabs. She’s staying hydrated. Nothing works. What does? And then, Brad wonders about parasympathetic overtraining, a type of overtraining you don’t hear much about. What does it mean and how should he respond?

Let’s go:

Hi Mark,

I do a lot of hiking and backpacking in Southern California and the Sierras. I’ve recently begun to experience excruciating thigh cramps on steeper hikes, especially on the step-ups. I always carry electrolyte supplements and take them before the hike, during the cramp, and afterwards, so I don’t think it’s an electrolyte problem. I stay hydrated throughout the hike. I read recently that cramps are really caused by a nerve dysfunction and that spicy or intense foods like ginger, cayenne or cinnamon (there is at least one product on the market) taken before or during a cramping episode can relieve the symptoms. I was hoping you could comment.

Thank you!

Debbie

Ah, man, muscle cramps during exercise are the absolute worst. And so frustrating: the literal loss of control over your usually trusted movement allies when you need them most. Yet according to the best research we’ve got, neither electrolyte replenishment nor hydration status actually affects cramping. It’s weird and unexpected, I know, but that’s what the research says:

In one study of Ironman triathletes, running speed and previous history of cramping predicted muscle cramps, not electrolyte balance or hydration status.

Another study in distance runners also found that neither electrolyte status nor hydration could predict cramping.

What does seem to cause cramps?

Altered neuromuscular control.

The more you use a muscle (and the harder you push it), the more fatigue sets in. Fatigue disrupts the balance between excitation of the muscle and inhibition of the muscle; it increases the former and decreases the latter. Tired muscles are more likely to go into excitation mode—to rapidly and repeatedly contract. That’s a cramp.

Pickle juice works against cramps, but not because of electrolyte repletion. It actually has no real impact on hydration or electrolyte status, and drinking it resolves muscle cramps faster than the gut can absorb it. TRP ion channels in the oropharyngeal region (tongue/mouth/throat) react to something in the pickle juice—probably the vinegar—and short-circuit the excitation of the muscle. Pretty cool.

Other TRP ion channel activators are found in cayenne pepper, ginger, and cinnamon, and researchers have created a blend of extracts from all three plants that shows efficacy against muscle cramps. It’s called Hot Shot.

That’s not to suggest electrolytes and hydration aren’t important. They are, especially when you’re hiking or training or otherwise exerting yourself physically. Adding salt to your water before a session does improve performance, particularly in warm climates. You could make my blackstrap molasses electrolyte drink mix. It’s not exactly delicious, but it does the trick. Salted OJ is also good. Tastes like Sunny-D, only with actual fruit. But electrolytes and hydration clearly have little to do with muscle cramps.

If you have access, try salgam. It’s a Turkish drink made of fermented black carrot juice, sometimes with added pepper juice. I only know about it because one of my training partners from way back in the day was always into obscure ferments from other cultures. Beet kvass, kombucha, coconut water kefir. These are relatively common today, but back then they were totally new and very weird. One day on a run he was toting this bottle of black liquid around, touting its benefits. Feeling parched, I asked for a swig of what turned out to be salgam. It was salty, briny, vinegary, and incredibly refreshing. It revitalized me.

You may not be able to find it. You might have to make it. And it’s not quite Primal: traditionally, bulgur wheat is added to aid in the fermentation, though likely not in significant enough proportions to impart serious amounts of residual gluten (celiacs and the gluten sensitive should avoid). But I bet it would really work well against cramps, due to the acidity triggering the TRP ion channels.

Some other tips:

Stretch out the muscle currently cramping. If your feet cramp, pull your toes toward yourself. If your quad cramps, grab your ankle and pull your feet toward your butt.

Stay hydrated and keep using electrolytes. They can’t hurt and may provide a base layer of support against cramps, but aren’t any type of cure.

If you’re consistently getting muscle cramps, you might be hiking too hard and your muscles are protesting. Consider shortening the distance and/or the difficulty.

Good luck!

Hi Mark,

I’ve been monitoring my HRV every morning for a little over 2 months, mainly out of a curiosity to see if there are any trends I can use to my advantage. After paddleboarding the last 3 days in the heat (90+ in the northeast), my HRV indicated I was in an overtrained state with abnormally high parasympathetic activity. My hunger in the heat is usually less, however today I feel ravenous.

My questions are: 1) is there any research you’ve come across looking at the connection between parasympathetic activity and hunger levels? And 2) should I look at this as an opportunity to eat more today than usual and see some good results in terms of muscle growth and recovery?

Thanks for everything.

Brad

When most people discuss overtraining, they’re talking about sympathetic overtraining. That’s where stress hormones are high, resting heart rate is elevated, heart rate variability is low, sleep is awful (“tired but wired”), performance is bad, appetite is down, blood pressure goes up, and bodyweight (usually lean mass) drops. If you remain in that state long enough without doing anything differently, you progress to parasympathetic overtraining. That’s what happens when your sympathetic nervous system exhausts itself, when the adrenal gland just can’t pump out any more adrenaline and cortisol, when you’ve made your sympathetic nervous system so weak that the neglected parasympathetic pathway dominates.

It’s characterized by fatigue, a low resting heart rate (which can make people think their fitness has improved), increased appetite and weight gain, low libido, low blood pressure, and excessive sleep.

Parasympathetic is the “rest and digest” pathway, so it makes sense that you’d be hungry. Consider it your body’s way of telling you to chill the hell out, put your feet up, and eat some real food. Stay with healthy, Primal fare. Go lowish carb, as you won’t be doing much in the way of training and don’t need much glucose.

For exercise, don’t. Take a few days off from any real training. Instead, just walk. Hang out at the beach. Maybe go for a lazy paddle. Stay hydrated. Get some shade.

That’s it for today, everyone. Thanks for reading and take care!

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40 Comments on "Dear Mark: Muscle Cramps and Parasympathetic Overtraining"

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Paleo Bon Rurgundy
Paleo Bon Rurgundy
9 months 28 days ago

Woo hoo! Cramping = pickle back shots! Bust out the Jameson.

Elizabeth
9 months 28 days ago

Wow, interesting about the pickle juice. I’ve heard about it for years. Wonder if it works with both supermarket pickles and traditional fermented pickles (which are a lot harder to find.) The only muscle cramps I ever get are foot cramps. When I do I have always stretched and it works. But want to try pickle juice next time!

Mike
Mike
9 months 28 days ago

It’s weird, I’m actually looking forward to a cramp, now, so I can try this out.

Susan
Susan
9 months 28 days ago

Yea, really interesting about the pickle juice remedy! I guess that’s another one in the long line of home remedies that may work for reasons different from what we originally believed, huh? Science!

Clay
Clay
9 months 27 days ago

The trouble is it’s a cure that for the most part can’t used. I don’t know anyone who exercises with a shot of pickled juice in their ( swimsuit, wet suit, bike shorts, yoga pant, etc). Great to know but not a good option when you’re cramping while surfing as it won’t be available.

Rick
Rick
9 months 28 days ago

Yep. definitely been in the position of overtraining my sympathetic AND parasympathetic nervous systems. No bueno. Best remedy is to take your foot off the gas. 😉

Charlotte
Charlotte
9 months 28 days ago

Cinnamon, cayenne and ginger, eh? Sounds like a spicy anti-inflammatory cocktail. It’s probably good for you even if you don’t have cramps. Good to know!

Dave
Dave
9 months 28 days ago

I already indulge in fermented drinks like coconut water kefir and kombucha. But to keep those TRP ion channels active, I’ll take them with me on the next hike.

Juliet
Juliet
9 months 28 days ago
Cramping – read this with interest re migraine which I get a lot of. Muscles are in spasm in migraine -imagine muscle cramp but in your head and eyes going on for several days and nights – that’s what a migraine feels like. I am told the same chemicals are responsible for this migraine spasm / cramp as in a wasp sting – the traditional answer for wasp stings = vinegar. It is also traditional remedy for general headaches as in the nursery rhyme – Jack and Jill… “wrapped up his head in vinegar and brown paper” (not sure about… Read more »
Jerry Moore
9 months 28 days ago

I recall an Eagles vs Cowboys game years ago on a hot, Dallas day and the Eagles trainer was giving the players pickle juice to drink to avoid cramping. Worked well and the Eagles won that day!

http://www.tanpantsdiaries.com

Daniel
Daniel
9 months 28 days ago

Timely post as I’ve started to experience cramping problems the last few years. They seem to be getting progressively worse so I’ve been doing a lot of research lately.

I found this series (http://www.gustrength.com/physiology:muscle-cramps-part-i) which seems to pretty definitively support the loss of neuromuscular control theory. But, they never completed the final part which was supposed to have some practical advice for treatment and prevention. This post seems to complete the circle.

At $5/shot I won’t be buying the HotShots. Not yet anyway. I think I’ll try making a homemade version by infusing vinegar with ginger/cayenne/cinnamon.

LemonCactus
LemonCactus
9 months 28 days ago

Muscle cramps-especially for women-you might increase your calcium & magnesium through food or supplements

Roy
Roy
9 months 28 days ago

Hey Mark. Don’t leave us in suspense.

Sangam recipe?

Cody
Cody
9 months 28 days ago

Mark,

Logic is telling me that it would take more work to cause cramping in stronger muscles, since stronger muscles tend to be more energy efficient. Do you think that strength training could help a hiker/backpacker reduce their frequency of cramps on a challenging trek?

Nicholle
Nicholle
9 months 28 days ago

Did you perhaps mean salgam?

Time Traveler
Time Traveler
9 months 28 days ago

Salgam it is; aside from black carrots it also include turnip which is the actual meaning of salgam and Bulgar flower

Jed
Jed
9 months 28 days ago

Before your next hike, try mixing 2 spoonfuls of collagen powder in water and drink. It’s helped me fight cramps that come from sprinting on my 65 year old legs. It couldn’t hurt to try.

Jason
Jason
9 months 28 days ago

Yep, I would say pickle juice, I have read its stop muscle cramps in 55sec..:)))))

Sheila
Sheila
9 months 28 days ago

My husband drinks pickle juice for cramps, which he has almost nightly, probably from medication. We have jars of naked pickles in the refrigerator because the juice is gone before the pickles are eaten. We found pickle juice at amazon.com, but, although a gallon is $8, the shipping is about $22 and not covered by amazon prime. We’d love to hear of another, less expensive, choice for pickle juice without the pickles.

Jill
Jill
9 months 28 days ago

Make your own!

Sheila
Sheila
9 months 28 days ago

I’ve tried several recipes, but haven’t found any that tastes the same as pickle juice from the pickle jar.

Maggie
Maggie
9 months 28 days ago

Vinegar pickling brine is 50:50 water to vinegar. Add a tablespoon kosher salt per cup of liquid and throw in some pickling spice.

Jill
Jill
9 months 28 days ago

I always take magnesium for cramps, the non-laxative kind is magnesium malate.

Sometimes I have to take more than at other times, but it always works.

Kyle
9 months 28 days ago

Awesome stuff about cramping. I still drink it before vigorous workouts in high heat…and I’ve used it to make a martini with when I don’t have olives.

Dr. Dana Leigh Lyons
9 months 28 days ago

Excited for my partner (who’s been struggling with neuromuscular-related foot cramps since incorporating new movement routines) to try pickle juice therapy!

That’s a new one for me!

Allison
Allison
9 months 28 days ago

On overtraining, particularly parasympathetic chronically, any thoughts on how long to recover? And, is it necessary to go back thru the tired but wired phase before getting back to normal?

Cydney
Cydney
9 months 28 days ago

The solution is salt guys. My mom has kidney disease and during the dialysis process sometimes suffers terrible cramps in her lower body. The solution? A salty broth. For some reason. The salt relieves the cramps. It must be that salt in the pickle juice that cures the cramps.

Bryan smith
Bryan smith
9 months 27 days ago

I carry mustard packets and vinegar packets on all my long rucks. Mustard has a lot of vinegar in it. It’s pretty cool when your buddy is lying there grunting and stretching and digging at his hamstring. Usually around then they’re willing to try anything. The look of surprise on their face after sucking back a packet is humorous. That stuff is like magic. I honestly don’t believe it’s 55 seconds to work. More like 10 in my experience. But that might be pretty subjective. I never knew why it worked though. Thanks for the info.

Dr. Bill
Dr. Bill
9 months 27 days ago

Great stuff regarding the muscle cramps. As a Functional Medicine practitioner I find the person is not getting enough salt. An unrefined salt like Redmonds Real Salt is good. I put a teaspoon in my water bottle of 32 oz. Also, it is important for a person to check their medications. Particularly high blood pressure meds. I’ve also run into the common Adrenal Fatigue that many of us have that directly effects electrolytes in our body’s. If muscle cramps are chronic, it pays to do some digging into the cause. Hope this helped.

Carla ARNP
Carla ARNP
9 months 27 days ago

I’ve been making my own “Haymaker Punch” with vinegar and ginger. that should do a good job preventing cramps and it is amazingly refreshing and delicious!!
Lots of flavor: sour, sweet, salty! Yum!

Recipe:
1/4 cup ACV organic with mother
hunk of fresh ginger — about 1 tablespoon
1/4 lemon — without rind
sweetener of choice to taste– I use stevia
few shakes of sea salt

Blend in blender, strain thru sieve, dilute to taste and enjoy.

I make 2 days worth and save some for tomorrow in the fridge.

laura
laura
9 months 26 days ago

I’ve found the biggest predictor of night time muscle cramps for me is high carb intake (specifically sugar). I used to get charlie horses all the time (while I was sleeping) pre-paleo – and just like the OP I tried to figure out the link – electrolytes, hydration, exertion – nothing seemed to match up. Once I went paleo they completely went away. But now when I go off the wagon (which has been quite frequently lately) I’ll get them. As soon as my sugar intake drops back down to next-to-nothing… they are gone.

2Rae
2Rae
9 months 25 days ago

I get night time cramps deep within my legs and feet at night. I don’t eat sugar or much fruit. However, the cramps are reduced when I stand to work. I work in a cold office and I think it contributes to the cramping. I wish that people would be fine working in a warm room instead of cranking the AC up until my fingernails turn blue.

Animanarchy
Animanarchy
9 months 26 days ago
I’ve heard that pickle juice is a hangover cure and in my experience from drinking it a couple mornings it seems to be somewhat helpful. I love pickle juice, sauerkraut juice, and various other brines and I’ve been eating lots of olives lately and sometimes drinking the juice or eating some of the olives to make room in the jar and adding other food to it, such as some canned stuffed vine leaves (they’re full of rice but they’re delicious). Though there are times I don’t want them or I find they’ve got too much salt added to them I… Read more »
K D
K D
9 months 26 days ago

I make magnesium oil with magnesium chloride flakes and distilled water (1 cup salts to 1 cup water). I spray it afterwards on whichever muscles I’ve been using so they don’t cramp up later. I imagine you could spray them before hiking or whatever. Since I started doing this no more cramps.

Debbie
Debbie
9 months 25 days ago

Mark,

Thanks so much for your response to my question! I read the article provided by Daniel–how fascinating–a fatigued muscle in the shortened condition is more likely to cramp. My quads and adductors, the ones that cramp, are clearly shortened when I am stepping up on rocks (I’m short) or on the really steep climbs. I also really appreciate the suggestion from Bryan about the mustard and vinegar packets. Liquid (like HotShots and pickle juice) is heavy when you are trying to keep your pack weight down on long trips.

Thanks everyone!
Debbie

Jack Lea Mason
Jack Lea Mason
9 months 25 days ago

I used to get hamstring cramps every night. This was partially from nerve damage requiring back surgery. I also have a potassium deficiency and don’t get enough in my food. By law? potassium supplements are limited to 100mg and expensive. I buy food grade potassium bicarbonate powder and make capsules and/or add a pinch to water. I never get muscle cramps until I forget to take it or run out. I need to supplement about 1 gram a day to maintain balance.

Juli
Juli
9 months 24 days ago
This is so on-topic! I have had terrible nighttime leg cramps since I was a kid. They really are a terrible sleep disorder. My grandmother had them too. I also have a chronic daily headache, and just asked my provider about the connection. We have been trying muscle relaxants with some moderate success. I have tried each and every traditional intervention — I get plenty of salt, am hydrated, have healthy potassium, Mg, and calcium intake and levels etc. And I mean etc. I recently saw recruitment for a clinical trial for nocturnal leg cramps and called to discover it’s… Read more »
Stephen
9 months 15 days ago

Really wish I read this yesterday before hiking to Paria. Those hills can kill me, especially if make the mistake of running at any point. I have most of the ingredients suggested in here so will definitely try it out the next time.

Sourav Adhikari
8 months 15 days ago

Thanks for writing this. 🙂

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