Sometimes, leg spasms occur on a nightly basis reducing the quality of sleep. When a “charley horse” happens during slumber, a person is jolted awake by a sudden and very strong muscle spasm in the calf, thigh, foot or toes. Releasing the pressure frequently requires an immediate leap out of bed to forcibly straighten out the affected muscle. If a person doesn’t have good balance, this risks falling and hitting the head and for the elderly, the additional risk of fracturing a hip.
Medical Conditions and Drugs that Cause Leg Cramps
While most problems with leg cramps are not serious, a person having continual issues should first check with a doctor to ensure no medical condition is present.
Leg cramping is a symptom of peripheral arterial disease, kidney disease, thyroid disease, and multiple sclerosis (MS). (1)
5 Solutions for Charley Horses
Once serious issues are ruled out, natural remedies can easily mitigate persistent issues with leg cramps. It’s easier than you might think to eliminate this painful condition from your life for good!
Whatever you do, don’t try to solve the problem using a fascia blaster or similar scraping devices. For the most part, resolving issues with leg cramps requires an inside out approach. The one exception is the external remedy described below, which uses the skin to resolve a common nutritional imbalance instead.
Leg Cramps During Pregnancy
Many times, mineral deficiencies cause charley horses during pregnancy. Lack of sufficient potassium, calcium and magnesium are common.
This was my challenge when I started experiencing painful leg cramping at night during the third trimester of my first pregnancy. My body needed more minerals and clearly wasn’t getting enough even from my all organic, whole foods diet.
My favorite pregnancy book, Wise Woman Herbal for the Childbearing Year, suggested a daily cup or two of nettle infusion to remedy the problem and provide needed minerals. Nettle contains many minerals including plentiful calcium in easily absorbed form.
It worked like a charm! I drank an infusion of nettle tea daily until the baby was born and never suffered another debilitating leg cramp. Nettle infusion worked to prevent any leg cramps with my subsequent pregnancies too. According to herbalist Susun Weed:
Nettle is amazingly rich in protein, vitamins, and minerals, especially the critical trace minerals: anti-cancer selenium, immune-enhancing sulphur, memory-enhancing zinc, diabetes-chasing chromium, and bone-building boron. A quart of nettle infusion contains more than 1000 milligrams of calcium, 15000 IU of vitamin A, 760 milligrams of vitamin K, 10% protein, and lavish amounts of most B vitamins. (1)
Note that calcium or mineral supplements don’t work as well to eliminate leg spasms. The reason is that these minerals are not in bioavailable form. The minerals in nettle tea, however, are easily and quickly absorbed and come with all the necessary synergistic components.
How to Make Nettle Infusion
Try it! You will be amazed. This remedy will help resolve mineral deficiency related leg cramps even for those who are not pregnant. Works for men too!
To make nettle infusion, put 3 ounces of dried nettle herb (I use this trusted brand) in a quart mason jar, fill with hot filtered water, seal the lid and leave on the counter overnight. Strain out the nettle in the morning and drink 1-2 cups daily hot or cold. Use up within 48 hours and then make a fresh quart.
Epsom salt baths are a great way to get more magnesium and sulfur. Most people are dangerously deficient in these two critical minerals which are both easily absorbed via the skin. Good magnesium status promotes relaxed muscles that are resistant to cramping. Some people actually absorb magnesium better through the skin than from food!
According to the Epsom Salt Industry Council, soaking in epsom salts helps ease muscle pain and prevent spasms and cramping among other benefits. It does this by improving nerve function by encouraging proper regulation of electrolytes.
A regular full body soak in epsom salts 2-3 times per week for about 20 minutes is the best way to resolve leg cramping. If you don’t have a bathtub or can’t do a full body soak for whatever reason, an epsom salt foot soak works too. I do this a lot during the hot summer when the thought of a warm bath is not very appealing! Try to use a deep bucket that will get most of your calf into the warm water too.
Buying epsom salt is easier than you might think. Just be sure to get brands certified USP or have a drug facts box on the label.
Bananas and Other Potassium Rich Foods
If leg cramping is related to low potassium levels, eating bananas is a great food to help resolve the problem. Organic bananas and heirloom varieties are going to have more potassium than conventional hybridized bananas grown in nutrient poor soil. It is worth it to get quality!
It is best to eat ripe bananas as they contain more enzymes to fully digest the minerals. On the other hand, unripe bananas contain more resistant starch, which is beneficial to gut health. But, if you are trying to resolve leg cramps, ripe bananas are the best choice.
Watch out for GMO bananas hitting the market in the future which are currently in trials in Australia as of this writing. (3) Just another reason to stick with organic versions!
- Winter squash
- Sweet potato
- White beans
Focus on Hydration (NOT 8 glasses of water/day)
Dehydration is a frequent cause of muscle spasms and leg cramps. However, the accepted notion that drinking 8 glasses of water per day or worse, dividing your weight by 2 to get the ounces per day to optimally drink actually has zero science behind it. That’s right, this common mantra is a total myth! In fact, drinking a lot of water may not do much to resolve dehydration problems at all for some people!
According to Dr. Joseph Mercola DO:
- The recommendation to drink eight 8-ounce glasses (known as 8×8 for short) of water a day is not scientifically backed.
- The best way to determine how much water you need is to listen to your body and let thirst be your guide.
- It’s a myth that waiting to drink until you’re thirsty is too late, because by then you’re already dehydrated; your body’s physiologic thirst mechanism is triggered before you’re dehydrated. (4)
Another excellent resource that debunks water drinking myths is the book Drowning in 8 Glasses: 7 Myths about Water Revealed by Adrienne Hew CN.
How to Hydrate Better than with Plain Water
I have personally always ignored the 8 glasses of water per day thing. The reason is common sense. Before running water was available, do you really think traditional cultures drank that much water per person per day? It didn’t seem likely or even feasible to me!
Anthropological evidence indicates that ancestral cultures across the globe heavily relied on fermented beverages that hydrate extremely well without a lot of liquids being consumed. In our home, we drink a variety of these traditional beverages including kombucha, beet kvass, homemade ginger ale, traditional root beer recipes, orangina, and fermented lemonade. You simply don’t need to drink a lot of plain water when you regularly consume these beverages.
Another easy fermented drink is haymaker’s punch or switchel. This electrolyte replacement recipe is a favorite in our home too. A glass of warm water with a pinch of sea salt (or a squeeze of fresh lemon) is a great way to start the day.
However you choose to prevent dehydration, the point is to focus on hydration, not just drinking water. In many cases, drinking a lot of plain water can do more harm than good when it comes to leg cramps!
Quinine for Muscle Spasms
A really awesome remedy for leg cramps, muscle spasms and restless leg syndrome is quinine. In fact, doctors used to prescribe quinine pills for persistent problems of this nature until recently. The FDA has now outlawed them as they were sometimes overused with dangerous side effects such as irregular heartbeat reported.
However, in low doses, quinine is completely safe for relief from muscle cramping. In fact, quinine is listed on the World Health Organization’s List of Essential Medicines, for the most effective and safe medicines needed in a health system.
Where is the best place to get quinine in a therapeutic dose since quinine pills are no longer available? Tonic water of all places! Some gyms and physical therapy offices are now offering tonic water to clients during workouts and treatments.
If you look at the bottom of a tonic water bottle, it usually says “contains quinine”. Quinine is a bitter tasting, crystalline substance obtained from the bark of the cinchona tree, Cinchona pubescens. It was originally used as a malaria treatment in Peru during the 1600s and during the days of colonial India. (5)
This is why bitter quinine combined with lemon flavor and sweetener works for alcoholic beverages like a gin and tonic. You don’t need to drink alcoholic beverages to enjoy it, however. A glass of cold tonic water is delicious on its own. Be aware that the flavor is rather unique and may take a bit of adjustment for some sets of taste buds.
How to Use Tonic Water to Relieve Leg Cramping
A glass of tonic water contains about 20 mg of quinine. In the United States, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) limits the quinine content in tonic water to 83 mg per liter. The therapeutic dose of quinine is considered to be around 200-1000 mg, so this may seem to be insufficient at first glance.
However, in my experience, a glass or two of tonic water per day relieves nightly leg cramping in many people. My mother, for example, has suffered from nighttime leg cramps for years. One small 10 ounce bottle of tonic water daily takes care of the problem for her. Hence, don’t be deterred by claims that tonic water isn’t effective for leg cramps. It is definitely effective and a safe remedy for some people with persistent issues.
Tonic Water Contraindications
If you would like to try tonic water to alleviate leg cramps, be aware of a couple of dangers.
First, if you are pregnant, you should not use it. Use nettle tea infusions instead as described above.
According to Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR), consumption of large amounts of beverages containing quinine can be dangerous for pregnant women. In at least one instance, the scientific literature reported withdrawal symptoms for a baby born to a mother drinking more than one liter (around 4 glasses) of tonic water per day. 24 hours after birth, the baby suffered from nervous tremors and quinine was found in the baby’s urine. Fortunately, two months later, the symptoms had fully resolved and were no longer observed.
Consequently, as a precaution, the BfR recommends pregnant women to abstain from tonic water consumption to prevent nocturnal calf cramping or morning sickness. (6)
Beware of Dangerous Tonic Water Ingredients
A second danger is consumption of many popular tonic water brands like Schwepps or Canada Dry which are loaded with GMO high fructose corn syrup and preservatives.
Best Tonic Water Brands
The best brands I’ve been able to find as of this writing are Fever-Tree and Q Tonic. None contain any preservatives, although natural flavor is listed on the label, which is not ideal. Fever-Tree and Q Tonic use agave as the sweetener. Both of these are significantly better than the GMO high fructose corn syrup used in other brands. I would consider cane sugar better than agave, which although not GMO is subject to a high level of processing similar to HFCS.
Do not use Hansen’s diet tonic water which contains dangerous sucralose (Splenda). Other brands are similarly bad using artificial sweeteners like saccharin. The best diet tonic water I could find was Zevia containing stevia, erythritol and monk fruit. Again, not ideal but far better than sucralose, saccharin or aspartame!
So, while there are no tonic water brands on the market with perfect ingredients at the present time, there are a few that have passable ingredients to assist with resolving persistent charley horse issues that can cause dangerous leaps out of bed on a nightly basis.
If you’ve come across a tonic water brand with better ingredients than I’ve listed above, please let us know in the comment section!
Sarah Pope has been a Health and Nutrition Educator since 2002. Her work is dedicated to helping families effectively incorporate the principles of ancestral diets within the modern household. She is a sought after lecturer around the world for conferences, summits, and podcasts.
Her work has been covered by major media including USA Today, ABC, NBC, and many others.