You're running or sleeping and all of a sudden, you get a twitch in your muscles. Such muscular cramps, which are involuntary in nature, forcibly contract the muscles and cause severe pain. It happens to a lot of runners/exercising individuals, or even with advancing age and pregnancy. Though generally harmless, muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle. Some can be due to the underlying medical condition. But you can learn to minimize cramps and to act quickly when they do strike.
Causes of cramping can be different. Most common cause is exercise which leads to tight or inflexible muscles due to poor physical condition or nutritional status. These factors that can cause a muscle cramp:
- Poor blood circulation
- Working calf muscles too hard while exercising
- Not stretching enough
- Being active in hot temperatures
- Muscle fatigue – Lactic acid is the by-product of anaerobic energy production in our body. This causes the pH to drop, resulting in accumulation of hydrogen ions which leads to muscle contraction.
- Dehydration- Leads to drop in extracellular fluid and cause nerve endings to be squished together, overexcited and spontaneously discharge. That spontaneous discharge is a muscle twitch, which can lead to a muscle cramp.
- Vitamin and Mineral deficiency
- Electrolyte Imbalance
Although these cramps are harmless, but it can make us temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle. But we can learn to minimize cramps and act quickly when they hit.
❝ Cramps are generally harmless; muscle cramps can make it temporarily impossible to use the affected muscle. But you can learn to minimize cramps and to act quickly when they do strike ❞
What can you do to prevent muscle cramps?
Hydration and Fuelling – During sweating the body loses fluid and electrolytes (mostly sodium) and, if these are not replaced appropriately can cause an imbalance within the body. Hydration and Fuelling allows the body to adapt at a cellular level and become more efficient at absorbing, storing and using certain nutrients.
Every person has highly individualized needs for replenishment. Options of hydrating fluid include water alone; water plus electrolytes, or water plus electrolytes plus carbohydrates, water with whey or standalone amino, energy booster drink. All are suitable, but their use will depend on the exercise training intensity and body composition goals. Fluid requirement is approx. 50 ml per kg/day for an athlete, but this may go high in hot climate and as exercise intensity increases. Best way is to weigh yourself before and after workout, loss in weight will be the water lost.
Nowadays, energy gels and chews are convenient ways of fueling, especially for athletes, professionals and bodybuilders to get those extra calories and electrolytes during performance. These gels/chews are made up of blend of slow and fast release carbohydrates thus they fuel muscles by 20-50% more quickly than glucose alone and added electrolytes to replenish the losses. Gels /Bars/Chews can give excellent result for fueling muscles for an endurance activity if used optimally.
Electrolyte imbalances can occur due to deficiencies in the diet and loss via sweat, urination, diarrhea etc. The minerals, mainly sodium (Na), potassium (k), magnesium (Mg) and calcium (Ca) help the muscles to contract and relax. Its deficiency or imbalance can cause problems with the body’s electrical impulses resulting lead to muscle cramps. These minerals deficiency can allow the muscle to contract but prevent it from relaxing.
There are many sports drinks on the market with various combinations of water, carbohydrate and electrolytes such as Sodium, potassium, magnesium and calcium are common additions. Maintaining adequate electrolytes balance is crucial to avoid cramps.
Nutrients For Leg Cramps
Lactic acid is the by-product of anaerobic energy production. Lactic acid accumulation in the muscles lowers the PH, which may cause muscular contraction or cramps. There are few nutrients which work as buffers by utilising hydrogen ions and increasing pH.
Beta-alanine (essential amino acid) enhance the muscular endurance by buffering and neutralizing the Hydrogen ions. Therefore, supplementing with Beta Alanine will be helpful for athletes. 3-5 gm/d is recommended for athletes however, it is advised to start with a lower dose or take divide dosage throughout the day, reduce-your-risk-of-muscle-cramps-image as Beta Alanine is known to cause a tingling sensation in the hand and feet (also called paresthesia). This side effect is temporary and will go once body gets used to
Dehydration is one of the very common cause of leg cramps, due to a resulting electrolyte imbalance. Magnesium is an important electrolyte as it is involved in the movement of calcium and potassium into and out of cells, which affects muscle contractions. Its deficiency lead to affect the overall electrolyte balance resulting leg cramps. Including Mg rich foods like almonds, cashews, spinach and quinoa can be helpful. Daily requirement is 300-500 mg/day, that may increase for exercising individuals.
Calcium is a mineral involved in nerve function, muscle contraction and relaxation. Eating foods rich in calcium, such as milk, yogurt and cheese, paneer ensure daily calcium requirements. Recommended daily intake of calcium for adult men and women is 600 mg/day, while requirement may increase with Post-menopause, pregnancy, lactation and exercising individuals.
Potassium is a mineral and an intracellular electrolyte responsible for conducting nerve impulses in the body. It plays a main role in muscle contraction. Potassium deficiency or hypokalemia can lead to muscle cramps. Potassium rich source are meat, certain types of fish, dairy products, fruits, vegetables and beans. Recommended intake for potassium is 3500-4700 mg per day.
Sodium is an extracellular electrolyte works together with the other electrolytes i.e potassium, magnesium and calcium – They together generate proper nerve impulses and muscle contractions. Low sodium levels due to dehydration or excessive sweating leads to muscle cramps. Although low-sodium diets are promoted for overall good health but if you are experiencing muscle cramps, you may need to add some salt in your meals. Recommended sodium intake is 2000 mg that we can get from 5 gm salt (sodium chloride). This requirement will be high for people who work out. Amounts can be adjusted depending on the workout intensity
Lactic acid is the by-product of anaerobic energy production and its accumulation in the muscles lowers the pH, which may cause muscular contraction or cramps. There are few nutrients which work as buffers by utilizing hydrogen ions and increasing pH.
❝ Lactic acid is the by-product of anaerobic energy production and its accumulation in the muscles lowers the pH, which may cause muscular contraction or cramps. There are few nutrients which work as buffers by utilising hydrogen ions and increasing pH.❞
Vitamin B Complex
Vitamin B complex are involved in many biological processes ranging from red blood cells production, generation of energy and proper nerve and muscle function. Studies has proven that Vitamin B complex deficiency leads to number of problems, including leg cramps. A review published in the journal "Neurology" concluded that Vitamin B complex supplement reduced muscle cramps in 86% of patients studied. Rich source of vitamin B complex are meat, eggs, dairy products, whole grains, beans and green leafy vegetables. Recommended Intake for Vitamin B1 is 1.1-1.2 mg/day, Vitamin B2 -1.1-1.3mg/day, Vitamin B2 – 14-16 mg/day, Vitamin B5 – 5 mg/day, Vitamin B6 - 1.3-1.7mg/day, Vitamin B12 – 2.4-2.6 mcg/day, Biotin – 30-32 mcg/day, Folic acid – 400mcg/day