Magic Muscle-Cramp Cure

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

After a long day of gardening last week, I awakened with an intense muscle cramp in my leg that was so painful I might have been worried — except that I knew what I could drink to make it go away (you won’t believe that I could it get down at 3 am — I’ll tell you what it was in a minute). But sometimes muscle cramps aren’t so easy to get rid of and, in fact, sometimes they are a sign of a serious illness. And, of course, not everyone knows about my magic cure… so I thought this was a topic you might like to know some more about.

Who Gets Muscle Cramps?

Muscle cramps are a common problem — medically speaking, a muscle cramp is a sudden, involuntary contraction of one or more muscles that can be very painful, sometimes leaving tenderness for up to 24 hours after the cramp subsides. Aging and overuse of the muscles are two common causes, but other triggers can include dehydration… low blood sugar… calcium, sodium and/or magnesium deficiency… underactive thyroid… kidney or liver dysfunction… peripheral vascular disease (which restricts blood flow to the legs)… nerve compression… Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS)… brain tumors/cancer… multiple sclerosis… well, you get the picture.

What you need to know

To get some useful advice, I contacted Barry Wiese, DC, a board-certified chiropractic neurologist in private practice in Rochester, New York, whose specialty work with geriatric patients and background as a marathon runner have given him especially unique expertise on this topic. Cautioning that there is no surefire, works-every-time solution, he told me how to differentiate a run-of-the-mill (if excruciating) cramp from one that you must tell your doctor about.

Here’s a list of questions to ask yourself:

Are my cramps random? According to Dr. Wiese, a cramp that comes on suddenly and inexplicably is usually not a problem. Noting that the majority of random cramps are no big deal, he suggested that it’s fine to try the “old standby” cures, including eating a banana (for potassium)… drinking more water to counter dehydration… light stretching of the affected area… self-massage… and heat packs to relieve pain and tenderness.

Are my cramps becoming more frequent and/or following a pattern? Cramps that begin to establish themselves in a predictable pattern — such as at a particular time of day or when you walk — may be a worrisome sign that you should discuss with your doctor.

Did I do something that might explain this cramp? If you realize that you are getting cramps often, even predictably in certain situations, start a log of when they strike including time of day… what you’ve eaten… how long they last… how painful they are (consider a score between one and 10)… and what you were doing before and during the episode. Share this information with your doctor.

Should I see my doctor? With persistent or worsening muscle cramps, you need to see your doctor to discuss potential causes and treatments. Though muscle cramping represents abnormal function, it’s only rarely serious, Dr. Weise said. However, he pointed out that “many disease processes include cramping in their list of symptoms… and for many of those, the earlier you get treated, the better the outcome — so it pays to follow a conservative, cautious route until proven otherwise.”

You’ll be asked about your medical history, and your doctor may suggest some tests, including blood work, to find the root cause. Treatment options could range from vitamin B supplementation… to prescription medications, such as diltiazem (a calcium-channel blocker) and baclofen (a potent muscle relaxant sometimes used to treat muscle spasms in patients with MS and ALS)… and possibly even quinine, the malaria treatment, though it’s used only in extreme cases because of the potential adverse side effects.

Kitchen Cures

Of course, you know already that my muscle cramp fell into the “random and not worrisome” category, painful as it was. So now I will tell you about my secret cure… pickle juice! (You could also just eat a pickle.) No, I’m not kidding, and you may be surprised to learn that Dr. Wiese didn’t even find it strange when I told him. I learned about pickle juice from my college field hockey coach, who suggested drinking it — and/or eating mustard — when players complained of muscle cramps. Both contain acetic acid, salts and other ingredients that help neutralize the compounds or electrolyte deficiencies that may cause cramps. Other helpful remedies you may be able to pull out of your kitchen cabinets include apple cider vinegar (mix two teaspoons with one teaspoon of honey into a glass of warm water), which works much like the pickle juice… and chamomile tea, which contains glycine, an amino acid that helps relieve muscle spasms.


Barry Wiese, DC, a board-certified chiropractic neurologist in private practice in Rochester, New York.

Can Relaxation Save Your Life?

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Americans are widely recognized as hard workers, but lots of us aren’t quite up to snuff when it comes to relaxation. In fact, the term “leisure sickness,” which describes a flulike syndrome that workaholics get from taking time off from the job, is in the running for dictionary publisher Webster’s “Word of the Year” for 2010! But far more typical is the vague but persistent sense of guilt that many people experience when relaxing — as if anything that feels this good can’t possibly be a good use of time. Well, you can and should relax about that. In fact, there is a great deal of research demonstrating that regular relaxation — the kind where you really chill out and do nothing — is as important to your health as eating right and exercising.

Many people assume that effective relaxation requires two weeks at the beach, but that’s not at all the case. Research has shown that even little bits can produce bountiful health benefits that we usually associate with visits to the gym and languorous vacations… and in fact, to attain the maximum benefits of relaxation, you need to build some relaxation activity into every single day. To help you find what works for you, here are research-supported relaxation suggestions that deliver actual health benefits in just minutes…

  • Grab some midday ZZZZs. A study at Harvard that investigated the napping habits of more than 20,000 adults discovered that people who took brief naps (under a half hour) two or three times a week reduced risk for coronary disease by 12%. Upping the nap ante, the folks who napped three or more times a week, reduced risk by an astonishing 37%.
  • Just quietly chill out. Yet another study, at New York University, established that “wakeful resting” (otherwise known as just sitting there) promotes memory and cognition function. The study asked students to observe images and then take a short rest while remaining awake. During this nonactivity, they were hooked up to functional MRI brain scans, which revealed that their brains at rest were busily absorbing and consolidating the new information just gained.
  • Get a massage. Many studies have shown that even a brief hands-on session from a pro can elevate the feel-good brain hormones dopamine and serotonin, which are known to slow the heart rate, reduce blood pressure and cortisol levels and contribute to deeper sleep at night. This deep sleep, in turn, enables the body to heal in a myriad of subtle but important ways — for instance, by facilitating the ongoing repair and regeneration of tissue.

More Powerful Ideas from a Relaxation Expert

For even more healthful everyday relaxation techniques, I called psychiatrist James S. Gordon, MD, psychiatrist and founder and director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, DC, and author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression. Dr. Gordon says the way to a saner, healthier and happier life is to practice relaxation at least several times a day. Here are some of his effective techniques…

  • Close your eyes and breathe deeply into the belly. Sit quietly for a few minutes, eyes closed, belly relaxed, and breathe deeply, inhaling through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. If you can do this twice a day, you’ll find that you can look at the world differently, he says. “We are constantly in high gear — just taking a few minutes like this gives you fresh perspective and actually changes your psychology and physiology.”
  • Go outdoors. Use nature as a no-cost, convenient, personal spa. Numerous studies show that going outside where there are trees and plants relieves stress and sharpens cognition. It’s literally healing — a study of patients recovering from surgery found that those with windows facing trees healed faster and took fewer pain medications than patients without a view.
  • Even brief spurts of movement help. It would take pages to list all the proven health benefits associated with regular exercise — just one of which is that it boosts brain neurotransmitters that help ease anxiety. Research has shown that simply taking a brief walk (indoors or out) can improve your mood… leading Dr. Gordon to advise grabbing any chance you can to move around, for example, periodically getting up from your desk to take stretch breaks, walking up steps instead of taking an escalator, taking a walk after dinner.
  • Build actual activity into your schedule. If you want to maximize your relaxation prescription, you need to engage in regular, extended periods of exercise. You’ve tried but failed before? The key to commitment is finding exercise that you enjoy. As Dr. Gordon observes, “jogging is great for health — but if you hate to jog, it’s not great for you.” You don’t have to be “serious” and “focused” to get the benefits, he adds — consider dancing each morning to your favorite CDs… immersing yourself into the deeply serene environment of a swimming pool for a few laps several times a week … biking around the neighborhood… sampling different classes to try Pilates, yoga, karate or the zippy Zumba dance technique — the list of possibilities is endless.

How Much Do You Need?

Dr. Gordon suggests looking to your life for signals that you’re relaxing well and sufficiently — or that you need a bit more. Signs that you need to increase your “relaxation prescription” include a tendency to be irritated and impatient… difficulty focusing clearly… insensitivity to the needs of others… digestive upset… insomnia… and feeling anxious or depressed. If that sounds like a typical day or week in your life, it’s time to sit down, breathe deeply and contemplate which of the many relaxation activities sound good to you right now — and then do them.

James S. Gordon, MD, psychiatrist and founder and director of The Center for Mind-Body Medicine, and clinical professor, departments of psychiatry and family medicine, Georgetown University, both in Washington, DC. He is author of Unstuck: Your Guide to the Seven-Stage Journey Out of Depression (Penguin), which contains these and many other techniques for relaxation.

Eat Fat for Breakfast!

by Carole Jackson, Bottom Line Health

Forget about black coffee and dry toast if you’re trying to lose weight and get healthier — the best way to begin your day is with a hearty breakfast, one that includes fats. Yes, fats! If you choose healthy fats, a high-fat breakfast actually serves to jump-start your metabolism so that you can more efficiently process food from dawn to dusk, say researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Their findings suggest that loading some fats onto your morning plate can help prevent metabolic syndrome — a dangerous mixture of belly fat, insulin resistance, elevated triglycerides and other risk factors for heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

High-Fat Trumps High-Carb

In the UAB study, researchers fed mice either a high-fat (45% fat) or high-carbohydrate breakfast (10% fat). Mice given the high-fat breakfast subsequently had a high-carbohydrate dinner, while the ones that consumed a high-carbohydrate breakfast had a high-fat dinner. (The mice were not given lunch.) In this way, all received the same number of calories from fat and carbohydrates respectively (as well as total calories) over the course of the day.

Investigators found that…

  • A high-fat breakfast activated fat metabolism. Mice that ate most of their fat at breakfast had better metabolic markers — including body weight, glucose tolerance and blood insulin and triglyceride levels — compared with mice that ate most of their fat at dinner.
  • A high-carbohydrate breakfast switched off fat metabolism. Mice that ate heavy carbohydrates in the morning and heavy fat at dinner experienced weight gain, increased body fat, glucose intolerance and other signs of metabolic syndrome.

“The first meal seemed to ‘program’ their metabolisms very effectively for the rest of the day,” said senior study author Martin E. Young, PhD, associate professor of medicine in the UAB Division of Cardiovascular Disease. In other words, it prepared their bodies to efficiently break down fats and other foods. In contrast, a carb-rich breakfast seemed to prime the mice’s bodies to break down primarily carbs, leaving fats to build up — something we humans definitely don’t want.

These results were published in the March 30, 2010, issue of the International Journal of Obesity. Other evidence, previously published, suggests these findings may apply to people as well — and studies are ongoing to improve our understanding of time-of-day consumption of fats and carbohydrates in humans, says Dr. Young.

Don’t Skip Breakfast

In the meantime, remember that not all fats are created equal. The high-fat breakfast study does not suggest that we should wolf down bacon, sausage and cheese blintzes every morning. Much more healthful fats include nut butters (almond butter on whole-grain bread is delicious)… whole-milk yogurt (sprinkle ground flaxseeds on top for their healthful omega-3 essential fatty acids)… or even a Japanese-style breakfast with broiled salmon.


Martin E. Young, PhD, associate professor of medicine, UAB Division of Cardiovascular Disease, University of Alabama at Birmingham.