A reader reports an unusual treatment for foot cramps. Is there any science to back it up? Plus: Should Seattleites take vitamin D supplements to get through winter?

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Q: I have suffered from extremely painful foot cramps for most of my adult life. When they occur, it feels as if someone is wringing the bottom of my foot like a towel in two different directions.

I have had a complete neurological work-up, and the diagnosis was benign foot cramps. I was given gabapentin to take daily, but it makes me very sleepy. I don’t like to take a daily drug for foot cramps that occur only about twice a month. Soap in the bed does not work. Clonazepam taken at the first sign of the cramp works, but it takes 10 to 20 minutes.

By accident I discovered that if I hold my breath for 30 seconds several times in a row, the foot cramp often goes away. I have to catch it coming on very early. Has this phenomenon ever been reported? Do you have any idea why it might work?

A: Many muscle cramps appear to be caused by overactive nerves stimulating the muscles to contract. In your case, these are the muscles in the sole of your foot. The result of such repetitive stimulation is a cramp.

Counterstimulation of sensory neurons that send messages to the spinal cord often can override the hyperactive nerves that were misbehaving. This seems to be how pickle juice, yellow mustard or the product called HotShot works to reverse cramps quickly (Muscle & Nerve, September 2017).

Quite a few readers report that pinching the upper lip can stop a leg or foot cramp. We suspect that it also may be working through counterstimulation. Whether or not holding your breath has a similar effect we can’t say.

Q: I live in Seattle. How could I get an adequate amount of vitamin D during our overcast and foggy nine-month-long winters without taking a supplement? I know the recent research on vitamin D showed it doesn’t help for heart disease, but doesn’t it protect against bone loss? My doctor recommended a vitamin D supplement when I was diagnosed with osteopenia several years ago. Am I pouring my money down a rathole?

A: Many readers were upset to learn about the results of the VITAL clinical trial (New England Journal of Medicine, Nov. 10, 2018). It demonstrated that people taking 2,000 IU of vitamin D were no less likely than those on placebo to develop cancer or suffer cardiovascular complications. This study did not address bone health.

We think that adequate levels of vitamin D are essential for good health. People who live in northern regions may find it difficult to get enough vitamin D through sun exposure.

To learn more about the complex role vitamin D plays in the body and how much is needed, you may wish to read Dr. Tieraona Low Dog’s book “Fortify Your Life: Your Guide to Vitamins, Minerals, and More.” It is available in libraries or in a special paperback edition from www.PeoplesPharmacy.com.

Q: I’ve been sprinkling lavender oil on my pillow every night for years; I’ve found it very soothing and relaxing. Zero side effects.

We also used this herbal oil to help calm my late mother’s anxiety after she came home from rehabbing a broken hip. Again, zero side effects.

A: Aromatherapy, whether with lavender, camomile or peppermint essential oil, has been shown to help hospitalized cancer patients sleep better (Oncology Nursing Forum, July 1, 2017). There also is some evidence that lavender oil can help ease anxiety (Mental Health Clinician, March 26, 2018).