Post 03 Dietary Supplements to Prevent Leg Cramps

Eat well but take supplements to be sure you

Author, Don Penven

Author, Don Penven

get needed minerals

By: Don Penven, CEO

Brandywine Research

Leg Cramps, Often Referred to as a Charley Horse, May be Caused By a Lack of Certain Minerals

Orthopedic specialists define muscle cramps as a sudden, uncontrolled contraction of a muscle. This kind of pain is most often experienced in the legs, particularly the calf, and is often referred to as a leg cramp or a “charley horse.”

A leg cramp occurs when the affected muscle suddenly and without warning forcefully contracts. The most common muscles to follow this affliction are muscles that cross two joints. These muscles include the calf (crossing the ankle and knee), the hamstring (crossing the knee and hip), and the quadriceps that also crossing the knee and hip.

The duration of the cramp, and associated pain, may last a few seconds to several minutes. These cramps most often occur during the night and will most certainly awaken the victim.

No singular cause for leg cramps has been discovered. Among the possible causes listed are:

  • Active exercising
  • Muscle fatigue from normal, daily activities
  • Dehydration
  • An imbalance or lack of electrolytes
  • Being overweight
  • Medications prescribed
  • Exercise in some unusual or different way than the normally practiced way

Leg cramps are more common in young (adolescent age) and older (over 65) patients. Patients who weigh more than they should are more prone to developing leg cramps. Also, some medications may present side effects of leg cramping—particularly diuretics.

How can leg cramps be prevented?

Stay Hydrated

It is not well known exactly how dehydration and muscle cramping are related, but it is known that dehydration can facilitate leg cramps. Drink at least three full glasses of water each day, which is far more realistic than 5-6 glasses a day. This should include a glass at bedtime. Also drink plenty of other fluids, including some sports drinks that contain electrolytes,  before, during, and after exercise.

Stretch Regularly

Stretching can relax muscle fibers. When working out, a good post-work out stretching routine can help relax muscles and prevent cramps. Make sure you cool down after exercising, and do not exercise vigorously just prior to going to bed.

Train Gradually

Gradually build up an exercise program, and try to avoid sudden increases in activity. The “10% Rule” is a good rule of thumb: never increase your exercise over one week by more than 10% compared to the week before. Sudden changes in activities will often result in leg cramps.

What is the best way to make a leg cramp subside?

Usually instinct takes over when a leg cramp strikes, and you massage and stretch the sore muscle. This is a perfect normal instinct and will often relax the muscle. The best steps are:

  • Massage the cramped muscle
  • Stretch the muscle (gently!)
  • Take a hot shower or bath to warm and relax the muscle

When do I need to have leg cramps evaluated by a doctor?

If leg cramps become a persistent and recurring problem, you should be evaluated by your doctor. Because electrolyte imbalances can cause cramping, some blood may be analyzed to ensure the levels of potassium and other electrolytes are normal. There are also muscle relaxing medications that can be prescribed if the muscle cramping is a problem, particularly at night. Finally, your medications and medical history should be reviewed to investigate for possible factors contributing to your leg cramps.

OK… all well and good for those involved in regular exercise programs. Everyone needs some amount of active exercise, even if it is of short duration. For this ole codger, a brisk walk while walking my dog several times each day will have to suffice.

For me, the answer seems to be dietary supplements since no matter how careful I am of my diet; I seldom get the needed electrolytes I need. Here is a brief rundown on the most often supplements taken and what they do:

Magnesium

According to leading health care providers, magnesium deficiency is the hidden cause of leg cramps, and no prescription medication can treat it.  Research reveals that 78% of leg cramp sufferers have a severe magnesium deficiency, so without magnesium, your body is missing its most important natural defense against pain, swelling, tension and inflammation. Studies show that aggressively replenishing magnesium eliminates leg cramps and prevents them from returning in the long run.

A diet of leafy green vegetables, nuts, seeds and whole grains with every meal, goes a long way toward restoring your magnesium with diet alone. In addition, if you experience any of the following, your magnesium requirement is increased by 50% or more: caffeine use, stress, light alcohol use, exercise, hormonal birth control use, sleep deprivation, pregnancy and aging. So if you happen to be a young, stress-free vegetarian, your legs won’t crave high doses of magnesium.

 An understanding as to how magnesium works to relieve leg cramps is needed–especially how it interacts with calcium. Magnesium derives its effectiveness by the fact that it loosens muscles by counteracting the effect of calcium, which tends to tighten muscles. As people age, ahhh…that’s me, excess calcium accumulates in the muscles, causing leg cramps. Also, when people eat a lot of dairy in addition to taking calcium supplements, (especially with Vitamin D) it is easy to get calcium overload. Vitamin D is an important supplement because its principle source is from direct sunlight, but many doctors recommend easing back on the extra calcium for a two- week trial basis, to see if that helps. 

The D vitamin Increases the absorption of potassium, which is critical for proper muscle function.

It decreases pain by blocking receptors in the brain and nervous system. Vitamin D reduces inflammation by inhibiting cytokine release in muscles and the entire body. It also relaxes blood vessels and decreases blood pressure, which restores healthy circulation. Finally, it Increases the production of serotonin, GABA and melatonin, which helps you relax and fall asleep. 

Potassium (From the National Institutes of Health-NIH)

Charley Horse, Nocturnal Visitor

Charley Horse, Nocturnal Visitor

Potassium is a very important mineral to the human body.

Your body needs potassium to:

  • Build proteins
  • Break down and use carbohydrates
  • Build muscle
  • Maintain normal body growth
  • Control the electrical activity of the heart
  • Control the acid-alkali balance

Food Sources

Many foods contain potassium. All meats (red meat and chicken) and fish such as salmon, cod, flounder, and sardines are good sources of potassium. Soy products and veggie burgers are also good sources of potassium.

Vegetables including broccoli, peas, lima beans, tomatoes, potatoes (especially their skins), sweet potatoes, and winter squashes are all good sources of potassium.

Fruits that contain significant sources of potassium include citrus fruits, cantaloupe, bananas, kiwi, prunes, and apricots. Dried apricots contain more potassium than fresh apricots.

Milk and yogurt, as well as nuts, are also excellent sources of potassium.

People with kidney problems, especially those on dialysis, should not eat too many potassium-rich foods. Your doctor or nurse should recommend a special diet.

Side Effects

Having too much or too little potassium in the body can have very serious consequences.

A low blood level of potassium is called hypokalemia. It can cause weak muscles, abnormal heart rhythms, and a slight rise in blood pressure. You may have hypokalemia if you:

  • Take diuretics (water pills) for the treatment of high blood pressure or heart failure
  • Take too many laxatives
  • Have severe or prolonged vomiting and diarrhea
  • Have certain kidney or adrenal gland disorders
  • Suffer frequent leg cramp episodes

Too much potassium in the blood is known as hyperkalemia. It may cause abnormal and dangerous heart rhythms. Some common causes include:

  • Poor kidney function
  • Heart medicines called angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and angiotensin 2 receptor blockers (ARBs)
  • Potassium-sparing diuretics (water pills) such as spironolactone or amiloride
  • Severe infection

Learn more About Restless Leg Syndrome