By Benjamin Skipper
Legs cramps have always been an ongoing problem for me, right from childhood. It was very seldom, but every now and then a bad movement of my legs would result in my muscles starting to contract very uncomfortably, though it was always easy to remedy with stretching. At the very worst, I was annoyed by the constant nerve twitching in my legs and hips after any taxing physical activity. The cramps may have been with me throughout most of my life, but they were so mild and seldom that they were an insignificant annoyance, one hardly worth acknowledging.
But my, did things change when I went on the paleo diet. It took several months for it to manifest due to my dietary practices, but the cramps morphed into something monstrously painful and brought nearly omnipresent twitching. What was mild discomfort before had transformed into agonizing pain, one that wasn't easy at all to remedy. I kept getting woken up in the morning as if I were on the verge of a cramp, and if I did cramp I would have to immediately get out of bed to stand up since the pain was so intense and my legs virtually paralyzed. In the worst case scenarios my muscles would tighten so fiercely that even my full body weight on my feet plus jogging around the room wouldn't ease the contraction, so the pain had to be endured for what was too long of a time. Getting back to sleep was difficult as well, for the wrong leg movement would start the whole process over again, which was especially difficult to avoid since I sleep on the floor (and thereby was forced to fall on my bottom to lay down). I was also prone to anxiety attacks (and resultant shallow breathing), heart palpitations and pounding, and an irregular heartbeat. The twitching became a horrendous annoyance so irritating that at times I gripped my body just to hold the nerves down. My life still went on alright, but with much reduced satisfaction. It was almost frightening to go to bed knowing what painful state I would wake up to. I tried ignoring it for awhile, but the pain just got worse and worse: It refused to be ignored.
Since these symptoms didn't become so severe until late into my paleo diet venture this all came upon me as a surprise. My twitching and cramps were virtually nonexistent at the start; if anything, I experienced full health. It wasn't until I started experiencing cramps more and more consistently and with increasing intensity that I detected something was wrong.
The answer came to me when I suffered from a chocolate craving. I was breaking into my chocolate stash and trying to retrain myself from consuming too much sugar, but each bite left my craving virtually untouched. When I noticed I enjoyed the darker 90% cocoa variety over the 72% one I had been eating I identified that it was chocolate itself that I craved, not sugar. Apparently this is a classic symptom of a magnesium deficiency. In that context, it makes sense why I didn't start experiencing these cramps until several months into my diet. In the beginning I was at a loss as to what to eat, so my diet became very monotonous and included tons of almond flour, spinach, and some pine nuts. These foodstuffs have an appreciable amount of minerals in them, so my gorging on them probably held my cramps at bay. When I got sick of them and learned to better vary and balance my diet, the mineral deficiency worsened and the nerves couldn't function properly anymore. And so there we have the cramps and twitching.
My understanding as to why the paleo diet might make a mineral deficiency even worse is that it leads to much easier fluid excretion, which flushes out minerals. In Good Calories, Bad Calories I learned that carbohydrates tend to encourage the retention of fluids. That would explain why I didn't experience intense cramps and twitching in my childhood even though my mineral consumption may have been low throughout my entire life. While growing up I lived on a high-sugar Standard American Diet, so whatever little minerals I did consume were being held within my body longer than would be otherwise, resulting in my nerves operating in a non-painful matter, though definitely not optimal. In comes the paleo diet and out goes the fluids.
I tried multiple things to cure this malady, and they all worked to only limited degrees. Sweet potatoes, spinach, coconut juice, pickle juice, canned mackerel, and canned salmon all helped greatly, but sooner or later I found they would fail and my symptoms would come back. Plus, I just got tired consuming these foods so much, especially all that pickle juice. (Well, maybe not the coconut juice.) While these foods are rich in whatever treats cramps, such as the potassium in sweet potatoes or electrolytes in pickle juice, they either only attacked one deficiency factor or only satisfied my needs for a short while. If these foods are so rich in this realm, then why were they still impotent?
I've heard it cited that humans of the paleolithic age consumed between 800 mg and 1600 mg of magnesium per day, and tracking my mineral consumption in a nutrient tracker has shown me this is very hard to accomplish through dietary means. Even on days I went crazy and emphasized my consumption of mineral rich foods I would barely nick the bottom of the 400 mg that serves as the current daily recommended value. And the cramps and twitching were still fierce. What gives?
Well, it seems that irrational agricultural practices has led to the mineral depletion of the soil. Minerals return to earth through things such as urine, feces, and even animal carcasses, and lacking substantially any one of these can easily lead to depletion, which seems to be the case. Paleolithic man certainly didn't have online nutritional tracking, and yet he was still able to find sufficient minerals while I, a modern man, have a hard time finding them even as I have access to nutritional databases and more varied food sources. For me, supplementation is the only answer. I wanted to avoid it for monetary reasons, but again the cramps are just way too painful to ignore.
I've had luck with magnesium supplements in the past, for they did cure my problems before, but for whatever reason a change in my body in between supplementation periods has led to a digestive intolerance, even when taking the same brand names as before. First I tried Solgar's chelated magnesium, and while that went down fine in the past it led to fluid elimination after my body's change. Worse yet, the fluid elimination entailed me losing even more minerals than I had consumed, so my cramps, twitching, and heart difficulties got even worse on the supplement! I was not only wasting my money on the supplement, but also on the foods I was consuming to keep my mineral levels up! Magnesium citrate did the same thing to me, only I think it entailed a burning sensation in my gut as well, furthering my discomfort. Can't get my minerals in healthy enough amounts from food and I can't ingest supplements, so what to do?
Thankfully, I found the solution in Carlson Labs liquid magnesium. It's not chelated or a citrate, but it does have the significant difference of being a liquid inside of a gel cap. To experiment, I tried taking this variety sublingually; that is, I stuck the pills underneath my tongue and allowed them to be dissolved and absorbed through the blood vessels in my tongue. That way the nutrients would go directly into my bloodstream and bypass my digestive system. And so far I must say -- success!
My cramps have disappeared and my twitching has been dramatically reduced, and I have not suffered any digestive effects from the supplement. The pills dissolve very quickly and are easy to store in your mouth, and the taste is that of a pleasantly subtle beeswax. I just have to be careful if I choose to talk while taking my supplement, because then it coats my lips white. Otherwise, it's utterly fantastic and pretty affordable. Right now I take 1600 mg per dose, as I find anything lesser tends to bring the symptoms back.
These cramps were a problem that lasted many months for me, due to my confusion and ineffectual treatments. I tried ignoring it in hopes of saving money on food and supplements, but the pain just got too severe. The dietary remedies I tried only gave off false hope since they worked but temporarily and quickly got boring. When I finally decided upon spending for supplements I then had to deal with stomachaches, fluid elimination, and even further mineral loss. Now that I've found the supplement that works for me calmness has been restored to my life, and I'm glad it's not so expensive after all as well. If you've been suffering from leg cramps while on the paleo diet, then I suggest you try my suggested foods and supplement remedies. Furthermore, if you know of anyone who's considering going paleo, it might be nice to let them know of potential mineral problems so that they may get a jump on it and avoid the excruciating contractions.
It was a painful process for me, but with a happy solution in the end.