Anyone who has woken up in the middle of the night with a leg cramp (the muscles in the calf knotted and toes curled) knows how excruciating painful they are. Touch the affected calf, and the muscles are hard as rocks. Get one a night, and it hurts. Get 2, 3, 4 or more, and you wake up not just sore, but sleep-deprived, too.
As one of those who used to get leg cramps on a regular basis, my drill was to throw off the covers, swing my feet out of bed, and force myself upright as quickly as I could. Standing released the cramp. But, oh, the pain until the cramp let go! The Charlie horse and soreness lasted for days.
Sound familiar? Judging by conversations with many folks, leg cramps are almost epidemic. Leg cramps are common, and experts can’t agree what causes them. Some of the things that may cause leg cramps include overusing the muscles from exercise or standing too long, sitting too long, or twisting into an awkward position while you sleep. You can also trace leg cramps to mineral deficiencies, especially potassium and magnesium, dehydration, and some medications such as birth control, statins, diuretics, and even some antipsychotic drugs.
Dummies.com (editor’s note: not our usual source for cutting edge medical advice!) says that “treatment for leg cramps is straightforward and easy to follow. Avoid tight bed covers, which can lead to pointing of the toes and subsequent cramps. Stretch your calf muscles for about five minutes nightly before getting into bed.”
These suggestions are meant to be preventative. But when you have the cramp, the advice given is to massage the convulsed muscle, or to make a hot compress so it will soften. But when muscles are rigid, it’s not easy to stay calm and follow through. Make a hot compress when you can barely walk? I don’t think so!
A homeopathic remedy by a company called Hylands, “leg cramps,” worked for me when I got a cramp. I kept it in my night table and would grab it and dissolve the little milk sugar tablets in my mouth when I was jerked awake in the middle of the night.
But what could I do to prevent leg cramps? Since I wasn’t on medication, was exercising and thought I was drinking enough water, etc., I had to do my own detective work. Why? Because I was done, through. I was NOT going to get leg cramps anymore.
What did I do to start preventing them? I started including more foods with potassium in my diet. Bananas are the first food we think of when we think of potassium, but coconut water worked better for me. I ate more apricots, dates, beans, cabbage and tomatoes, all of which have potassium. (Of course there are other foods too.)
Because of the piece on dehydration, I consciously sipped more room-temperature water or hot ginger tea during the day.
Who else is at risk of dehydration and mineral imbalances? Pregnant women, crash dieters, people taking diuretics, caffeine lovers and drinkers of alcohol, people who sweat a lot (exercise, nerves, or even saunas), and anyone who’s had a recent bout with vomiting or diarrhea. If you fall into any one of these categories and suffer from leg cramps, talk with your healthcare provider about options. And maybe find natural alternative to diuretics. Doesn’t it make sense to start with food instead of a pill?
Speaking of food, some articles advise cutting down on white flour, white sugar and fatty meats to make room for more whole plant foods. It never hurts any of us to eat better….
Leg cramps usually aren’t caused by bad circulation… but good circulation can usually help. Which means that walking, trampolining, yoga, and – anything that gets the blood gently moving – can help. What about massage? Absolutely! (Isn’t it wonderful that something so heavenly is also so good for us?)
But back down to earth: cramps can also be traced to a magnesium deficiency. Bear in mind, our ancestors got magnesium all the time. They got it from whole grains, beans, fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and mineral-rich spring waters. The more refined foods we eat — and the more calcium we eat, which increases the need for magnesium — the more we put ourselves at risk for a deficiency. Magnesium is needed to utilize calcium and activate vitamin D. It regulates heartbeat, and a myriad other good stuff.
I started taking (and haven’t stopped!) magnesium glycinate (citrate, aspartate, taurate and other forms are also fine and dandy, but avoid magnesium oxide, as it absorbs poorly) morning and night. Knock on wood, taking 400 mg of magnesium glycinate each day has prevented leg cramps for me. They are virtually a thing of the past. I get a leg cramp at night maybe once or twice a year. The Hylands leg cramp remedy still works and I still keep a little bottle in my night table. And I keep a topical arnica rub there too, just in case.
Another vitamin said to help with leg cramps is vitamin B-6. The dose most often recommended is 50 mg per day, and it’s said that this will help stop leg cramps after three weeks of taking it daily.
One can find just about anything on the internet and I had to laugh at some of the suggestions people made for getting rid of leg cramps. Many people swear that a piece of soap (any kind) in a sock or just at the bottom of your feet in bed prevents leg cramps. One person said they keep a piece of soap in their pocket all the time and another said her husband keeps a piece of soap in his sock when he travels on a plane. Far be it for me to say this doesn’t work. Trying it doesn’t require a prescription, costs pennies and won’t cause harm. The soap will make your feet smell better too!
Another old-time remedy for night leg cramps was published by D.C. Jarvis (he of the raw apple cider vinegar fame) who said that one should take 2 teaspoons honey with 2 teaspoons raw apple cider vinegar in a glass of water before each meal to prevent cramps. Interestingly, we sell a product called “Stops Leg Cramps,” which claims to be an “Amish remedy,” which is made from cider vinegar and herbs. This one does seem to work.
Another old-time remedy said to work is drinking one cup red raspberry lead tea in the morning and another cup again before bed. Raspberry leaf teas is a decent source of minerals.
Someone else recommended putting one’s feet against the wall higher than your body for 10 minutes, twice daily, once just before bed. This has to increase circulation.
If you have a rocking chair, sit in it and rock to improve circulation and prevent leg cramps (and maybe prevent varicose veins and blood clots, too). Which reminds me of the Hoagy Carmichael song called Old Rocking Chair’s Got Me, sung by my father’s favorite group, the Mills Brothers. In this case, if you know the song, our cane is not by our sides and we’re not drinking gin, just getting rid of leg cramps.