What are Muscle Cramps and How Can They Be Prevented?

Have you ever had a good night’s sleep interrupted by a stabbing pain through the calf of your leg? Have you ever been gripped by agonizing spasms in your lower back that threatened to knock you down? When a muscle tightens without you “telling it to” and just won’t relax despite your best efforts, you are suffering a muscle cramp. Most muscles in your body are what are called “voluntary” muscles. These can usually be contracted and relaxed in order to control your arms, legs, fingers, neck, posture and more. Even the simplest movements are a highly synchronized sequence of muscle contractions and relaxations.

A muscle—or even a few fibers of a muscle—that contracts without conscious control, is having a spasm. When such a muscle remains powerfully contracted for an extended period of time, it becomes a cramp and the muscle becomes visibly hardened.

A muscle cramp can involve part of a muscle, the entire muscle or a group of muscles. It can last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes—and sometimes far longer. Some children can experience cramps, but it is more common with adults, especially as they age. Nearly everyone experiences a cramp at some time in their life.

All of the skeletal muscles that we use to move our body are subject to cramping. Perhaps the most frequent cramp is in the calf of the leg—what is commonly called a “charley horse.” So what causes these cramps?

Vigorous movement when the body is not used to such activity can result in muscle fatigue and cramping. You can reduce the risk of cramps by gently stretching the muscles before and after any activity to warm up and cool down. Also, build up to the activity slowly. Don’t go from zero to peak exertion right away. Let your muscles get used to the change in activity. Also, do your best to be consistent with your exercise regimen. On-again, off-again workouts can increase the risk of cramps. Remember—good exercise habits build flexibility, balance and coordination as well as stamina and strength. That don’t build flexibility as well as strength and, otherwise you might confuse your muscles, resulting in greater risk of cramps.

But exercise isn’t the only thing that can trigger a muscle cramp. What about those spasms that start while you’re asleep and wake you up in the middle of the night? If you tend to get cramps while you sleep, then try stretching your muscles before going to bed.

A chemical imbalance in your body can also result in cramps—especially if you’ve been under a lot of stress or not eating a healthy, balanced diet (or both). Your nervous and musculoskeletal systems rely on a combination of specific nutrients for muscle control. Vitamin B, plus calcium, magnesium and potassium can help restore the chemical balance within your body. Natural sources are always the best. Bananas, raw avocados and cooked spinach are great for extra potassium and other nutrients. Staying hydrated with electrolytes can help prevent or alleviate cramping. Some athletes even swear by drinking sour pickle juice for its minerals!

You should also be aware that a thyroid condition, diabetes or certain medications can also increase the risk of cramps. If you’re experiencing frequent or unusual muscle spasms that seem unrelated to exercise or diet (especially if you’re aware of other health problems or are taking prescription medications), you should consult your physicians about your symptoms.

 

What Are “Micronutrients”?

As opposed to macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates), micronutrients are necessary in the diet only in very small amounts. They are what we commonly refer to as vitamins and minerals. But despite the fact that we need very little of them, if we are lacking in even one of these micronutrients, it can wreak havoc with all of our body’s systems. Micronutrients are essential for the production of enzymes, hormones, and proper growth and development.

It is important to eat a varied diet consisting of both plant- and animal-based foods because no single food contains all the micronutrients the body needs. For example, as healthy as broccoli is, if you ate nothing but broccoli you would end up being severely malnourished. Although you would receive a healthy amount of vitamin C and good amounts of vitamins A and B6, it is completely lacking in vitamin B12, which after a time would lead to you developing anemia and other significant health problems.

Even though some micronutrients are required only in trace amounts, such as copper, selenium, chromium, manganese and zinc, some populations are deficient in these nutrients either through an insufficiently varied diet, or mineral depletion in the soil the food is grown in. Modern farming practices have led to significant soil depletion in many areas of the world and the crops grown on that land are less nutritious than they were 50 years ago.

A study published by researchers from the University of Texas at Austin that compared data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1950 and 1999 found that there had been significant reductions in the amount of nutrients found in 43 different fruits and vegetables over that 50-year time span. Nutrient data from 1975 to 1997 was analyzed by researchers at the Kushi Institute, which found an average drop in calcium levels of 27% in 12 fresh vegetables, vitamin A levels had dropped 21%, iron levels had dropped 37%, and vitamin C levels were 30% lower in just over 20 years. Another study found that we would have to eat 8 oranges today to get the equivalent nutrients that our grandparents would have gotten by eating just one.

This illustrates why it is so important to eat a healthy selection of fruits and vegetables. To get as many nutrients as possible from the foods you eat, you may want to consider buying locally-grown or organic produce when possible, since this produce is likely grown in healthier soil. You can also get a concentrated amount of vitamins and minerals by preparing a daily serving of juices or smoothies. This enables you to consume more fruits and vegetables than you may otherwise be able, ensuring that you get all the micronutrients you need to maintain the health of all your body’s systems.