Introverts and Exercise (or Pickle Juice, the Elixir of Life)

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Introverts have a storied history with exercise. By some accounts, we don’t exercise – this is more an extrovert thing. For introvert writers, writer’s butt has taken off as an affliction in the blogosphere where it is gaining momentum and is almost as prevalent as writer’s block. In the Twitterverse, the hashtag #WritersButt has been assigned to this topic. Contributors to this discussion alternate between chastising themselves (for the unhealthy habit of sitting too long) and congratulating themselves (for their dedicated focus in putting words on a page).  Indolent introverts have even become something of a marketing force in the exercise industry. We are encouraged to “feel the burn in a more independent setting than your extroverted friends” and to engage with health and fitness systems designed for the introvert lifestyle.

I own a high drive dog and I am a search and rescue volunteer. Because of these constraints, despite the fact that I spend long hours sitting and writing, I am unable to faithfully fulfill my obligations as an indolent introvert. That and my husband gifted me with wearable technology that displays angry red bars whenever I sit for an extended period of time. The unhappy consequence of certain physical activities (e.g. running full tilt through wilderness in hiking boots during search dog training and going mile upon mile in steep terrain) is severe and unrelenting muscle cramps in my shins and calves when I’m at rest. During an online discussion involving search and rescue workers, the dirty little secret of muscle cramps was openly discussed. I refer to it as a banned topic because no one wants this to reflect on their mission-readiness (but c’mon, even marathon runners get cramps) and it is part of the culture to suck it up and not complain. I was relieved to learn that I was not alone with my physical limitations. One remedy that was suggested by many individuals was drinking pickle juice to relieve the cramps. Because pickle juice was independently brought up by so many people, I needed to know whether these anecdotal reports were merely the result of placebo effect, or if there was any real science behind it.

Dr. Kevin Miller of Central Michigan University has published work on the efficacy of pickle juice as a treatment for skeletal muscle cramps. His research concluded that in comparison to deionized water, pickle juice relieved muscle cramps almost twice as fast in dehydrated humans (84.6 +/- 18.5 for pickle juice vs 133.7 +/- 15.9 s for water).  And contrary to the explanation offered online by search and rescue workers, the effect could not be attributed to the pickle juice simply restoring electrolytes to the cramping muscle. Five minutes after consuming pickle juice or water, plasma samples from victims subjects were analyzed to determine electrolyte concentrations. Dr. Miller found that the ingestion of water or pickle juice had little impact on plasma composition. The research team hypothesized that “rapid inhibition of the electrically induced cramps reflects a neurally mediated reflex that originates in the oropharyngeal region and acts to inhibit the firing of alpha motor neurons of the cramping muscle.” In other words, perhaps the acidity of the pickle juice was interacting with receptors in the mouth/throat that talk to the nervous system and convinced it to stop insisting that the muscle must contract. Brilliant research, but this raised at least one more question for me.

If all it takes to get rid of muscle cramps is to drink something of similar pH to pickle juice, then why can’t I just chug a Mr. Pibbs? I would find this to be a much more appetizing alternative to pickle juice. In the spirit of being a pain in the butt (not to be confused with #WritersButt) to academic researchers, I sent an e-mail to Dr. Miller asking him this question. He replied within minutes, providing a copy of the original research article and answering my question. (Dr. Miller is a good egg.) While he has not yet been able to determine exactly why pickle juice seems to relieve muscle cramps, he elaborated that the hypothesis is that the vinegar in the pickle juice causes the activation of TrP (transient receptor potential ion channels) receptors in the mouth, which then cause a reduction in nervous system activity. Dr. Miller suggested that it’s probably not necessary to actually drink the pickle juice, since swishing it around in the mouth and spitting it out should provide the same relief if the hypothesis is correct.

I am not sure that I would have the presence of mind to remember to swish rather than swallow when in the grip of a painful muscle cramp. For anyone out there who is scientifically inclined and suffers from muscle cramps, I’d appreciate it if you could reply to this blog with any experiences. If he does not file a restraining order against me, I’ll be sure to let Dr. Miller know of your findings.

All errors are my own. If you would like to comment on anything in these posts, I would be delighted to hear from you. Please also visit my author’s website at www.reynafavis.com.

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Introverts and Exercise (or Pickle Juice, the Elixir of Life)

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