Leg cramps—sudden, painful contractions of the leg muscles—can bring your basketball game or good night’s sleep to a screeching halt. Many times, the cause of leg cramps is obvious: dehydration, strenuous exercise, or a known medical condition. However, leg cramps that occur randomly are most commonly caused by low levels of potassium, calcium, magnesium and vitamin E. To prevent leg cramps stay hydrated and eat a balanced diet, rich in foods that contain these vitamins and minerals.
Lack of potassium is one of the most common causes of leg cramps, especially leg cramps that occur while sleeping (known as nocturnal or recumbency cramps). Potassium works with the sodium in your body to regulate fluid balance, and both need to be in the right proportions. Increasing the potassium-rich foods in your diet, such as bananas, spinach, tomatoes, mushrooms, potatoes (with skin) and cantaloupe, along with keeping your sodium intake down, can prevent leg cramps.
We all know calcium is important for bones, but it is essential for healthy muscles as well. Calcium plays an important role in muscle contraction; basically, it helps muscles move where we want them to go. Low calcium levels can cause leg cramps, and calcium-rich including low-fat diary products, beans, almonds, oranges, figs, broccoli, quinoa, salmon, sardines and seaweeds can help prevent them. Calcium fortified foods, such as juices and soy milk, can also help.
Magnesium is essential to all living cells and can affect muscles directly through the cell membrane. When your body does not have enough magnesium, it causes muscles contract and spasm. Dark green leafy vegetables such as spinach, kale and broccoli are rich sources of magnesium. Seeds, whole grain foods, seafood, molasses and nuts, especially almonds and cashews, also provide magnesium in higher amounts than most foods.
Vitamin E increases blood flow in the muscles, aids in muscle respiration and helps deliver nourishment to the cells. A lack of vitamin E means the muscles must work harder when active and can result in leg cramps. High levels of vitamin E can be found in asparagus, milk, seeds, leafy green vegetables, avocados, nuts, milk, eggs, and whole grain foods. Vegetable oils like canola, corn, sunflower, red palm, soybean and olive oil are also rich in vitamin E.
Increasing your daily intake of foods that prevent leg cramps can be creative and tasty. Substitute raw spinach or other leafy greens for lettuce on sandwiches or in salads. Add nuts, seeds and dried fruits to salads, cereals or grain dishes and choose vegetable oils for cooking and in recipes. Trade refined white breads for whole grain products, molasses for sugar, and beans or salmon for meats. Low-fat yogurt with bananas and almonds is a flavorful alternative to sweet desserts.