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Leg cramp

Which foods should you eat to prevent or relieve muscle cramps?

Though generally harmless, muscle cramps are nonetheless painful. Discover the best foods for preventing and relieving them (as well as the foods to avoid).

Cramps: definition, causes and prevention

A muscle cramp is a brief, sudden and uncontrollable contraction of a muscle or muscle group. Mainly affecting the lower limbs (feet, toes, calves), a muscle cramp can occur during the day, during or after exercise, as well as at night when the body is at rest (night cramp) (1).

Though very painful, muscle cramps are fortunately harmless and usually go away on their own after a few seconds or minutes. Though anyone can be affected, those most at risk are athletes, pregnant women and the elderly (2-3).

Insufficient hydration, mineral deficiencies (magnesium, potassium, calcium), certain types of medication, chronic kidney disease, and less commonly, neurological disease are the most frequently-cited causes (4).

To prevent cramps, it’s particularly important:

  • to drink enough fluid (a minimum of 1.5 litres of water a day);
  • not to skip your pre-exercise warm-up in order to prepare your muscles (5);
  • to stretch properly after your workout to remove lactic acid from your muscles.

Night cramps: the best traditional remedies

To get rid of night cramps, there are several options worth trying:

  • stretch the affected muscle fibres to help them relax: for cramp in the calf, for example, try dorsiflexion in which you gently pull the tip of your foot towards the front of your leg (6);
  • apply some heat (such as a hot water bottle or a heat pad) to the affected area to relax it;
  • gently massage the painful area using a mixture of 2 drops of essential oil of lavender diluted in a tablespoon of arnica oil until fully absorbed (7).

Natural anti-cramp options: which foods should you prioritise?

Foods rich in magnesium

Cocoa, wholegrains, oilseeds… The common factor in all these foods is a high magnesium content. A lack of this mineral, which supports good nervous system and muscle function, can induce a state of muscular hyperexcitability conducive to cramp (supplementing with a product such as Magnesium Orotate, which contains 8 highly-bioavailable forms of magnesium, can boost dietary intake, often deemed inadequate) (8).

Bananas and cramp

Packed with B vitamins, potassium and magnesium, bananas are a good source of energy and nutrients, and popular with sportspeople for preventing post-exercise muscle cramps and soreness. However, no study has so far found a clear increase in plasma potassium concentration following ingestion (9). Even so, it’s still worth adding a banana to your breakfast or eating one as a snack with a square of dark chocolate high in cocoa solids (70%+), for a delicious way of boosting your magnesium intake.

Potassium and night cramps

Potassium supports normal muscle and nervous system function. It plays a key role in muscle contractions and catalyses the transmission of nerve impulses. Though very rare - and normally linked to kidney problems or malnutrition - a lack of potassium can actually result in significant muscle disfunction(10).

It’s therefore important to add potassium-rich foods to your menu: fresh fruits and vegetables (kiwi, avocados, spinach, Brussels sprouts …), dried fruits (apricots, grapes, figs …), pulses (chickpeas, lentils …), nuts (almonds, hazelnuts …) (11). In the case of proven deficiency, it may be wise to take a potassium supplement (with the Potassium Bicarbonate supplement, for example, which has a very advantageous dosage).

Dairy products

Calcium is not just good for bone health! It also supports normal neurotransmission and muscle function (12). Eating 1-2 dairy products a day, focusing on low fat options (yogurt, fromage blanc …), is a simple way to obtain it. If you are lactose-intolerant, try other natural calcium sources: highly-mineralised waters, un-deboned sardines, broccoli, almonds

Vinegar for easing cramps

With its high content of minerals, including potassium and magnesium, apple cider vinegar is considered a traditional anti-cramp remedy. As well as being a flavour-enhancer, it can be used externally in bathwater (adding 2 cups) or internally (diluting 1 teaspoon in a glass of water to be drunk 3 times a day for a month). A more unusual option, featured in a serious scientific publication, is gherkin vinegar juice (13)!

Salt for countering cramps

Though adding salt to your diet is generally discouraged, lightly salting your dishes on hot days may help prevent cramps, especially when you’re planning to exercise during the day (14). However, salt tablets should be reserved for sportspeople training in extreme temperatures.

Honey for cramp relief

Replacing table sugar (and its empty calories) with honey is certainly a good nutritional compromise, but also a welcome aid for fighting cramp. This is because of its unique complex of B vitamins, antioxidants, trace elements and mineral salts (potassium, calcium, magnesium…) (15), though you should avoid heating it in order not to lose any of its precious nutrients.

What’s the best type of water for preventing cramps?

If you’re prone to cramps, it’s advisable to drink water that’s naturally rich in minerals and/or bicarbonate to maintain good electrolyte and acid-base balance.

Which foods promote muscle cramps?

While some foods help fight cramps, others promote them, including acid-forming foods which in excess, upset the body’s pH balance and cause tissue disorders: red meat, cooked meats, cheese, eggs (16)…

It’s also wise to limit your intake of alcohol and high-caffeine drinks (tea, coffee…), which are stimulating, acidifying and diuretic (promoting mineral loss via urine) (17-18).

Herbal teas and supplements good for relaxing the muscles

These foods and drinks should be replaced by soothing herbal teas such as camomile for its spasm-relieving effects, and lemon balm which promotes relaxation.

Combos like this are also found in some synergistic supplements (such as Muscle Relaxing Formula, which blends the efficacy of camomile, lemon balm, verbena and passiflora, all certified organic, with the effects of calcium and magnesium for unrivalled benefits) (19-20).

SUPERSMART ADVICE

References

  1. Bordoni B, Sugumar K, Varacallo M. Muscle Cramps. [Updated 2022 Sep 4]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499895/
  2. Young G, Jewell D. Interventions for leg cramps in pregnancy. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2002 Jan 21;2002(1):CD000121. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000121. PMCID: PMC7045417.
  3. Maughan RJ, Shirreffs SM. Muscle Cramping During Exercise: Causes, Solutions, and Questions Remaining. Sports Med. 2019 Dec;49(Suppl 2):115-124. doi: 10.1007/s40279-019-01162-1. PMID: 31696455; PMCID: PMC6901412.
  4. Young G. Leg cramps. BMJ Clin Evid. 2015 May 13;2015:1113. PMID: 25970567; PMCID: PMC4429847.
  5. Woods K, Bishop P, Jones E. Warm-up and stretching in the prevention of muscular injury. Sports Med. 2007;37(12):1089-99. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737120-00006. PMID: 18027995.
  6. Miller KC, Stone MS, Huxel KC, Edwards JE. Exercise-associated muscle cramps: causes, treatment, and prevention. Sports Health. 2010 Jul;2(4):279-83. doi: 10.1177/1941738109357299. PMID: 23015948; PMCID: PMC3445088.
  7. Salamati A, Mashouf S, Sahbaei F, Mojab F. Effects of Inhalation of Lavender Essential Oil on Open-heart Surgery Pain. Iran J Pharm Res. 2014 Fall;13(4):1257-61. PMID: 25587315; PMCID: PMC4232792.
  8. Moretti A. What is the role of magnesium for skeletal muscle cramps? A Cochrane Review summary with commentary. J Musculoskelet Neuronal Interact. 2021 Mar 1;21(1):1-3. PMID: 33657750; PMCID: PMC8020016.
  9. Miller KC. Plasma potassium concentration and content changes after banana ingestion in exercised men. J Athl Train. 2012 Nov-Dec;47(6):648-54. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-47.6.05. PMID: 23182013; PMCID: PMC3499889.
  10. Castro D, Sharma S. Hypokalemia. [Updated 2023 Mar 18]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2023 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482465/
  11. Farapti F, Buanasita A, Atmaka DR, Setyaningtyas SW, Adriani M, Rejeki PS, Yamaoka Y, Miftahussurur M. Potassium intake is associated with nutritional quality and actual diet cost: a study at formulating a low sodium high potassium (LSHP) healthy diet. J Nutr Sci. 2022 Feb 16;11:e11. doi: 10.1017/jns.2021.104. PMID: 35291270; PMCID: PMC8889219.
  12. Zekri JM, Robinson MH, Woll PJ. Relative hypocalcaemia and muscle cramps in patients receiving imatinib for gastrointestinal stromal tumour. 2006;2006(1):48948. doi: 10.1155/SRCM/2006/48948. PMID: 17040091; PMCID: PMC1557796.
  13. Miller KC, Mack GW, Knight KL, Hopkins JT, Draper DO, Fields PJ, Hunter I. Reflex inhibition of electrically induced muscle cramps in hypohydrated humans. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2010 May;42(5):953-61. doi: 10.1249/MSS.0b013e3181c0647e. PMID: 19997012.
  14. Eichner ER. The role of sodium in 'heat cramping'. Sports Med. 2007;37(4-5):368-70. doi: 10.2165/00007256-200737040-00024. PMID: 17465610.
  15. Ali AM, Ali EM, Mousa AA, Ahmed ME, Hendawy AO. Bee honey and exercise for improving physical performance, reducing fatigue, and promoting an active lifestyle during COVID-19. Sports Med Health Sci. 2021 Sep;3(3):177-180. doi: 10.1016/j.smhs.2021.06.002. Epub 2021 Jun 25. PMID: 34189483; PMCID: PMC8226034.
  16. Jarvis K, Woodward M, Debold EP, Walcott S. Acidosis affects muscle contraction by slowing the rates myosin attaches to and detaches from actin. J Muscle Res Cell Motil. 2018 Aug;39(3-4):135-147. doi: 10.1007/s10974-018-9499-7. Epub 2018 Oct 31. PMID: 30382520.
  17. Delacour C, Chambe J, Lefebvre F, Bodot C, Bigerel E, Epifani L, Granda C, Haller DM, Maisonneuve H. Association Between Alcohol Consumption and Nocturnal Leg Cramps in Patients Over 60 Years Old: A Case-Control Study. Ann Fam Med. 2018 Jul;16(4):296-301. doi: 10.1370/afm.2238. PMID: 29987076; PMCID: PMC6037509.
  18. Molema MM, Dekker MC, Voermans NC, van Engelen BG, Aarnoutse RE. Caffeine and muscle cramps: a stimulating connection. Am J Med. 2007 Aug;120(8):e1-2. doi: 10.1016/j.amjmed.2006.07.035. PMID: 17679106.
  19. Mehmood MH, Munir S, Khalid UA, Asrar M, Gilani AH. Antidiarrhoeal, antisecretory and antispasmodic activities of Matricaria chamomilla are mediated predominantly through K(+)-channels activation. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2015 Mar 24;15:75. doi: 10.1186/s12906-015-0595-6. PMID: 25886126; PMCID: PMC4410481.
  20. Caudal D, Guinobert I, Lafoux A, Bardot V, Cotte C, Ripoche I, Chalard P, Huchet C. Skeletal muscle relaxant effect of a standardized extract of Valeriana officinalis L. after acute administration in mice. J Tradit Complement Med. 2017 Oct 12;8(2):335-340. doi: 10.1016/j.jtcme.2017.06.011. PMID: 29736389; PMCID: PMC5934700.

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