What the Heck are TRP Channels and Why Should We Care?

By: Dr. Bob Murray, Managing Principal at Sports Science Insights and advisor to HOTSHOT

Most everyone has felt the heat of a spicy meal or the piercing discomfort of brain freeze after drinking a cold beverage too quickly. Both of those responses are made possible by TRP ion channels located in the membranes of sensory nerves in the mouth. Although the importance of TRP channels isn’t a topic that typically comes up in normal conversation, especially among athletes, that might soon change because of a unique insight by Nobel Prize-winning neuroscientist and endurance sea kayaker, Dr. Rod MacKinnon of Rockefeller University. After suffering from debilitating arm cramps during a kayak trip off the coast of Cape Cod, Rod and fellow kayaker Dr. Bruce Bean of Harvard Medical School began discussing how best to prevent future cramps.

Even though both Rod and Bruce are neuroscientists, they quickly realized that they didn’t know much about what causes cramps or what interventions might prevent cramps, so they dug into the scientific literature on the topic. As Rod and Bruce talked about what they learned from their readings, they realized that the nervous system might be prodded to stop cramps by activating special receptors—TRP ion channels—located in sensory nerves of the mouth. They knew that these nerves connected to areas of the brain that communicate with other parts of the nervous system, including the spinal nerves that control skeletal muscles.

“TRP channels” (TRP is pronounced ‘trip’) is shorthand for transient receptor potential ion channels found in nerves throughout the body. TRP channels respond to a variety of different stimuli including heat, cold, pain, and pungent spices. MacKinnon and Bean theorized that strong activation of TRP channels in the mouth—particularly TRPA1 and TRPV1 channels—could stop cramps by calming the hyper-active nerves that cause muscles to cramp. Some cramp-prone athletes have used pickle juice, wasabi, or mustard to try to achieve the same effect, but those spices are short-acting and weaker TRP channel activators than other natural spices. Rod and Bruce experimented on themselves—using an electrical stimulator to create cramps in the muscle controlling the big toe—to find a specific calibration of spices that made the muscles resistant to cramping.

Rod and Bruce’s formulation underwent years of refinement and testing and is now available to athletes as HOTSHOT®. Laboratory and field studies have shown that consuming HOTSHOT® does affect the electrical activity of cramped muscles, lessening the frequency and severity of exercise-associated muscle cramps. It took two very smart scientists to make the connection between TRP channels and Neuro Muscular Performance, a connection that is now helping athletes avoid the pain and frustration of muscle cramps. It’s also possible that the science of TRP channels might unlock other benefits to Neuro Muscular Performance that could aid training, racing, and recovery, possibilities now under laboratory study.

Figure A:  Different TRP channels respond to different spices, flavors, and nutrients.





HOTSHOT Testimonial:  Beating the heat and cramps at Ironman 70.3 Hawaii .

HOTSHOT Science: What causes a muscle cramp? Read here.

The Nerve is the Boss of the Muscle: Take control with HOTSHOT.  Here’s how.

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