Are there nutritional solutions for muscle cramps?
Muscle cramps are often associated with dehydration. If you have ever experienced the excruciating pain of a severe muscle cramp, you may fearfully wonder if it will strike again. One athlete, who frequently was awakened in the middle of the night by piercing pains in his calf muscles, was eager to find a solution to this disturbing problem. Therefore he decided to send us an email with one really interesting question that prompted us to write this article. He was interested to find out is it possible to get rid of muscle cramps by changes in eating habits. “Perhaps something is wrong with my diet?”, he asked, hoping that we’d be able to pinpoint a simple nutritional deficiency. Are there nutritional solutions for muscle cramps?
Because no one totally understands what causes muscle cramps, these unpredictable spasms are somewhat mysterious. They most commonly occur among athletes who work their muscles to the point of exhaustion. People engaged in strength-training regimens, endurance runners, and cyclists are a perfect example. They are likely related to overexertion, but fluid loss, inadequate conditioning, and electrolyte imbalance may also be predisposing factors. The solution often can be found with massage, stretching, or yes, a hard pinch of the upper lip. Other times, nutrition may be involved. Although the following nutritional tips are not guaranteed to resolve this malady, we recommend athletes rule out these possible contributing causes:
Lack of water
Cramps commonly occur when an athlete is dehydrated. To prevent dehydration-induced cramps, drink more than enough fluids before, during, and after you exercise. Always drink enough fluids daily so that your urine is clear, pale yellow, and copious. During a long exercise session, you should drink 8 ounces of fluid every 15 to 20 minutes. After a hard workout, if you for some strange reason have to drink alcoholic beverages, be sure to first have plenty of nonalcoholic fluids to replace the sweat losses, because alcohol has a dehydrating effect. One runner eliminated his painful muscle cramps by following the simple advise to first drink water for fluids, than have a beer for social fun.
Lack of calcium
Calcium plays an essential roll in muscle contractions. Stories hint that athletes who eliminate calcium-rich dairy products may become plagued by muscle cramps. For example, one cyclist found that once he reintroduced yogurt and skim milk into his diet, her cramping disappeared. A mountaineer resolved his muscle cramps by taking Tums, which contain calcium, when hiking. However, some exercise scientists question the accuracy of these anecdotes. A calcium imbalance seems an unlikely cause of muscle cramps because the bones are a huge calcium reservoir. If a dietary deficiency should occur, calcium would be released from the bones to provide what’s needed for proper muscle contraction.
Nevertheless, to rule out any possible link between a calcium-poor diet and muscle cramps, athletes plagued by cramps should consume dairy products at least twice each day, for example by eating low-fat milk on cereal and yogurt for a snack. This good nutritional practice certainly won’t hurt them and possibly may help.
The main foods rich in calcium are dairy products like milk, cheese and yogurt. However, many non-dairy sources are also high in this mineral. Here are 15 foods that are rich in calcium, many of which are non-dairy: seeds, cheese, yogurt, sardines and canned salmon, beans and lentils, almonds, whey protein, some leafy greens, rhubarb, fortified foods, amaranth, edamame and tofu, fortified drinks, gigs, and milk.
Lack of magnesium
Magnesium plays a significant role in the musculoskeletal system. No one can deny it. It regulates muscle contractions and neuromuscular transmission. Where calcium constricts or tightens muscles, magnesium relaxes them. It is therefore logical to assume that using this mineral will help us in treating muscle cramps.
That is why many people use magnesium supplements for the prophylaxis of cramps. However, what does the science say? Does the evidence support using magnesium for this indication? The efficacy of magnesium for this indication has never been evaluated by systematic review. Still, although current evidence doesn’t support the use of magnesium supplements to prevent cramps, you may wish to give them a try to treat muscle cramps.
Few people are aware of the enormous role magnesium-rich food plays in our health. Here are top ten foods high in magnesium: dark chocolate, avocados, nuts, legumes, tofu, seeds, whole grains, some fatty fish, bananas, and leafy greens.
Lack of potassium
Electrolyte imbalance, such as lack of potassium, may play a role in muscle cramps. This can also be ruled out by eating potassium-rich foods on a daily basis, focusing on fruits and vegetables. But a potassium deficiency is unlikely to occur as a result of sweat losses, because the body contains much more potassium than a marathoner might lose during a hot and sweaty race. Nevertheless, a daily potassium-rich diet certainly won’t hurt anyone, and in fact is a health-protective choice.
Although bananas are a great source of potassium, many other healthy foods have more potassium per serving. Fresh fruits and vegetables (oranges, cantaloupe, honeydew, apricots, grapefruit, spinach, broccoli, potatoes, mushrooms, peas) is a great choice, as well as juice from potassium-rich fruit (orange juice, tomato juice, prune juice, apricot, and grapefruit juice). Certain dairy products, such as milk and yogurt, are high in potassium (low-fat or fat-free is best). Same goes for some fish (tuna, halibut, cod, trout, rockfish). Beans or legumes that are high in potassium include: lima beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, soybeans, and lentils.
Lack of sodium
Many health-conscious athletes restrict their salt intake, erroneously believing that sodium causes high blood pressure. If they are losing a significant amount of sodium through sweat, they may be putting themselves at risk of developing a sodium imbalance that could contribute to cramps. This is most likely to occur in ultra-endurance athletes, such as triathletes or ultrarunners, particularly if they have consumed only water during the event and have eaten no foods or beverages that contain sodium.
We sometimes talk with athletes with low blood pressure who have needlessly imposed a sodium-restricted diet on themselves. They complain to us about cramps, chronic fatigue, and lethargy. They report marked improvement once they reintroduce a little salt into their daily diet.
Here are 15 foods that tend to be high in sodium: shrimp, soup, ham, instant pudding, cottage cheese, vegetable juice, salad dressing, pizza, sandwiches, broths and stocks, boxed potato casseroles, pork rinds, canned vegetables, processed cheese, jerky and other dried meats.
Sodium is an important mineral that performs many essential functions in your body. It’s found naturally in foods like eggs and vegetables and is also a main component of table salt (sodium chloride). However, even foods that don’t look salty can have more sodium than you think! You must be careful since too much sodium in the diet can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. Many of these foods are unhealthy anyway. Therefore it’s always best to opt for unprocessed, whole foods – although it’s not as rich in sodium as processed food.
Closing thoughts: Nutritional solutions to muscle cramps
Are there nutritional solutions for exercise related muscle cramps? Is there anything you can do with your diet? Although the suggestions for resolving muscle cramps are only suggestions and not proven solutions, you might want to experiment with these dietary improvements if you repeatedly suffer from muscle cramps. Adding extra fluids, low-fat dairy products, potassium-rich fruits, vegetables, and a sprinkling of salt certainly won’t harm you, and it may resolve the worrisome problem. We also recommend that you consult with a physical therapist, athletic trainer, or coach regarding proper stretching and training techniques. Nutrition may play no role at all in your cramps.