Quinine is a bitter compound that's used in tonic water but also has a long history of medical use. Can quinine prevent leg cramps? Are there side effects to drinking it? Nutrition Diva has all the details.
Nutrition Diva podcast listener Sherri writes: “Is there anything about quinine (or tonic water) that makes it worth drinking? I know some older people who are convinced it helps with neurological issues. Does it have side effects, or is it fairly benign even if ingested daily?”
What’s in Tonic Water?
Quinine is a bitter chemical that is extracted from the bark of the cinchona tree. It’s used in tonic water to impart that characteristic bitter taste. In fact, I’ve made my own tonic water, using cinchona bark that I bought online.
My recipe involved boiling cinchona bark with other spices like coriander and juniper and combining that with citrus juice, grated citrus peels, and sugar and straining the whole concoction to produce a syrup. To use it, I would add a tablespoon or two of the syrup to a glass and fill with plain soda water. (Gin optional.)
Making your own tonic water is fun, especially if you like those sort of DIY projects that require a bunch of esoteric ingredients or equipment, take a lot of time, make a big mess, and ultimately produce something that you could have bought at the store for a buck. Of course, my tonic water tasted nothing like store-bought tonic water. Some of my friends thought that was a plus; others frankly preferred the store-bought stuff. The other interesting thing about homemade tonic water is that it is not clear like store bought tonic water, but more the color of weak tea.
In addition to being used as a flavoring agent, quinine from cinchona bark can also be an effective treatment for malaria.
What Are the Medical Uses of Quinine?
In addition to being used as a flavoring agent, quinine from cinchona bark can also be an effective treatment for malaria. Qualaquin is a prescription anti-malarial medication containing quinine sulfate. However, as more effective drugs have been developed, quinine is no longer the first-line treatment for malaria. It’s basically only used in cases where no other drugs are available, or in areas that have developed strains of malaria that are resistant to the first line drugs. It is also sometimes used to treat malaria in pregnant women.
Cinchona bark contains another closely related compound called quinidine. It has some of the same medicinal benefits as quinine, such as fighting malaria. However it tends to have more serious effects—so it's not widely used. There is some ongoing research involving quinidine to treat certain rare neurological conditions, but toxicity remains a real issue.