How To End Those Nasty, Sleep-depriving Leg Cramps

Not only do they hurt, but because leg cramps often happen when you’re sleeping, they deprive you of the restorative powers of much needed sleep. Here’s how to end those nasty, sleep-depriving leg cramps.

I’m well into my second week of a fast paced journey through parts of Europe and am experiencing leg cramps in my calves with increasing frequency. Not only is the leg cramping painful, it also disturbs much needed rest, given that this happens mostly when I’m trying to sleep. Leg cramps, particularly in the calves, are a common experience, especially as we age, so let’s explore why this happens and what to do about it.

Symptoms of Muscle Cramps

This is easy. because there’s zero chance that you won’t notice muscle cramping when it happens. Most muscle cramps develop in the leg muscles, particularly in the calf. Besides the sudden, sharp, gripping pain, you might also feel or see a hard lump of muscle tissue beneath your skin, says the Mayo Clinic.

To put it mildly, last night was not restful for me, as I had to jump out of bed four times to limp around and work out cramping, typically in my right calf for some reason. I’m already worn out from all the walking in 90 degree Fahrenheit heat (32 Celsius) that I’ve been doing as I trek through the Balkans, so I need my sleep.

Truly motivated to figure out how to end these calf cramps, I did some research that I want to share with you, because for many of us, the older we get, the more often muscle cramps happen, Balkan trekking or not.

 

Why You Get Muscle Cramps

Sometimes it seems like the cramping happens for no reason. You’re laying down, perhaps trying to sleep, and suddenly that vise-like cramp grabs your calf muscle and you get religious: “Oh my God, don’t let it seize up, relax, relax…”, inevitably followed by leaping from the bed to hobble around and work out the cramps.

Overuse of a muscle, dehydration, muscle strain or simply holding a position for a prolonged period can cause a muscle cramp. In many cases, however, the cause isn’t known.

Although typically harmless, three possible related medical conditions cited by the Mayo Clinic are:

  1. Inadequate blood supply. Narrowing of the arteries that deliver blood to your legs (arteriosclerosis of the extremities) can produce cramp-like pain in your legs and feet while you’re exercising. These cramps usually go away soon after you stop exercising.
  2. Nerve compression. Compression of nerves in your spine (lumbar stenosis) also can produce cramp-like pain in your legs. The pain usually worsens the longer you walk. Walking in a slightly flexed position — such as you would use when pushing a shopping cart ahead of you — may improve or delay the onset of your symptoms.
  3. Mineral depletion. Too little potassium, calcium or magnesium in your diet can contribute to leg cramps. Diuretics — medications often prescribed for high blood pressure — also can deplete these minerals.

There’s also an increased risk for muscle cramps that correlates with:

  • Age. Older people lose muscle mass, so the remaining muscle can get over-stressed more easily.
  • Dehydration. Athletes who become fatigued and dehydrated while participating in warm-weather sports frequently develop muscle cramps.
  • Pregnancy. Muscle cramps also are common during pregnancy.
  • Medical conditions. You might be at higher risk of muscle cramps if you have diabetes, or nerve, liver or thyroid disorders.

 

How To Prevent Muscle Cramps

Avoid dehydration

This is a big part, I think, of why I’ve been getting leg cramps. A lot of walking under a hot sun without sufficient hydration. The obvious solution is to drink plenty of water throughout the day, both before, during and after whatever physical exertion you’re doing.

Drink enough that you have to urinate several times during the day. Fluids help your muscles contract and relax and keep muscle cells hydrated and less irritable. During activity, replenish fluids at regular intervals, and — importantly, as I said — continue drinking water or other fluids after you’re finished.

Stretch your muscles

Stretch before and after you use any muscle for an extended period. If you tend to have leg cramps at night, stretch before bedtime. Light exercise, such as riding a stationary bicycle for a few minutes before bedtime, also may help prevent cramps while you’re sleeping.

Consume Electrolytic Minerals

Livestrong.com reviews suggestions offered by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons about sustaining enough electrolytic minerals in your body to prevent muscle cramps. Most often the deficiency is in potassium or magnesium, or both.

Perhaps your diet is not rich enough in these minerals for physical activity or the physical activity itself is the cause.  A combination of increasing body temperature, sweat and dehydration can cause you to become depleted of electrolytes during exercise.

To avoid dehydration:

  • Increase you water intake before, during and after exercise.
  • Take magnesium: adult women need 310 to 320 mg, and adult men need 400 to 420 mg. Good food sources are soy, yogurt, spinach, black beans and avocado.
  • Take potassium: 4,700 mg per day for both genders is sufficient. Good food sources are milk (if tolerated), potatoes, fish, bananas, lima beans and melon.

In my case, I’ll be drinking more water during the rest of my European journey and will be taking a magnesium and potassium supplement.

Fingers crossed.

 

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Joe Garma
 

I help people live with more vitality and strength. I'm a big believer in sustainability, and am a bit nutty about optimizing my diet, supplements, hormones and exercise. To get exclusive Updates, tips and be on your way to a stronger, more youthful body, join my weekly Newsletter. You can also find me on LinkedIn, Twitter and Instagram.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 4 comments
Sheila - August 25, 2019

Sounds like a great trip!
I think it’s best to load up on water and electrolytes first thing, and not to wait until you need them.
Drinking a lot of water and not taking the electrolytes can further deplete them, esp when we sweat a lot.
Finding an electrolyte that does not contain sugar can be a challenge (at least in CA!). Most of us do not need the sugar. (I won’t even be in the same room with the stuff!).
S

Reply
Joe Garma - August 25, 2019

Yep, agree w/ you on all counts, Sheila.

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Dan Butterfield - September 8, 2019

Good article Joe… I’ve been having the very same issue … My calfs cramping at night and yep it’s very painful and can cause some muscle damage. When my calf cramps severely, I will have a bit of a limp next day and it can last a few days before recovery. Calfs have always been my downfall.

I’ve been doing all you recommended except potassium and calcium. I will have to get a supplement. I will also try taking some electrolyte drink before bed to improve hydration. I think as we age, the calfs can be very sensitive muscles to regulate… meaning that over exertion (too many miles running/walking) or in the gym via calf exercises, can cause the calfs to cramp… oft expressed late at night while sleeping, Yet too little calf exercise can be even more damaging. I found during periods when I am doing no calf exercises for weeks, my calfs will start to cramp… they seem to be begging for exercise. Yet if I ‘over do’ with calf raises, I will similarly get cramps. Finding the right balance is tricky.

Reply
Joe Garma - September 8, 2019

Yes, Dan, in all things, balance. Happy to say that since I’ve returned home from my Europe trip, have had no lower leg cramping. Could be I’m hydrating better, walking less or now have access to potassium, magnesium and calcium. Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

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