Pickles have been considered a health food for centuries.
Julius Caesar is said to have fed them to his troops to boost strength, and Cleopatra favored them as a beauty aid.
The juice from pickles is also thought to have several health benefits and uses.
It's claimed to enhance exercise performance, help control blood sugar and more.
However, it's also high in salt.
So is pickle juice really as healthy as it's claimed to be? This article sets the record straight.
What is pickle juice?
Pickles are said to date back to 2030 B.C., when cucumbers were preserved by travelers journeying from India to the Tigris Valley.
Pickling requires three main ingredients: cucumbers, salt and water.
The cucumbers are fermented by Lactobacillus bacteria, which normally cover the cucumber's skin.
However, these beneficial probiotic bacteria are usually removed during commercial processing, and vinegar is added instead.
After several weeks of curing, the cucumbers have transformed into pickles and are ready to eat. The juice is what remains once the pickles are removed.
Bottom line: Pickling is a simple way to preserve cucumbers and other foods using salt, water and sometimes vinegar.
Nutrients in pickle juice
Here's what you can expect to find in 3.5 oz (100 ml) of pickle juice (1):
- Carbs: 0.4 grams.
- Calcium: 1-5% of the RDI.
- Sodium: 50-115% of the RDI.
- Potassium: 3% of the RDI.
- Magnesium: 3% of the RDI.
- Probiotics: Up to 10,700 colony-forming units per 3.5 oz (100 ml) (2).
Bottom line: Pickle juice contains trace amounts of carbs, minerals and sometimes probiotic bacteria. It is also very high in sodium.
Claimed health benefits and uses
Pickle juice is rumored to have many different uses and health benefits. Here are a few of the most common claims:
Claim: Pickle juice is beneficial for sports performance
Many people think the high sodium content of pickle juice can increase hydration before workouts and improve performance.
However, studies on this are mixed. In one study, participants consumed 3 oz of pickle juice per 100 lbs of body weight (2 ml/kg) before exercise. This had no effect on running performance, sweat rate or body temperature (3).
Additionally, drinking pickle juice after exercise is also supposed to be be beneficial.
Bottom line: Small amounts of pickle juice are unlikely to have significant effects on exercise performance.
Claim: pickle juice cures muscle cramps
Whether they bother you during exercise or as soon as you lie down in bed at night, muscle cramps are never pleasant.
Interestingly, recent research showed they could be resolved in a minute and a half by drinking 1.5 oz of pickle juice for every 100 lb (1 ml/kg) of body weight (7).
Recovery was 36% faster than after drinking plain water, and 45% faster than after consuming no liquid at all (7).
The researchers suggested that something in the pickle juice might trigger a reflex in the mouth, sending a signal to the nerves to stop cramping.
However, more research is needed to confirm this finding.
Bottom line: The next time you feel a muscle cramp coming along, try downing a couple ounces of pickle juice. Research shows it's likely to help.
Claim: pickle juice lessens stomach pain
Vinegar is a popular home remedy for soothing an upset stomach. It also happens to be a prime ingredient in many commercially produced pickles.
According to anecdotal evidence, a glass of pickle juice may help relieve you of your stomach problems.
In these cases, the acidity of pickle juice may help restore stomach acidity to a healthy level.
Nevertheless, there are currently no scientific studies that confirm this.
Bottom line: This one might just be a myth, but could be worth trying. However, people with a stomach ulcer should not try this.
Claim: pickle juice cures hangovers
If you have a hangover and like pickles, you don't have much to lose by giving pickle juice a try.
Yet there's no scientific evidence that pickle juice is more effective against hangovers than any other salty drink.
Bottom line: Pickle juice may be effective against hangovers by pushing you to drink more water. However, there are no studies to support this.
Claim: Pickle juice soothes sunburns
Pickle juice is also a popular remedy for sunburns.
It's said you can blot the juice directly onto sunburned skin, or soak a paper bag in pickle juice and then apply it to the burned area.
Yet as is the case with many folk remedies, no scientific studies have investigated the effectiveness of these treatments.
Nonetheless, when there's no aloe vera on hand, you have little to lose by giving this alternative method a try.
Bottom line: Despite the lack of scientific research on the subject, pickle juice remains a popular home remedy for sunburns.
Claim: Pickle juice relieves period cramps
There's no scientific research on whether pickle juice reduces menstrual cramps, but a simple Google search reveals that many people believe this.
It's not a far stretch to say that pickle juice may soothe menstrual cramps in the same way it is thought to soothe other types of cramps (7).
The high levels of sodium in pickle juice may also help curb the cravings for salty food often reported during PMS.
Bottom line: Pickle juice may help relieve menstrual cramps in the same way it soothes exercise-related cramps.
Claim: Pickle juice fights disease
Such health benefits are often linked to the antioxidants and probiotics thought to be found in pickle juice.
Although it's possible that pickle juice might have an antioxidant effect, no research exists on the antioxidant content of pickle juice.
When it comes to probiotics, pickled vegetables that are cured in vinegar are delicious, but likely sterile with no beneficial bacteria.
Only fermented pickles contain beneficial bacteria. You would normally find fermented pickles in the refrigerated food section of the grocery store, while the unrefrigerated shelf is more likely to have vinegar-preserved pickles.
However, even fermented pickles don't pack the probiotic punch that yogurt and other probiotic foods do.
Even if you can get your hands on a jar of fermented pickles, you'd have to drink many glasses of pickle juice per day to reach a therapeutic dose (2).
Bottom line: Pickle juice may be low in antioxidants and probiotics. Take all claims about benefits against diseases with a big grain of salt.
Claim: Pickle Juice Helps Control Blood Sugar
Chronically elevated blood sugar can lead to type 2 diabetes and a wide array of other chronic diseases.
Interestingly, the vinegar found in commercially prepared pickle juice may help lower blood sugar levels.
However, only one study to date has shown that pickle juice can reduce blood sugar spikes after meals (15).
Pickle juice may also lower blood sugar levels by slowing digestion after a meal (16).
If you're currently taking medication that lowers your blood sugar, make sure to check with your doctor before giving pickle juice a try.
Bottom line: Like vinegar, pickle juice may reduce how much your blood sugar levels increase after meals.
Safety and Side Effects
Despite the many claimed benefits and uses, pickle juice is definitely not for everyone.
Here are some factors to consider before adding it to your routine:
- Acidity: Due to the acidity, it may cause issues for those with a history of gout.
- High sodium: Too much salt can lead to water retention, swelling and bloating.
- Higher blood pressure: When you retain water from eating large amounts of salt, your blood pressure may increase.
- Indigestion: Too much pickle juice can lead to gas, stomach pain and diarrhea.
- Cramping: Some doctors worry that drinking pickle juice may actually cause electrolyte imbalances and worsen cramping. However, studies do not support this (4, 5, 6, 17).
Bottom line: Drinking pickle juice is generally safe, but consider talking to your doctor first if one of the points above applies to you.
Take Home Message
Research has shown that pickle juice may be effective when it comes to soothing cramps and keeping blood sugar levels in check.
However, there's no evidence these advantages are exclusive to pickle juice. Juice from a jar of olives or pickled peppers may even provide the same health benefits.
For other health claims about pickle juice, the evidence is anecdotal at best.
It may work, and it may not. You will have to experiment and see if it works for you.