Man lifting weights while pouring water into his mouth

How to Avoid Dehydration and Cramping

Dehydration and cramping are two symptoms that often go hand-in-hand. Dehydration is when your body loses more fluids and electrolytes than you consume. Water alone is not the only factor. You also need the right balance of metabolites, such as potassium, sodium and magnesium. Gatorade's claim to fame was that they originally made it at the University of Florida for the Gators student-athletes to replenish the carbohydrates, water, and electrolytes they lost during sports.

If you do vigorous activity and don't replace fluids and electrolytes as you go along, you experience dehydration. Hot, humid weather increases the amount you sweat and the amount of fluid you lose. Does this sound relevant to us in south Florida? I think so!

Thirst is also not a reliable indicator for dehydration. Again, especially older adults don't feel thirsty until they are already dehydrated.
Older adults naturally have a lower fluid volume and are more susceptible to dehydration. Certain medications can increase your likelihood of dehydration as well. A good rule of thumb is that you should take your weight in pounds, divide it in half and drink that many ounces of fluid per day. For example, if you weigh 160 pounds, 160 divided by 2 is 80. A 160 pound person should try to drink 80 ounces of fluid per day, about 10 glasses of water.

Where Does Cramping Come In?

Cramping is when your muscle involuntarily contracts, causing spasms and often pain. It can last a few seconds to several minutes depending on severity. Cramping most often occurs in the leg muscles, especially the calf. It is often one of the primary symptoms of dehydration, however not all cramps are related to dehydration. There are well-hydrated people who still experience cramping. It's believed that cramping is actually overactive nerve fibers sending signals to your muscles. This is affected by the metabolites in your blood.

Soccer playing laying on field with a calf cramp
The calf is the most common area for cramping

How Do I Avoid Dehydration and Cramping?

Drink enough water, especially during intense activity such as running. Generally metabolites are not usually a concern, except of course in the case of runners and endurance athletes, which actually makes up a significant portion of my patients. Going for a 20 minute jog typically won't cause a lack of metabolites, but a half marathon certainly can and you need to supplement with more than just water. Other risk factors include heat exhaustion and heat stroke, which we won't discuss today but are also more serious conditions that can occur during prolonged dehydration.

One additional thing of note: a study by Harvard scientists showed that cramping can be eased by introducing a strong sensory input to the mouth and esophagus. You may have heard things from your high school coach about drinking pickle juice. The conventional wisdom was that it contained fluid, plus a high amount of metabolites such as sodium, but that strong flavor may be doing the trick. The scientists developed a concoction based off this research and made a small shot of liquid that contains ginger, cinnamon, hot sauce, and lemon juice which results say is effective. I say try it!