It seems that no one is safe from the excruciating agony of Charley horses. While soreness is typically associated with being out of shape and overexerting your body, these muscle twinges are a different beast. Charley horses fall into the same category of unexpected muscle cramps that even pro athletes can suffer from at the peak of their fitness.

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For years, most research has suggested that the likely causes of the late-night spasms and similar random cramps are muscle tension/soreness, dehydration, or mineral depletion. Taking electrolytes, drinking plenty of water, and gentle stretching are supposed to help prevent the sudden bouts of pain. However, my personal experience has proven that these preventative methods aren’t 100% effective, and recent research suggests why.

Photo by Stephanie DeVaux

According to more than 10 years of investigation by Nobel laureate Dr. Robert MacKinnon and neurobiologist Dr. Bruce Bean, the answer lies not in the muscles but in the nervous system. When motor neurons misfire, they can stimulate muscles in such a way that causes searing pain. The solution, the scientists suggest, is to numb nerve receptors at the onset of a cramp – with spicy and/or pungent tastes.

That’s right, Sriracha fans: foods that provoke extreme reactions in the mouth and esophagus seem to help cancel out muscle twinges. In fact, it’s probably why pickle juices and similar drinks are already known to help prevent cramps, though till now the effect has been attributed to their electrolyte-replenishing sodium content. To capitalize on these findings, Dr. MacKinnon has helped launch HotShot, a sports drink chock full of the hot superfoods like ginger, cinnamon, and capiscum to numb the nerves at the first signs of a cramp.

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Bitter, spicy drinks don’t sound super appealing to everyone, but momentary unpleasantness might be worth it for athletes in high-stakes competitions. Unfortunately, eating spicy foods before bed is not a good idea, but ginger tea might be worth a try to prevent those horrible Charley horses. Emphasis on “might,” since the pungent taste method seems to be more of a reactive than a preemptive strategy for dealing with cramps.

Most importantly, don’t think that this new research is suggesting spice as a cure-all. Drinking water, consuming minerals, and stretching are still key to minimizing bodily strain and exercising effectively.