Health News

Graedons' Pharmacy: Vinegar, pickle juice help with leg cramps

Q: I've had severe leg cramps for years and have tried every home remedy. What finally helped me was red-wine vinegar.

I put about a quarter inch in a small Dixie cup, then add water till the cup is almost full. I take very small sips until it's gone. Gulping it makes me gag. (The first time I tried it, I thought I was going to die.)

I did this twice a night, before going to bed and when I got up to use the bathroom about 3 a.m. Now I only take the early-morning one. It is not a cure-all, but when I get a cramp it is not severe and goes away quickly.

A: Other readers have reported success with vinegar, but more commonly people swallow pickle juice or yellow mustard to relieve their leg cramps. In one study, exercise physiologists found that pickle juice inhibited muscle cramps triggered by a mild electrical current (Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, May 2010).

Q: I've read in your column that some people eat sunflower seeds to stay awake when they drive. This works, and I have proved it.

I was a researcher at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 20 years, studying drowsy driving, among other safety issues. We heard from truckers, shift workers and other people who habitually dealt with drowsiness while driving. These folks ate a number of different things to stave off drowsiness, including sunflower seeds, pistachio nuts, potato chips, lemon drops and ice cubes.

An "authority" at a respected university published a widely circulated paper that stated, without any supporting research, that none of those things could possibly work. So when sunflower seeds worked

for me, I sponsored research to compare the effects of sunflower seeds or an energy drink with an untreated control group in a driving simulator.

The results showed the seeds were superior to the energy drink (which had a rebound effect, with increased drowsiness after a time), though both were better than nothing. NHTSA never published the study, but I still carry sunflower seeds with me. My cup holders have fresh seeds in one container and empty shells in the other.

A: Thank you for sharing your unpublished research. We've heard for years that separating sunflower seeds from their shells with the teeth and then eating them can keep drivers alert. Drivers need to be careful not to become distracted by anything they may be eating.

Q: I am a family physician who does not dismiss home remedies out of hand. I take care of a wide diversity of patients of different ages and ethnicities. I also see patients in retirement communities and nursing homes. Every year, I travel outside the U.S. to provide medical relief in countries that don't have adequate resources.

I appreciate your pragmatic philosophy and wonder whether you could suggest a book with some scientific support for home remedies. Many of my patients appreciate affordable nondrug approaches for treating common medical conditions.

A: There is actually support in medical journals for many home remedies, from sugar for hiccups and wound healing to Vicks VapoRub for nail fungus. Our book "Quick and Handy Home Remedies" offers the references behind many of our favorite treatments.

It is available online at

Thank you for your open-minded approach. Home remedies often are more affordable than drugs.

In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them via Their newest book is "Top Screwups Doctors Make and How to Avoid Them."