Muscle cramping can be overcome with smart diet

Many of my clients complain about muscle cramping at night or sometimes in the middle of a workout. It is a very common complaint and very easily resolved. It usually is a deficiency or water or any one of a number of electrolytes or sometimes even muscle glycogen (stored carbohydrate). The main electrolytes to consider are sodium, potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Muscle cramps occur in severe dehydration and heat stroke situations. For athletes who engage in endurance events such as long distance running or cycling, it is imperative to keep enough water in one’s body to replace that lost through sweat and other bodily functions.

Even for those of us who do not engage in endurance activities, in order to avoid heat related disturbances we need to ensure proper hydration all the time to keep healthy. All of the major metabolic activities in our bodies use water as a medium; therefore, without adequate water we die within days.

Water acts as a coolant, that’s why we sweat so that the water evaporating off of our skin cools us down. When you get so overheated that you stop sweating, you are in real trouble. Even at 1 to 2 percent of body weight loss due to water loss problems occur.

Furthermore, thirst is a very poor indicator of level of hydration so the best bet is to drink at least around three liters of water a day for women and four liters a day for men. To get really particular about your water requirements take your weight in pounds and divide it by two and that’s how many ounces of water you need daily.

Sodium is needed to maintain proper body fluid balance, blood pressure, and it is instrumental in nerve impulse generation as well as muscle contraction. Sodium is found in nature in small amounts, so if you follow a natural source diet, especially a vegetarian one with little processed foods, you could run the risk of having low sodium levels and run the risk of muscle cramps.

However, most people consume far too much sodium because they eat processed foods which contain not just salt (sodium chloride) but many other sodium compounds (sodium benzoate, monosodium glutamate and so on).

For example, a cucumber has 6 mg of sodium but a dill pickle has 560 mg. A baked potato has 20 mg of sodium but a one ounce serving of potato chips has 149 mg. Three ounces of roasted pork has 39 mg of sodium and three ounces of ham has 1,128 mg.

You likely get the point with these numbers!

The dietary guidelines suggest that our need for sodium is around 2,300 mg daily, but older people or those with hypertension (high blood pressure) should limit their sodium intake to around 1,500 mg per day.

The frightening thing is that most of us in the U.S. take in about 4 to 5 grams of sodium. That is 4,000 to 5,000 mg a day! This causes our kidneys to work very hard in order to try to get rid of the extra sodium and leads to elevated blood pressure.

Potassium is found in all body cells. It works in conjunction with sodium and chloride in regulation of nerve impulses and muscle contraction, including heart muscle tissue.

Potassium is abundant in fresh vegetables and fruit, especially melons, bananas, berries and citrus fruit. It can also be found in meat, fish, milk and tea.

Potassium deficiencies can occur when people fast, sweat profusely, have diarrhea or have taken laxatives or taken a diuretic to rid themselves of held water. Sometimes athletes do this kind of thing to “make weight” in a contest.

Low potassium levels can lead to muscle cramps and weakness and even lead to a heart attack. The recommended amount of potassium daily is around 4,700 mg for adults, and most people take in about 2,000 to 3,000 because they tend not to eat enough fresh fruit and veggies but reach for the sodium-laden processed foods.

Calcium is involved with all types of muscle contractions including those of the heart, the skeletal muscles, the smooth muscle of the intestinal tract and blood vessels. Impaired muscle contractions and cramping is commonly known as a symptom of low calcium levels.

This is substantiated by symptoms experienced by people who have inborn errors of calcium metabolism and who are susceptible to muscle cramping.

Those who are complete vegetarians and who do not take calcium rich foods such as cheese and yogurt are at greater risk for calcium deficiency and subsequent muscle cramps.

Magnesium is important for stabilizing the immediate energy source of muscles (ATP). Muscle weakness, twitching and cramps are all common symptoms of a magnesium deficiency. Magnesium is found mostly in plant-based foods such as grains, veggies, legumes and tofu. Sometimes women who are pregnant suffer with leg cramps as well and can be successfully treated with a simple addition of magnesium containing foods or supplements.

The recommended amount of magnesium is about 400 mg per day for men and about 310 mg per day for women.

Insufficient carbohydrate stores in the muscle have also been implicated in muscle cramping during a workout. This is not a cause of nighttime cramping but only during activity when the muscle is using the carbohydrate for energy.

For those of us who work out regularly it only makes good sense to go to the workout with some food in in your muscles even if you are trying to lose weight. That way you will have the energy to get through the workout without cramping or fainting and you will raise your metabolism by building up the muscle as you burn body fat.


Jane Riley is a doctor of education, certified personal fitness trainer, nutritional adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at, (808) 212-8119,


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