We asked Jenny Tschiesche, AKA the Lunchbox Doctor, how we can get a good night's kip and avoid dreaded leg cramps, and here's what she said:
Have you ever had debilitating, agonising pain in your legs at night? These nocturnal cramps are associated with fluid imbalances and mineral imbalances such as sodium, potassium, calcium, and magnesium, collectively known as electrolytes. The good news is that what you eat and drink, as well as what supplements you take can help.
Fluid imbalances and dehydration
Maintaining a proper fluid balance can help you avoid night cramps. You can easily become dehydrated without really noticing it. Most people assume that dehydration is represented by thirst but there are many other signs that you should be aware of. In fact, the best way to keep a check on how hydrated you are is to check the colour of your urine. It should be no darker than the colour of straw.
What’s more, to avoid becoming dehydrated it’s important to consume enough water and that means you should be urinating approximately eight times a day. If that sounds like a lot to you then dehydration could be one of the causes of your night-time cramps. Try an insulated water drinking bottle to keep water cool and therefore appealing, and if just plain water sounds boring then add some lemon, lime, cucumber, or herbs such as mint or basil.
The body needs sodium to help maintain normal fluid balance and blood pressure. In conjunction with several other electrolytes, it is critical for nerve impulse generation and muscle contraction which is why insufficient sodium can lead to nocturnal cramps. In unprocessed foods sodium is found in relatively small amounts and whilst unprocessed is the best form to consume it’s good to be aware of where you will find naturally higher sodium foods.
Salt cravings provide a clue that your body may be requiring more sodium. This may be because you have been exercising more, losing more fluids through sweating. It may be that you eat more of a plant-based diet. Also, as we age and experience changes in hormones there can be associated changes in body temperature that lead to greater fluid loss e.g. hot flushes. Try to eat celery, a handful of olives or nuts, cottage cheese or some eggs if you feel you may be lacking sodium.
This works in close association with sodium in the generation of electrical impulses in the nerves and in the muscles. Therefore, a potassium deficiency can also be linked to night leg cramps. Potassium is found in most foods but especially in vegetables, potatoes, fruits such as melon, bananas, berries and citrus, but also meat, fish and milk.
Potassium deficiency is rarely found in those on a plant-based diet but can be found in those experiencing illness, who are calorie restricting and also those who have lost fluids through sweating. If potassium levels might be low for you then try increasing your fruit and vegetable intake to start with.
Calcium is involved in muscle contractions and in the generation of nerve impulses. Blood calcium is tightly controlled by several hormones including the parathyroid hormone and vitamin D. Those who consume or convert insufficient vitamin D from food sources, or the sun are more likely to be calcium deficient, as are those following plant-based diet or those who are intolerant to dairy foods. If this sounds like you then make sure you combine fortified foods such as plant-based milks, yogurts, and spreads with a quality vitamin D supplement, especially during the cooler months.
Magnesium plays an important role in stabilising adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the energy source for muscle contraction, and also serves as an electrolyte in body fluids. Muscle weakness, muscle twitching, and muscle cramps are common symptoms of magnesium deficiency. There is likely to be a deficiency of magnesium in those who are plant-based, physically active people and those on a calorie-restricted diet. Magnesium deficiency can also occur in the pre-menstrual period. Magnesium-rich foods include good quality dark chocolate, nuts, pulses, seeds, whole grains, avocadoes, and green vegetables.
Final thoughts: Night leg cramps are often due to fluid imbalances and electrolyte imbalances. These imbalances can be addressed by ensuring enough water and fluids are consumed and that the electrolytes – sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium are in balance.
Jenny Tschiesche BSc(Hons) Dip(ION) FdSc BANT
The Lunchbox Doctor
Best Selling Author and Nutrition Workshop Facilitator
BANT Registered Nutritionist
A note from Beingwell: If your organisation would like Jenny to deliver a workshop, or want to find out more about the many ways she can help your employees to eat better, pop us an email firstname.lastname@example.org. Find out more about Jenny here.