Best Evidence-Based Supplements for Reducing Muscle Cramps

It is well-known that rigorous, exhaustive exercise can rapidly deplete body fluids and electrolytes; despite the unclear physiological cause of muscle cramps, electrolyte imbalance and dehydration are considered a likely culprit [1]. Thus maintaining proper electrolyte balance and drinking ample fluid is key for avoiding and relieving muscle cramps.

Moreover, losing body fluids and electrolytes—without replacing them—can lead to muscle fatigue and decreased athletic performance. For these reasons, the most common dietary supplements for muscle cramping are electrolytes.

However, there are a handful of other evidence-based supplements that can help alleviate muscle cramps. We'll discuss these supplements below, along with the nature of muscle cramps and how proper hydration sets a foundation for overall muscle performance.

Muscle Cramps vs. Muscle Spasms

Just about everyone will experience, or has experienced, a muscle cramp or muscle spasm at some point in their lifetime. While people may use the terms "muscle cramp" and "muscle spasm" interchangeably, they are distinct phenomena.

A muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary, painful contraction of a muscle or part of it that self-extinguishes within seconds to minutes. The feet and lower limbs are the most common body parts where muscle cramps occur. The cramp contractions are associated with repetitive firing of motor unit action potentials, but what causes cramps remains poorly understood [2].

Muscle spasms, on the other hand, are any involuntary and abnormal muscle contractions, regardless of whether they are painful.

Electrolyte Supplements for Muscle Cramps

Electrolytes are molecules that ionize in solution, allowing them to carry electrical charges throughout your body. Several essential minerals, notably sodium, potassium, chloride, magnesium, calcium, and phosphorus, are electrolytes.

Electrolytes help move solutes across cell membranes to maintain cellular hydration. They also serve a variety of other roles in the human body and are necessary for proper organ function, muscle function, and cellular metabolism. 

Despite the ubiquity of “sports beverages” like Gatorade and Powerade, they're not necessarily the best source of electrolytes. An electrolyte supplement that provides bioavailable electrolyte minerals, such as magnesium glycinate, is a much healthier and more effective way to prevent muscle cramps (especially for active gym-goers who don't want to consume large amounts of added sugar). The sections below will discuss the nature of these electrolytes in more detail, particularly how they can enhance muscle function and reduce muscle cramping.

1. Sodium

It’s technically wrong to refer to sodium as “salt.” Sodium is a mineral that forms salts—much like other minerals—such as table salt (sodium chloride). Sodium is the primary cation (positively charged ion) in the fluid that resides outside cells (extracellular fluid). In combination with potassium, sodium helps operate the sodium and potassium pump, which helps regulate cellular fluid balance and the total amount of water in the body.

2. Potassium

In contrast to sodium, potassium is the primary cation present inside cells. Remember, potassium works together with sodium to regulate cellular fluid balance. Potassium is also integral to heart rate health and muscular contraction. Low potassium, also known as hypokalemia, can cause symptoms such as irregular heart rate, muscle cramping, inability to contract muscle efficiently, and dehydration.

Most people lose a generous amount of potassium by sweating, making it essential to consume before hitting the gym.

3. Calcium

Most people think of calcium as a trace mineral that merely encourages healthy bones, but it does quite a bit more than that. Calcium is an electrolyte whose blood levels is regulated by calcitonin, and it is necessary for many functions, particularly vitamin D absorption, bone density, thyroid function, and muscular contraction. Low calcium intake is often associated with muscle spasms, muscle cramps, and muscle weakness [3].

4. Magnesium

Magnesium is one of the key electrolytes in humans, playing a role in numerous biochemical reactions, especially in skeletal and smooth muscles. Research suggests that magnesium deficiency may contribute to muscle cramping, and that magnesium supplementation can enhance overall muscle performance [4]. However, evidence remains fairly inconclusive regarding the use of magnesium supplements for treating nocturnal leg cramps, a common symptom of several chronic health conditions [5].

5. Phosphorus

Phosphorus is a trace mineral that plays many roles in humans, typically in the form of phosphate (phosphorus bound to oxygen). You’re likely familiar with the importance of phosphate as a component of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), which is the veritable energetic currency of cells. Phosphate is also an important intracellular electrolyte (although most of the phosphate in your body carries no electric charge).

Bone tissue contains about 85% of your body’s phosphate content. The remaining 15% resides inside your cells and is responsible for energy production. Phosphate is also necessary for DNA synthesis, bone and teeth formation, and various other biological processes.

Other Evidence-Based Supplements for Muscle Cramps

Other notable supplements for muscle cramps include taurine, betaine anhydrous, vitamin D, L-alanyl-L-glutamine (Sustamine®), and glycerol. 

Hydration Habits to Treat Muscle Cramps

Electrolyte powders and the other supplements mentioned above are great options for avoiding/reducing muscle cramps and promoting overall muscle health. However, supplements won’t do all the work for you: water intake is crucial, especially if you're prone to muscle cramping.

Roughly 70% of the human body is water by mass, a good proportion of which resides in muscle tissue [6]. Water is an integral molecule for nearly all physiological processes, which is why we can't survive more than a few weeks without consuming fluids. Since the body loses a generous amount of fluid and electrolytes via sweat, active individuals are at an increased risk of dehydration (especially when exercising in hot and humid environments).

Muscle cramps, muscle weakness, and muscle pain are common consequences of exercise-induced dehydration [7]. Naturally, if you're a fan of physical activity and working up a sweat, you need to put extra effort into staying hydrated.

Here are some practical hydration tips to treat/prevent muscle cramps so you can move freely:

1. Keep a filled water bottle by your side throughout the day

While this may seem like common sense, many people go about their day without drinking much water at all. Carrying a water bottle with you throughout the day—refilling as needed—makes it much easier to take periodic sips and stay hydrated.

2. Drink at least 1 fl. oz of water per kilogram of body weight, daily

As with most nutrients, water demands are proportional to a person's size (and activity level). Smaller individuals inherently require less water than larger people; the same can be said when comparing the water needs of sedentary and highly active people.

A good starting point for most people is to drink at least one fl. oz (~30 mL) of water for every kilogram of body weight. For example, if you weigh 75 kilograms (~165 lbs), you should aim for no less 75 fl. oz of water per day.

Active gym-goers and athletes may require as much as 2 fl. oz/kg body weight throughout the day to account for fluid and electrolyte loss via sweat.

3. Consume electrolytes before, during, and/or after exercise

Sugar-free electrolyte powder like Transparent Labs HYDRATE is one of the most practical ways to optimize hydration and avoid muscle cramps, particularly before exercising. While things like Pedialyte and Gatorade contain electrolytes, they are typically loaded with processed simple sugars and/or artificial sweeteners. For most people, the consequences of ingesting large amounts of high-fructose corn syrup and dextrose found in sports beverages far outweigh the hydration benefits.

Key Takeaways and Tips to Avoid/Relieve Muscle Cramps

  • Staying hydrated is ultimately the best way to reduce the risk of muscle cramps before, during, and after exercise. Try to drink at least one fl. oz (~30 mL) of water for every kilogram you weigh (1 kg = 2.2 lbs). Active individuals may need to drink upwards of four liters (~1 gallon) of water daily to account for fluids lost during exercise.

  • While drinking plenty of water is essential for hydration, your cells also require ample electrolytes for proper fluid balance and healthy muscle contractile function.

  • Electrolytes are minerals that ionize in solution and carry electrical charges throughout the body. These micronutrients are imperative for numerous physiological functions, especially muscle contraction and helping muscles relax (which includes preventing muscle cramps).

  • In general, sodium, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus are the key electrolytes for hydration and performance. Bicarbonate and chloride can also be beneficial for alleviating muscle cramping, but you typically get plenty of these electrolytes through endogenous production and foods.

  • Supplementing with electrolytes in Transparent Labs HYDRATE can keep your hydration and performance optimal while you train without all the unnecessary added sugar you'll find in conventional sports beverages. Other notable supplements for muscle cramps include taurine, betaine anhydrous, vitamin D, L-alanyl-L-glutamine (Sustamine®), and glycerol.

  • If you live and/or work out in a hot and humid environment, electrolyte imbalance and consequent muscle cramps should not be taken lightly. Drinking extra fluid and taking an electrolyte supplement is especially important in these instances.

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