Muscle cramps can be extremely painful, and they’re never more unwelcome than right before a big sporting event. You can’t predict muscle cramps, but they can be prevented and treated should they occur. Cramps can be associated with a lack of key nutrients and there are certain nutrient-rich foods we should be eating to prevent them.

Why do muscle cramps occur?

Cramps are strong, painful muscle contractions that often come in quick bursts but can last for a prolonged period of time. They can be anywhere around the body, though they often occur in the legs. Muscle cramps can happen suddenly for several reasons. Common causes of cramps are overuse of a muscle, metabolic disorders, dehydration, strain or repetitive movements. They can also occur because of nutritional deficiencies, which is why some people choose to take nutritional supplements. Supplements should be taken if you are particularly deficient in a nutrient or vitamin. However, this isn’t always necessary as many nutrients are present in a variety of foods.

The best nutrients for prevention are:

Calcium

Healthcare professionals know that calcium is beneficial for muscles and bones, including your heart, blood vessels and intestines. But it also plays a role in nerve impulse generation, meaning that if you are deficient in calcium you may experience cramps. Calcium is abundant in a whole host of food and drinks including milk, yoghurt, canned fish, nuts and seeds. Consumption of these foods before exercise may lessen the possibility of getting cramps.

Sodium

Like calcium, sodium works with other electrolytes for nerve impulse generation and muscle contraction. It also maintains normal body fluid balance and blood pressure. Sodium can be found in cheese, pickled foods, beetroot, celery, and olives.

Potassium

Potassium is renowned for being beneficial for a sports-oriented diet. It is vital for nervous system and muscle function, particularly for the generation of electrical impulses. For this reason, it is common for those who experience cramps to be deficient in potassium. Food sources for potassium include bananas, avocados, potatoes, dairy and fish.

Magnesium

Foods such as nuts, seeds, whole grains, dried fruit and raw cocoa are particularly rich in magnesium. Magnesium can help prevent cramp because it is used for muscle contraction and relaxation. It can also make us feel more energised as it affects nerve conduction and electrolyte balance.

Treatment of cramp

Though prevention is obviously the best cure, there are certain things you can do to help ease the pain when a cramp does strike. Stretching is one of the best things; it can help to relax the muscle and lessen the pain. Remaining hydrated is also important, as dehydration is a common cause of cramps. A gentle message on the affected area can reduce the duration and severity of the pain.

A tailored diet

For those who frequently partake in sport or gym workouts, keeping a close eye on their diet comes as standard. That’s why it can be easy for them to make sure they’re getting enough nutrients to support the nervous system and muscles. However, for many others, regulating their diets isn’t always easy. The newly introduced sugar tax here in the UK has been designed to deter people from buying unhealthy snacks and encourage more nutrient-rich diets. The hope is that people will make smarter food choices that will benefit their health in the long run. Healthcare professionals are trying to make the public more aware that our diets can heavily influence the way our bodies function.

Jamie Costello is a sports nutrition student based in Manchester, England, and has worked closely with nutrition supplements companies.

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