One of the most common issues our customers deal with is cramps. Cramps are the result of a very normal process gone wrong. Our muscles are constantly contracting and relaxing so efficiently we barely notice. When they mess up, it grabs our attention REAL quick.
In order for a muscle to contract and relax successfully, a few things have to be right:
- We have to have adequate fluid present.
- We have to have adequate electrolytes like calcium, sodium, magnesium, and potassium.
- We have to have adequate blood flow to the area. This means we regularly use the muscles.
- We can’t OVERUSE the muscles. Overworked, underpaid muscles will protest loudly.
- There has to be proper amounts of energy present. If we are hungry or malnourished, our muscles won’t thank us.
- Our nerves must be working correctly. Muscle contractions start in the brain; sometimes nerve-related malfunctions or diseases can cause cramping.
Preventing frequent cramping is simple and inexpensive for most of us. In fact, in my 15 years practicing as a pharmacist, there have been less than a handful of cases where cramps were the result of something more challenging to treat.
Hydration, Hydration, Hydration
By just increasing the amount of fluids you drink in a day, you can almost definitely eliminate frequent cramps. Dehydration is one of the leading causes of cramping.
Most of us don’t drink nearly enough. When we do, it’s frequently a caffeinated beverage: tea, coffee, soda.
There are many different rules for how much you should drink in a day. First, understand the MINIMUM anyone should drink. If you sat on the couch just existing, you’d use about 1 liter of fluids in loss through breathing, urine, and skin. There are many of my customers who don’t drink that much.
The “Adequate Intake” for men is 3.7 liters a day and 2.7 liters for women. That’s 120 ounces and 90 ounces, respectively. That’s total fluids, including water found in our foods. Realistically, we need between 2 and 3 liters of water a day.
Our rule of thumb: drink ½ your body weight in ounces. I’m 230 (yes I’m working on it), so that’s 115 ounces a day.
That’s with normal situations. What if you’re an athlete? You’ll sweat away a lot more. We’re writing a detailed sports series, so stay tuned!
Many of us drink alcohol or caffeine. Both of these compounds promote dehydration. We recommend you drink an additional 8-12 ounces for every serving of caffeine or alcohol.
If you do the math, most of us are technically dried fruit.
Electrolytes – What Humans Crave
If you’ve addressed the elephant in the room and are now fully hydrated on a regular basis but still experiencing some cramping, then next look to electrolytes.
Calcium, potassium, sodium, and magnesium are required to prevent muscle cramps. These items are best eaten, and are typically easily found in our diets. Sodium especially – most of us get way too much sodium!
Our recommendation: before you buy a supplement, eat a banana, an orange, or pumpkin seeds.
When using supplements of minerals, the form is very important. Most people know about calcium carbonate, calcium citrate, or magnesium oxide. These are the cheapest forms but they are also the forms with the poorest absorption.
Unfortunately, they also have the highest risk of side effects – cramping, diarrhea, or constipation. In the case of calcium carbonate and citrate, we’ve seen data to support a high cardiovascular risk when using those supplements; the excess, non-absorbable calcium can deposit into soft tissue, causing hardening of the arteries.
Vitality Approved mineral supplements for cramp support are proper chelates like Calcium Hydroxyapatite Chelated Magnesium.
Many women don’t get enough calcium anyway, so it may be wise for women cramp sufferers to start with a proper calcium. Our Calcium Care is a whole food supplement with food forms of calcium and magnesium.
Otherwise, we have a magnesium potassium blend to help supplement those two electrolytes. We recommend athletes add our Sports Salts capsules to their water bottles when hydrating. Non-athletes could use that once a day to help replace missing electrolytes as well. Open the cap and add it to the water, then down the hatch.
If You Don’t Use It, You Lose It
Muscle cramping can be a result of little or improper use. It’s important to start your day with some light stretching. Make efforts to use the muscles that are cramping up. Walk, bike, run, do yoga, do squats, or do lunges every day.
This will improve blood flow to the muscles and prime the systems that make muscle contraction possible.
Overuse is a common problem. Repetitive exercising without proper recovery and stretching will cause muscles to cramp more regularly. After any physical activity, stretch for a bit and allow your muscles time to heal.
Supplements for Cramps To Avoid
There are some things you shouldn’t spend your money on. Quinine was a prescription drug used for ages for cramps. It was a very old drug – so old that it wasn’t required to have data proving it was effective. That all changed about a decade ago when the FDA got rid of the exemption, and no manufacturer has tried to get it approved for cramping. Right now, quinine prescriptions are only used for malaria, and that’s probably better.
It’s been noted that tonic water was “always good” for cramps since it contained a small amount of quinine. There’s no evidence to support this either. My guess is the rehydration with a salty fluid is what helped with the cramps, not quinine. Avoid quinine and quinine supplements.
There are homeopathic remedies that state they are beneficial for cramps. Homeopathic products contain no active compounds and are, in fact, just sugar pills. We’ve discussed them at length. Don’t waste your money on these placebo products, and instead, hydrate and replace missing electrolytes.
When To See A Doctor
Cramps are usually just a pain (ha ha) but aren’t related to anything serious. If taking the above steps on a regular basis for a week or two doesn’t resolve your cramp symptoms, it’s best to go speak with your doctor. You can let them know all the good work you’ve done, so you can skip that part of their advice.
If cramps are frequent, debilitating, severely painful or serious in any way, don’t hesitate to see a doctor immediately.
“Prove Me Wrong”
When it comes to cramps, simple and free treatment options will almost guarantee a quick end. My challenge to those who don’t believe me at counter-side is “Prove me wrong.”
Maintaining adequate fluid status is a big challenge for many people. Getting fluids and electrolytes back in line is crucial for proper muscle function but a million other things. Think of cramps as your body saying “Hey man, I could use a drink.” Don’t ignore the warning signs!
Drink the proper fluid levels on a regular basis, eliminate dehydrating fluids like caffeine and alcohol, and eat more electrolyte-rich foods like bananas, apples, oranges, or pumpkin seeds. Stretch regularly and get some blood flow into those muscles with light exercise is critical.
If your cramps persist beyond this, then we can confidently say we’ve addressed all we can on our own and it’s time to bring in the pros. For most of us, treating cramps is simple, easy, and practically free.
Just trying to keep it real…
Neal Smoller, PharmD
Owner, Pharmacist, Big Mouth