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Natural remedies offer no-harm health help

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Do you remember the headlines in September 2000, when the Philadelphia Eagles beat the Dallas Cowboys in the 40 C Texas heat? Rick Burkholder, the Eagles head trainer, said his players remained cramp-free because of his secret weapon, pickle juice!

The benefits of pickles go back to antiquity. For instance, cucumbers are mentioned twice in the Bible and history records their use in Asia, Egypt and Greece. Cucumbers were brought to the New World by Christopher Columbus and were grown on the island of Haiti. And U.S. presidents George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were pickle enthusiasts.

What triggered my interest in pickle juice was a report published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. Researchers at Brigham Young University asked college-student volunteers to exercise. They were then exposed to a mild electrical current to induce a muscle cramp.

At that point, they were told to drink either water or pickle juice. The result? Pickle juice relieved cramps 40 per cent faster. Researchers concluded pure vinegar would, in all probability, work just as well as pickle juice.

Pickle companies such as Mr. Olive Pickle, Vlasic Foods and Golden Pickle were of course ecstatic about these results. In fact, one of the companies, sensing a business opportunity, created a sports drink to alleviate leg cramps due to strenuous exercise.

But what is so special about pickles? This research reminded me of something that happened to me while I was working as a ship's surgeon many years ago.

After a couple of days at sea, I received an urgent call to go the engine room.

I found a large, muscular man lying on the floor, screaming in pain. He had been warned to take salt tablets routinely while working in the hot, humid engine room but had neglected to do so.

He never had to be reminded again.

The theory that a lack of salt causes leg cramps has been questioned by some researchers. It may be that other factors are also involved in triggering leg cramps. But anyone who has witnessed a tough marine engineer writhing in pain who is quickly restored to normal by simply taking salt would find it hard not to be impressed.

Exercising in hot weather can cause excessive sweating with an associated loss of salt, resulting in dehydration and muscle cramps. When you sweat, you lose salt and electrolytes. Cells in the body use electrolytes to maintain voltages across cell membranes.

It's not just marine engineers and sports stars who suffer from leg cramps. Some people complain of nighttime pain referred to as restless leg syndrome.

If blood studies show anemia is present, oral iron can be helpful. In other cases, this bothersome symptom can be eased with magnesium. This mineral, known as nature's natural muscle relaxant, is low in most North Americans.

Several years ago, an 80-year-old tennis player had to stop playing the game he loved due to leg pain. Several months later, he happened to read a column I had written about the use of vitamin E to treat this problem. He started taking 1,200 units of natural vitamin E daily and two months later was back playing tennis.

Vitamin E has recently received bad press from researchers who have downgraded its use in heart-disease prevention, but I prefer facts rather than large statistical studies that fail to tell the whole story.

For example, it's a scientific fact that if rats are given vitamin E, they can run longer on a treadmill than rats that do not receive it. It's because vitamin E increases the oxygen-carrying capacity of the blood.

The longer I practice medicine, the more I realize whether it's pickle juice or something else, most natural remedies are safer and often more effective than prescription medication. My rule is to try them first and do no harm.

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Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 9, 2012 A21

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