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Elegant Earl Grey Tea Leads to Nighttime Foot Cramps

Q. I read on your website that Earl Grey tea can cause muscle cramps. I had been having muscle cramps for months and they were getting worse and worse. I drank Earl Grey tea all day long at work.

After reading about the connection, I stopped drinking it and guess what? The cramping stopped.

I would NEVER have imagined that Earl Grey tea would cause cramps in my feet so bad that I would have to get up at night to try to walk them off. Since I stopped drinking it, the cramping is completely gone.

A. We first heard about a problem with Earl Grey tea from a yoga instructor in 2006. She complained about muscle pains and cramping and discovered by accident that her Earl Grey tea was responsible. On black tea the discomfort faded.

We found a similar case report from Austria (Lancet, April 27, 2002). A 44-year-old man had been drinking nearly a gallon of Earl Grey tea daily. He developed muscle cramps, muscle twitches, blurred vision and pins and needles in his fingers and feet. When he switched to plain black tea, the symptoms disappeared within a week.

The scientist who reported this case pointed out that the flavoring in Earl Grey tea is bergamot oil, which can block the movement of potassium in muscles. This leads to muscle cramps and twitches.

Two recent studies have delved into the details of how bergamot oil affects mineral movement in muscle (Journal of Cardiovascular Pharmacology, April, 2013; Journal of Pharmacy and Pharmacology, May, 2013). Apparently, bergamot oil encourages blood vessels to relax. Normally, this should be a beneficial effect, but if it also leads to muscle cramps, caution is advisable.

If you get leg cramps even though you do not drink Earl Grey tea, you may find our Guide to Leg Pain of interest. In this brochure we describe a number of strategies to solve the leg-cramp problem that affects so many. Here are just a few stories from visitors to this website of ways to calm those pesky cramps:

“I have been living with ever worsening pain in my legs.  I get such severe cramps at night, that I get anxious just thinking about going to bed. I know the chances are good that I will wake up screaming. 

“It got worse about 9 months ago when I began waking up with my left leg achy, stiff and feeling extremely swollen, although it wasn’t swollen at all.  The discomfort persisted all day long, not just night time and it severely affected my mobility.

“I got advice of all kinds — take more calcium, magnesium and potasium.  Take quinine.  Exercise before bedtime, don’t exercise before bedtime.

“My doctor wanted to do an MRI for pinched nerves and to put me on Lyrica.  Nothing worked and the MRI showed nothing!

“Then last week, my sister-in-law told me about the soap under the sheets.  At any other time I would have told her to cut back on the sauce!  But I was in such discomfort and so depressed about how it was limiting my activities that I decided to try it.  What did I have to lose?

“Well after the first night, the pain went away and the swollen feeling and stiffness decreased dramatically.  No Cramps!  After one week I’m able to sleep comfortably, walk normally and the pain is hardly present.  My husband feels it’s all a placebo effect but I know differently.  As to the so-called scientific community, here’s my challenge.  Instead of scoffing at how unscientific this treatment is, these PhDs should be lining up 6 deep to research it — what makes so many Non-PhDs tout the unscientific phenomena.

“A while back, penicillin was just a mold used widely by “folk doctors”.  It wasn’t until scientists took it seriously enough to test it and find out what made it such a good “folk medicine” that penicillin, and consequently the other cillins, became widely available.  Today’s science fiction often becomes tomorrows scientific ‘discovery’.  Science is not limited to the known; it’s not static.  On the contrary, a large part of science is that questioning curiosity about why something appears to be working when it shouldn’t — the inquisitiveness that makes a doctor a good scientist.

“Think outside the box, Mr. Doctor of Biomedical Engineering and Physics — prove us all wrong!  I dare you!” Ana

This visitor was responding to a scientist with doctorates in biomedical engineering and physics. He took us to task for even mentioning the soap story. He asked, “What is the mechanism of action for a bar of soap under your sheets for relieving any type of pain? Answering that this is anything but an old wives’ tale discredits everything you have done in the name of science.

“As a fellow scientist and university faculty member, I feel it is your responsibility to educate your readers using accepted scientific principles. When you do not, you are performing a disservice to the rest of us.

“What’s next? ‘We have heard from many readers that it helps to have a leprechaun in your pocket when looking for gold at the end of the rainbow, and we can

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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