UNDERSTANDING MUSCLE CRAMPS – From Diets to Dehydration

Certain diets and activities are more conducive to muscle cramps than others. Even genetics may be a factor in muscle cramps.

In the nutrition category, the keto diet is a risk factor for muscle cramps. Muscle cramps are part of the constellation of symptoms—headaches, cramps, brain fog, fatigue, and constipation—called keto flu.

Why are keto folks more likely to cramp? Because keto dieters tend to be low on electrolytes, which are crucial for muscle function. More on this soon.

Tiring exercise is another risk factor for muscle cramps. As muscles fatigue, they appear to become more prone to cramping.

The risk for muscle cramps rises if the athlete exercises in the heat. The hotter the training session, the more sodium is lost through sweat, the more likely the athlete will cramp.

This has been shown in several populations. American football players, for instance, got 95% of their cramps when the weather was hot. The largest chunk of these cramps occurred during the first week of training camp when the weather was hottest and the athletes were most out of shape.

I’m not surprised sweat loss is a risk factor. Athletes can lose up to 7 grams of sodium per day sweating in warm climates. That level of depletion is bound to cause cramping if the sodium isn’t replaced.

Along with keto, exercise, and sweat loss, other risk factors for muscle cramps include:

  • Age
  • BMI
  • Underlying chronic disease (cardiovascular disease, cancer, kidney disease, etc.)
  • Allergies
  • Medication use
  • History of injury
  • Family history of muscle cramps

Now let’s drill down another layer and see what might be causing muscle cramps.

WHAT CAUSES MUSCLE CRAMPS?

What causes muscle cramps? Is it dehydration, electrolyte deficiency, muscle fatigue, drugs, or neuromuscular misfiring?

For instance, if a group of athletes cramps after sweaty exercise, it’s probably a sodium problem. (When athletes drink salty water, the cramps diminish). But if a person is properly hydrated and STILL cramping, we have to look elsewhere.

DEHYDRATION

Muscle cramps are a well-documented dehydration symptom. But is dehydration (net water loss) a meaningful cause of muscle cramps during exercise?

Most hydration websites say yes. According to a 2016 review on hydration misinformation, about 98% of websites say dehydration causes exercise-associated muscle cramping.

But the truth is, there’s little evidence for this theory. One study showed that even significant hypohydration (over 5% of body water lost) did not increase the frequency of muscle cramping.

The real problem is overhydration. To prevent dehydration, many athletes drink beyond their thirst, diluting blood sodium levels. This can cause cramping.

ELECTROLYTE IMBALANCES

Electrolytes are minerals that conduct electricity in your nervous system and keep your bodily fluids balanced. Relevant here: electrolytes are essential for muscle contraction and relaxation.

Deficiencies in the following electrolytes are the most common for causing cramps:

  • Sodium
  • Potassium
  • Magnesium
  • Calcium

Low sodium is probably the biggest driver of muscle cramping during exercise. If sodium lost through sweat isn’t replaced—and if the athlete over-hydrates with plain water—cramps are likely to occur.

Finally, low sodium explains many keto-related muscle cramps. Keto folks not only have lower dietary intakes of sodium, but they also excrete more sodium through urine. It’s a formula for electrolyte deficiency.

NATURAL REMEDIES FOR MUSCLE CRAMPS

EXERCISE SMART

Muscle fatigue is a risk factor for muscle cramping. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tire out your muscles. (That’s how you get stronger). It just means that you should be wary of pushing your limits. Adequate recovery time between training sessions will also decrease your risk of muscle injury.

STRETCHING, MASSAGE, AND HEAT

Some research suggests that shorter stretch times are a risk factor for muscle cramps. Another study found no link.

I don’t know about this one. I’m a fan of dynamic stretching (aka, moving around in different positions) over static stretching. Dynamic stretching builds mobility along with flexibility.

Heat and massage may also alleviate cramps. This could be a placebo effect, but getting a massage can’t hurt. It’s all upside.

INCREASE DIETARY ELECTROLYTES

Whenever you can, consume electrolyte-rich foods to prevent deficiencies and cramping.

  • For potassium: green leafies, avocados, meat, and sweet potatoes
  • For magnesium: green leafies, nuts, and legumes
  • For calcium: dairy, cruciferous vegetables, and bones
  • For sodium: the salt shaker

If you’re on a keto diet, you’ll have to work extra hard to get enough sodium, potassium, and magnesium without eating carbs. This means lots of spinach, kale, and salt. Sauteed kale with salt is delicious folks.

HYDRATE WITH ELECTROLYTE WATER

To prevent cramps, add electrolytes to your water when you rehydrate. Consider the evidence:

  • Salt supplements decreased cramps in early 20th century workers.
  • Men drinking an oral rehydration solution (with electrolytes and fluids). after hot exercise were less likely to cramp than men drinking plain water.
  • Football players who drank electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks developed fewer cramps than those who drank plain water.
  • Drinking pickle juice (high in sodium) prevents muscle cramps in dehydrated people.

But you don’t have to glug pickle juice if that doesn’t sound appetizing to you. Just add salt to your water, or mix in a stick of Drink LMNT. Sip to thirst throughout the day. Your chance of cramping just decreased dramatically.

Call Renovare Wellness as 623.776.0206 to find out more or pick up your order of LMNT Electrolyte Drink Mix