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Leg cramps

Posted on May 23rd, 2008 by Alison Read 30 Comments - Add Your Own »

legcramp.jpgYears ago, when a boyfriend of mine spent the night at my apartment for the first time (nothing happened, I swear!), he awoke to someone screaming. He jumped out of the bed in full combat mode, ready to attack whatever hideous creature was making those awful sounds. That hideous creature, of course, was me. “Help me! Help me!” I was shouting. “My legs! My legs!” Both of my calves were in painful cramps. If you have ever had one leg cramp, you know that you can pull yourself up and stretch it out. But double leg cramps means you are basically paralyzed, unable to maneuver yourself anywhere.

I gotta hand it to that boyfriend, he came through in crisis — he immediately grabbed my feet and pushed my toes toward me, slowly relieving the cramps. Surprisingly, he stuck around and got used to the middle-of-the-night cramp drill and even married me eventually, despite all my weird ailments!

The leg cramps were worse at night, but also occurred during the day. They came on stronger if I was dehydrated or if I drank beer. Sitting for a long time in one position could bring it on, such as the time I was on airplane returning from a weekend volleyball tournament, where days were spent playing in the hot sun and nights were spent in the bars. The plane had just landed, and as everybody rose to get ready to exit, both my quad muscles in my legs cramped. It was so painful that I involuntarily began shouting profanities (namely, the f-word). I looked up and saw a sea of faces looking down at me. “Leg cramps” I said in a little apologetic voice to the crowd. I looked over at my friend sitting next to me for support but she could only hide her own face and her giggles.

I not only had leg cramps, but I also got cramps in my hands, feet and a few times the muscle between my chin and neck cramped after I yawned (I didn’t even know I had a muscle there until it popped out!)

So what was causing these cramps? Not potassium deficiency, as everyone liked to believe. “Eat more bananas!” people would say. So I ate more bananas. I even drank tonic water because it contains quinine which was used to treat nocturnal leg cramps (now the FDA warns against using it). I had my potassium levels checked and they were normal.

It wasn’t until I had to change to a gluten-free diet after being diagnosed with celiac disease that the leg cramps went away. What a relief! Now I think that the cramps may have been related to my iron deficient anemia (caused by celiac), but no one is sure. All I know is that I don’t miss them one bit (and neither does my husband)!

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  1. Leg cramps can also be caused by magnesium and/or calcium deficiency. Adequate vitamin D is also needed as vitamin D has something to do with the regulation of calcium and magnesium.

    Everyone needs their vitamin D checked, 25(OH)D, to be sure it is not low or suboptimal.

  2. Thanks Anne,
    I will have to check my old blood tests and see if I was tested for these deficiencies when they were trying to figure out what was wrong with me!

  3. I have experienced the exact … same … thing. I’ve not had celiac testing but did test positive for corn, soy and wheat allergies. Since changing my diet, cramps have disappeared. Prior to this, they were a routine part of my crippling, painful experience, particularly if I was dehydrated. I found tums (calcium carbonate) to be a cure then, but now there’s no need for them. Besides, tums has corn syrup in it ……

  4. The only test of the ones mentioned by Anne that I could find of mine was calcium, and while it was in the normal range, it was the lowest end of normal. Later tests (after gf diet) show my calcium levels to be higher.

  5. Fascinating…. my own leg cramps recently got so bad I could no longer stretch my legs out in bed at all (or turn them a certain way, or sit in certain positions) without them cramping. I forgot what it was like to move my feet without cramping. Sometimes my feet would go into full curling spasms. I was diagnosed gluten intolerant about 6 years ago, with several other food allergies and sensitivities, and have been strictly avoiding gluten and the other things all this time. Still, the cramps have still been there, and got worse after a surgery a few years ago. My doctor dismissively mentioned, after a blood test last year, that my postassium level “might be a little low.” He suggested more bananas. I demanded a strong supplement. It worked, like a miracle (heart palpitations got better, too). When I forget to take it the cramps come back. I’ve since discovered that my level had been “on the low side” for years, but no doctor had thought it low enough to be worth mentioning. The cramps were disabling and made my life miserable, yet the postassium level hadn’t been so low on lab results that it raised any alarm. As a general rule for everyone, especially people in our sort of situation, it’s always worth double checking lab work. And question everything and pursue anything that doesn’t seem right.

  6. I agree about people checking their own lab work Ellen, and I think that you have a good point, that there is that “normal” level and if it isn’t low ENOUGH, then no one is concerned.

    Looking back at my lab results, there were several tests that I was in the normal range for, but after going gluten-free, those levels all rose significantly — meaning that I was not absorbing them completely before.

    After being anemic for so long, I actually tested out of the normal range for iron 3 months after changing my diet, but this time it was because my iron was too HIGH! My doctor couldn’t believe it!

  7. I wonder if there can be any connection made between gluten (or other food allergies) and restless leg syndrome?

  8. Andrea,
    Yes, restless leg syndrome has been connected to gluten. Here is a discussion about it disappearing after going gluten-free:
    restless leg syndrome.
    Also, my friend’s husband had restless leg syndrome until changing his diet. You can read about that too:
    Lan-Ping’s Story

  9. Well, well, I guess this was another problem I also had before I found out I was a celiac chick.

    Nights upon nights of leg cramps and also taking calcium, magnesium and postassium with no results.

    I was diagnosed as being celiac about 1 year ago and I don’t recall having any leg cramps this past year once I started changing my diet to gluten-free.

  10. I was diagnosed with Celiac’s Disease 29 yrs ago after I had already hit malabsorption. I follow my diet to the letter but have had problems with leg cramps off and on for the past 5 or 6 years. Took quinine, tonic water, mirapex, etc, but still get the screaming night time leg cramps. Then they stopped. Months later, I decided to get back on my vitamin regimen including Move Free (MSm and Chondroitin). Soon after starting, the cramps returned. I need the joint lube but those cramps seem to be worse with the Move Free. Wish I had an answer.

  11. I’ve been searching the internet for reasons why I might have terrible leg cramps. I get them in my legs and feet often, can’t even give my baby a bath comfortably without cramping and shifting my body around. I also get them in my neck and even in my stomach. I used to do long distance racing like marathons and Ironman distance triathlon. I thought that caused it but now I’ve been off for a year and a half and my cramps are still bad. I take all the supplements, potassium, Mag, Calcium, Vitamin D and etc. (P.S. to the poster above I found I actually got worse if I took too much potassium) I’m very frustrated and this seems to be the closest thing I’ve seen to all of my symptoms. I’m going to ask my doctor about testing. I should has for a gluten test or a test for celiac disease?

  12. My wife and I went on a gluten free diet about 3 weeks ago. We are both feeling wonderful, except for the leg cramps we are both having, usually at night and early morning.
    Is this a common occurrence, and will it take time to diminish and ultimately disappear? after our system gets used to the new food regimen?
    Would love to hear any feed back regarding the above.


  13. Hi Marvin,
    You started having leg cramps after starting the gluten-free diet, but didn’t have them before?

  14. I also went Gluten Free about a month ago and have started having leg and arm muscle cramps. I drink at least 3 16 oz waters a day and eat lots of fruits & veggies. Help?

  15. I have been getting severe leg cramps for the past two years. The doctor has done many bloods, mri scan and a radioactive bone scan and injections into my muscles to help them relax. She also told me to take quinine tablets and to drink soda water with quinine. After all these, nothing was found. My doctor told me I should join a gym and do some exercise. My cramps happen some times at night and are severely depilating, there is nothing I can do, I cannot even get up out of bed and just have to wait until it passes. One evening I was out for a “stroll” with a friend and a cramp started in one leg, I kept walking and then it went to the other leg, from my toes, up to my calves, my knees and my thighs (until I was screaming with pain and fell down on the foot path (my friend had to go for help). Another time, I got these severe cramps, while doing aqua aerobics and had to be lifted out of the poor by two life guards (how embarrassing, I have not gone back to the swimming pool since). Another time I was walking back to work after lunch and all of a sudden I could not put one leg in front of the other, I could not walk. I feel tired a lot, sometimes dizzy and generally feel that everything is not ok. From reading all the stories on this web site, I think that I maybe celiac. I just wonder why my doctor as not picked up on this? Do you know or can you advise what I should do next?

  16. Carolyn/Alison, I truly feel your pain. It took me years to connect the leg cramps to the celiac disease. When you think about it, it makes sense. You eat something with gluten, your body attacks the offending food by pulling all the water out of your muscles, etc and zooming it off to the digestive system. My metabolism is slow – gluten reaction comes 72 hours after eating the “bad” thing. I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, nevermind 3 days ago. I just had to give up on eating out unless I was sure of what the cook was sprinkling on my food. And church potlucks can be deadly. Everybody knows I am gluten-free so they assure me that they were careful when preparing, yada, yada and then they remember, after I have eaten it, that they also used worchester sauce. Really? Sure enough, 3 days later, I’m sick. And the screaming leg cramps come and get me when I sleep. If I think there is a chance of cramps, I have noticed that I can head them off by drinking a 1/2 bottle of Gatorade (yeck) just before bed. It works, though. It may be some voodoo medicine but the cramps may be caused by low electrolytes. I hope you find relief.

  17. I started a gluten free diet 6 weeks ago and like Debra and like Marvin and his wife, I too have developed severe leg cramps at night, which wake me.
    I used to get similar cramps in the past and it eventually became obvious that I would suffer from these cramps if I had eaten too much sugar during the day. I am now so surprised to have developed the same problem, whilst eating a completely different diet, which in every other respect makes me feel healthier. The only sweets I have been having in the last 6 weeks is 1-2 pieces of fruit per week. I too, am eating large amounts of vegetables. I do not think lack of potassium is the problem as I am eating avocado almost every day. Something must be out of balance….wondering what approach to take….it feels like it will be very much trial and error in finding the cause.

  18. I have the same debilitating effects that are described by most of these posts. I think some people or missing another catalyst as being soy. While I definitely suffer reaction because of gluten for me soy seems to be 10 times more debilitating it it’s effects. If I have anything with soy and I will suffer extreme calf cramps. Gluten usually causes muscles spasms in my legs ankles feet toes also hands and arms. Soy will provide the debilitating calf cramps that will literally want me to have my legs cut off. It is astounding how many food items and spices have soy in them or are made from soy. At this time but I know I can eat meat prepared at home, eggs, steel cut oats and salad as long as I use my own vinegar and oil dressing. That’s it.
    I have never been diagnosed with celiac but I will be seeing my doctor now that I read this post. In all my searches this is the only website that has completely and exactly describe the symptoms I am suffering from. Thank you all for participating and providing your stories.

  19. I don’t have Celiac as far as I know; but have always had severe cramps in my legs, esp at night. Went gluten free about a year ago and seldom have cramps now.

  20. I can relate to leg cramps severe in my calves. Per the post that soy is worse for her than gluten. I am gluten inteolerant (non-celiac but hyper sensitive) I also have severe cross reactions with soy, nuts, corn and dairy. I suffered for 10 years before being diagnosed. I had some chicken with sauce that was supposed to be soy/gluten allergan free yesterday for lunch. I asked twice to confirm was told it didn’t contain allergans. Woke up last night with excruiating cramp in left calve. I drink over 64 oz. water daily follow strict diet to avoid being contaminated. Today have stomach issues know soy the culprit only thing I ate yesterday was chicken baked with sauce, peas and carrots and white rice. It is very frustrating. Best to speak to the chef in person if not better know the incredients of everything if you don’t have that option don’t eat it. I was starving. I haven’t had a leg cramp like that since before being diagnosed but before, had them frequently. First leg cramp since going gluten/soy allergy free in nearly two years, I know it was the soy. Our bodies all react differently I get dermatitis rash and my stomach reacts very strongly if I am constaminated brain fog, migraines it is not fun. On behalf of everyone who has Celiac Disease you have my empathy and support. Paleo Diet has saved me and I am actually healthier and stronger and able to maintain muscle mass lost through malabsorption because of such a late diagnosis. I weight lift, walk do everything I can to not allow my food allergies to define me. Attitude is everything you have to be vigilant at all times I have learned that the hard way at times.

  21. I had been getting night time foot and leg cramp which was getting worse and hardly a night would go by without having pain. I noticed that if I had fish and chips from a certain chip shop the cramp was a lot worse so I asked what they did their frying with and they said palm oil. Then I looked at the labels on the food in my cupboard and was surprised to see that palm oil is included in many many food products. Where oil or fat is required in the recipe it is often palm oil. I decided to cut out all the foods which contain palm oil and if a product says veg oil then I didn’t touch it either. I have been off palm oil products now for about three weeks and I haven’t had cramp in all that time. I am so much happier now that I don’t have the night cramps. Down side is that I find that I’m always looking at labels and I can’t eat exactly what I want to eat. Rather that though than those cramps.

  22. Beth Hurley do not eat peas either. They are a legume and if you are allergic to peanuts and soy you are most like may reacting to peas as well.

  23. I’ve been reading about the Whole 30 program
    You cut out potential irritants of sugar, alcohol, wheat, legumes, dairy for just 30 days
    Then you reintroduce things slowly and evaluate if they affect you
    I’m going to try it in January and And am kinda excited to identify the things that affect my leg cramps.
    My daughters have found gluten grains,along with sugar and alcohol to be major irritants to their systems.
    And they’ve got lots of delicious, easy recipes to use

  24. Have any of you had your thyroid tested?
    I take the Cal-Mag-Zinc w VitD and drink 64-90oz water daily which reduces cramping but if I do not fully stretch before and after workout or activity I’m in trouble. Drinking V8 tomato juice works fast- sometimes under 1 minute and they’re gone.

  25. I was very interested and relieved to read Julia’s post (14 August 2015) as I thought I was probably the only person who got really bad leg cramps, often from the thigh down after eating shop bought fish and chips.
    Is there any evidence that palm oil could cause this?

  26. I found these comment because I was looking for a connection with soy and leg cramps. I went gluten free and those bad thigh to toe and hand cramps went away but once and a while come back. I know it’s after I had plain fried rice. I believe it may also be corn or all grains. I had sardines that was in soybean oil that may have triggered the cramp. I know dairy is my enemy and sugar not my friend. Not a diabetic, thyroid tests in normal range. FSH test was inconsistent and CRP test was increasing for years. Went down some after going gluten free but still high.

  27. I am a 50+ male. Diagnosed with osteoporosis before I was 40. Figured out I was non-celiac gluten sensitive with help from my endocrinologist who is my bone doctor. In April got infusion of zoledronic acid for my bones and all hell broke loose. Two visits to emergency and intense cramps that would sometimes last for our of sometimes be very intense for mere moments. Did al the test the endocrinologist and a rheumatologist could think of (more than 4 pages of results – including way out autoimmune diseases. Nothing. Only thing that helped was acupuncture. Discovered a week ago that I was lactose intolerant and started taking lactate tablets with meals. The cramps are as good as gone. No idea why – just thought it might help others.

  28. Dear Friends,

    I am on Gluten Free diet since last 2 years. Gluten related many issues have been subsided. However, sometimes whenever I eat Biryani (Rice cooked in meat, a Pakistani dish) I get cramps in my legs and feet. Previously I thought and observed that eating sugary food or drink causes this problem but rice is also culprit. Sharing my experience and observations to help others understand this problem better.

  29. It is difficult to eat at Asian/Chinese restaurants because you must be careful of soy sauce–it has wheat in it (unless it is Tamari, which is wheat free). I am sensitive to wheat, dairy, eggs, and nightshades (tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, potatoes etc) and find if I accidentally consume more than one of these at a time, my leg cramps are much worse. It makes for interesting travel and eating out. :={

  30. In addition to caffeine, diuretics, and dehydration (and over hydration) I found that being too acidic causes cramping. An alkaline diet really helped me. The People’s Pharmacy has lots of good info on this.

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