For a long time now, sports medicine experts have theorized that muscle cramps, that scourge of weekend warriors and professional athletes alike, are the result of muscle dehydration or a muscle starved for electrolytes. So, as you might expect, they’ve treated cramps accordingly, which is to say with water and electrolytes. But Rod MacKinnon, M82, H02, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, has a different idea.
“The primary origin of the cramp is the nerve, not the muscle,” MacKinnon told the Wall Street Journal not long ago. MacKinnon began to settle on this idea a decade ago, when a kayaking trip left his hands and arms cramping up badly. He and his friend Bruce Bean, a Harvard neurobiologist, hypothesized that muscle cramps might be linked to something gone awry with impulses in the nervous system. That led MacKinnon to a thought: Maybe if people consumed something pungent, their nervous system would be “distracted” by the sensory overload. Maybe that would help relieve the pain.
To test his theory, MacKinnon has been tinkering at home, cooking up drinks with varying amounts of ginger and cinnamon while trying to induce muscle cramps through electrical stimulation. He has found that his drinks do indeed stave off cramps. The results of controlled lab studies, which he presented last year at meetings of the American Academy of Neurology and the American College of Sports Medicine, bear him out.
Word has gotten around, and endurance athletes have already started drinking something spicy before their events. In 2015, MacKinnon launched his own concentrated beverage, called Hotshot. Nobody, not even the inventor, pretends the peppery mix tastes good. But it appears to deliver such a shock that the nervous system can’t be bothered to set off muscle cramps.