Natural Treatments for Leg Cramps
Cramping of the legs is a symptom many people experience chronically almost every night. People may find relief from the cramping for a few evenings but notice that they return with a vengeance! Leg cramps are not only painful but can also disrupt the sleep we need to recover from the day’s stressors. This annoying problem can be due to many factors that need to be explored further. One common factor I see in practice is the lack of fluid and blood flow to the leg. There are some avenues you may want to explore for avoiding leg cramps and I have outlined them below:
Magnesium: Magnesium is a mineral that is constantly used in many reactions throughout the body and is therefore no surprise that many of my patients present with a deficiency in it. Supplementing with magnesium has proven valuable for alleviating leg cramps as it results in the relaxation of skeletal muscles. Diet is the best way of obtaining adequate magnesium and can be found in nuts and seeds such as brazil nuts, almonds, and flaxseeds. Should you want to try supplements, a typical effective dose is around 100mg two to three times a day depending on the severity of the deficiency. A side-effect of magnesium is loose stools or diarrhea in severe cases and if this is noticed then stopping the supplementation is strongly advised. One may need to experiment with the dose to find the lowest dose that offers the greatest efficacy but I highly recommend sticking to nutritional sources for your magnesium intake. If you do prefer supplements, remember to seek individualized professional advice prior to any supplementation.
Vitamin D: Calcium is another mineral that could be deficient in people experiencing leg cramps. If you are eating a balanced diet that includes a healthy portion of vegetables but still experience cramps, then vitamin D deficiency may be the culprit. Vitamin D allows for the absorption of calcium from your diet and if you do not have adequate vitamin D levels then the calcium is not absorbed properly. Vitamin D can be obtained by exposing your skin to sunlight but of course this is not always a possibility in the Winter months or in areas which are mostly cloudy like my city of Vancouver. Eating mushrooms and seafood can also provide you with vitamin D. Some people also opt to take supplemental vitamin D either in the form of drops or capsules. Supplemental vitamin D should be taken with a meal since it is a fat soluble vitamin and 1000IU per day is a good starting dose but again I would highly recommend you seek individualized advice.
Stretching: You can help avoid leg cramps by incorporating simple stretches into your exercise routine which help invigorate blood flow to the legs. One of the easiest stretches is to find a ledge and rest the ball of your foot on it while your heel is touching the floor. Next, slowly shift your weight towards the ledge like pressing the accelerator of your car. Maintain the position for only a few seconds and then rest for another few seconds. You should feel a good stretch in your leg muscles. Repeat this stretch 6-8 times on each foot. This exercise will stretch out your calves which is where most people experience cramps in. Just note that the ledge should not be too high off the ground to avoid unnecessary pressure on the calves. You can easily create this ledge using books or legs of furniture.
Hydration: Leg cramps can also be due to insufficient intake of fluids. It can also be due to a high intake of fiber containing foods which uses up our fluids. Therefore, always monitor your water intake and try adding more fluids to your diet if you notice cramps are an ongoing issue. A couple of litres of water a day is a good goal to aim for depending on your fiber intake.
Acupuncture: In Chinese medicine, the evenings are Yin time and so the Yin substance, being blood, is often indicated in problems confined to night time. The tricky part here is that we are not talking about overt blood deficiency that may show up on a blood analysis. We are talking about a need to optimize blood circulation. Acupuncture can easily accomplish this and I have had great success with it since it opens up various channels through which blood can effectively flow to the legs. Therefore, having a few sessions of acupuncture from a qualified practitioner may help eliminate the cramps for good!
Massage: Along the same vein as acupuncture, massage can be used to stimulate blood flow and help cirulation in tissues that are not adequately replenished. This is due to the squeezing and compressing actions of massage therapy which act like the beating of your heart in ensuring blood flow to the tissues. You can easily massage your legs by compressing your muscles using your thumbs and fingers. If you notice any points which are more tender than other areas then spend more time with your thumbs in these places. These areas of tenderness could represent trigger points and applying firm pressure on them, although temporarily painful, can help release them. Once released, you will notice that these once tender points are now softer and less painful. Massaging your muscles is also a great way of connecting with and showing kindness to your body.
The options above should help some of you avoid nightly leg cramps. For others, leg cramps can also be due to mental-emotional factors which you may need to explore further. One factor people can relate to is stress and overwork which lock our bodies in sympathetic mode. Our body complains when we do not take the time to attend to it properly and leg cramps can definitely present as a sign of this complaint. Therefore, take some time at the end of the day to relax your being by breathing deeply for a couple of minutes and thinking of things that happened during the day which you are grateful for. This simple mental exercise often helps people de-stress which puts you in parasympathetic mode needed for recovery and rejuvenation.
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Hallegraeff, Joannes M., et al. “Stretching before sleep reduces the frequency and severity of nocturnal leg cramps in older adults: a randomised trial.” Journal of physiotherapy 58.1 (2012): 17-22.
Sills, Sheila, et al. “Randomised, cross-over, placebo controlled trial of magnesium citrate in the treatment of chronic persistent leg cramps.” Medical Science Monitor 8.5 (2002): CR326-CR330.