A leg cramp, or charley horse, occurs when a leg muscle suddenly tightens, causing pain that at times can be severe. Lack of either calcium or potassium can be the cause of cramps in the legs. The minerals calcium and potassium are electrolytes, meaning they carry electrical impulses that control the muscles. An imbalance in these minerals can disrupt muscle function. Improving your diet may help you restore your mineral levels without dietary supplements. Talk to your doctor before starting any supplements.
Calcium and Leg Cramps
Too little calcium in your bloodstream can cause leg cramps, explain experts from the United States National Institutes of Health. Large amounts of soda, caffeine or alcohol can deplete calcium stores. Women after menopause are also prone to low calcium levels. Increasing the calcium in your diet or decreasing the amount of calcium-depleting substances you consume may help lessen your leg cramps. Pregnant women may experience leg cramps, possibly due to low calcium levels, but additional calcium may not help. When pregnant women with leg cramps took 1 g of calcium twice daily for two weeks, they increased their calcium levels, but didn't experience any improvement in their leg cramps, found a study published in "Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica" in 1981. Because you need vitamin D to absorb calcium, your doctor might also suggest taking vitamin D supplements.
Potassium and Leg Cramps
Low potassium level in the blood is another possible cause of leg cramps as well as muscle weakness and fatigue. Potassium works with sodium to maintain your cells' electrical charges, which control muscle contraction and function. Significant fluid loss, such as from profuse sweating or diarrhea, may cause low levels of potassium. For this reason, it's important to replenish your potassium stores after exercise. A diet high in salt can upset your body's sodium-potassium balance and result in low potassium relative to sodium. Cutting back on high-sodium items, such as processed or fast foods, can help restore your sodium-potassium balance.
The Importance of Magnesium
The mineral magnesium is another electrolyte involved in muscle control. Whereas calcium controls muscle contraction, magnesium controls muscle relaxation. Lack of magnesium may lead to leg cramps. When pregnant women with leg cramps took magnesium supplements for three weeks, they experienced less distress due to leg cramps than those taking a placebo, found research published in the "American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology" in July 1995.
Getting Enough Minerals
Getting more calcium, potassium and magnesium in your diet may lessen your leg cramps, experts from the American Institute for Preventive Medicine advise. You can get calcium from dairy foods, beans and leafy green vegetables, while bananas, potatoes and raisins provide significant amounts of potassium. Sources of magnesium include green leafy vegetables, whole grains and nuts. Dehydration can deplete mineral stores, so drink plenty of water, especially if you've been sweating. Because excess intake of certain minerals may interfere with nutrient absorption, consult your health care provider before taking supplements.
Is This an Emergency?
- National Institutes of Health; Leg Pain; June 2011
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Optimizing Your Diet: Best Foods for Specific Minerals; K. Davis; 2005
- "Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica;" Calcium Treatment of Leg Cramps in Pregnancy. M. Hammar, et al.; 1981
- "American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology"; The Effect of Oral Magnesium Substitution on Pregnancy-Induced Leg Cramps; L.O. Dahle, et al.; July 1995
- City of Eugene, Oregon; American Institute for Preventive Medicine; Leg Pain and Ankle Pain; 2005