October 18, 2018

Leg cramps and the nutrition connection

Many folks have experienced a “charley horse” – that searing calf pain that can wake a person at 2 a.m. But leg cramps can strike at any time and to anyone.

While the pain is usually temporary – lasting a few seconds up to 15 minutes – it would be nice to prevent them in the first place. The conventional wisdom is to take in more electrolytes – like eating a banana for potassium. But, UW Health registered dietitian Sarah Van Riet explains that might not actually help.

“When it comes to electrolytes, each person has individual needs and without working with a professional, it would be hard to know what is actually going on. Just randomly taking a magnesium supplement or drinking sports drinks might not actually help,” she said.

Van Riet explains that cramps also can be a result of dehydration. If a person is sweating, they’re losing electrolytes and water and if that doesn’t get replaced it could result in muscle cramping.

“Athletes tend to notice leg cramps on hot days, which is when they’re more likely to be dehydrated. And commonly, it occurs when they’re doing an activity they’re not conditioned for – intensifying their routine, for example. Something their body has yet to adapt to,” Van Riet said.

She points out that the best nutrition advice is to maintain a balanced diet, which includes eating adequately from all food groups (whole grains, fruit and vegetable, nuts and seeds, milk and yogurt and lean meat of protein) throughout the week. While a balanced diet might not completely eliminate leg cramps, it can help reduce the risk. And, pay attention to total fluid intake. Urine should be pale yellow or almost clear if a person is getting enough fluids. While water is best, other fluids do count.

“The goal of nutrition changes are to keep the body consistently well fed and cared for. If you’re skipping meals frequently and trying to make up for it by drinking a sports drink, you’re not going to fix the issue,” she said.

A balanced diet is particularly important when you’re exercising for longer or more intense sessions. Van Riet recommends having some kind of fruit like a banana, low-fat milk or chocolate milk, nuts and seeds or yogurt about 30 minutes before exercising and 30 minutes after when you’ll be doing 60 minutes or more of vigorous activity.

“Timing is important, too," Van Riet said. “If you get up and go running first thing in the morning, you probably wouldn’t need to have a pre-exercise snack. But if it’s 4 in the afternoon and you haven’t eaten since noon, then it is good to have a yogurt or something similar."

Van Riet notes that while nutrition is more likely to be a factor for athletes who experience leg cramps, there can be other causes such as medication side effects, a medical condition or something else.

“There are other theories that suggest muscle tightness and fatigue can lead to cramping, so it may not be nutrition-based at all. In that case, massage and stretching may be more effective at managing it,” she said.

And, non-athletes can be affected by muscle fatigue, as well – being sedentary most of the week, but then spending the weekend doing yard work or going on a hike with the family might trigger cramps because the muscles aren’t accustomed to the exertion.

“Because there are so many possible causes of leg cramps – and even the research suggests the causes are unclear – it’s best to speak with a medical professional if you’re experiencing frequent leg cramps so you can find the most appropriate way to address the issue,” Van Riet said.