Why does beer make my leg muscles tense up?
February 8, 2010 9:56 PM   Subscribe

Why do my muscles (particularly my leg muscles) get tense and uncomfortable after drinking in the evenings (particularly after drinking beer)? Has anyone else experienced this? And is there anything I can do about it?

Often, after I've had a few drinks in the evenings, I have trouble getting to sleep because my leg muscles are—tense? restless? It's hard to describe. It's not a cramp, or a tic, or anything that severe—just a discomfort, as if the muscles have a mild but insistent urge to contract or move around. They don't move unless I tell them to, but it causes me to toss and turn. I occasionally get similar sensations in my arms, but it's most common (and most annoying) in my legs.

I definitely notice it more after drinking beer, as opposed to wine or liquor. I mainly notice it at night (but, then, I mainly drink at night). I don't have to be intoxicated to experience it: two or three 12oz beers over the course of the evening will often do it to me. I don't remember when I first noticed the phenomenon, but it was at least a few years ago, if not more (I'm 32). FWIW, I'm (mostly) an ovo-lacto vegetarian.

It eventually wears off, presumably as my body processes whatever substance in the beer causes it, or otherwise renormalizes its systems.

A lot of the Wikipedia article on restless legs syndrome sounds familiar to me. It says that the most common cause is iron deficiency; the article about iron deficiency mentions "substances (in diet or drugs) interfering with iron absorption" as a possible cause. Could the beer be (temporary) interfering with my body's ability to absorb iron? Why would this happen mainly with beer, and not happen with more potent alcoholic beverages? Or could it be due to simple dehydration? (I pee a lot when I drink beer, which is one reason I prefer wine and liquor.)

It's not a serious problem, but it is annoying, and I've always been curious about it. YAN(A|M)D. Thanks!
posted by ixohoxi to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Sounds like dehydration.
posted by amyms at 10:38 PM on February 8, 2010

Could the beer be (temporary) interfering with my body's ability to absorb iron?

Nope. There's nothing in beer that's going to have much of an effect (tannins and phytates are the worst offenders, other divalent minerals also block some iron absorption) but more importantly, iron deficiency is something that builds up over time rather than something reversible you can get temporarily. It simply doesn't work the way you're suggesting. (My MSc thesis was focussed on measuring iron absorption in the small intestine).

Your muscles are more likely dehydrated. Try drinking some water (or possibly a sports drink if your electrolytes seem out of whack) along with your beer and see if that helps. Alcohol is a diuretic and dehydration is a significant cause of hangover headaches, and dehydration is also a transient process which most definitely can be caused by a night's drinking.

I've also heard that alcohol is a muscle relaxant but last time I looked it up in pubmed I couldn't find any details to support this, which is likely more a problem with my search skills than with the assertion. So I wouldn't rule out a direct effect of the beer on your muscles itself although I don't know by which mechanism exactly it would work.

Lastly it may be a side effect of something else in the beer, the malt or something, but if you do get it from other liquor even just sometimes then I'd be looking to the alcohol first for a cause.
posted by shelleycat at 10:45 PM on February 8, 2010

I remember seeing an interview with Olympic Speedskater, Bonnie Blair (good god, I hope all that is correct). She was talking about how she loved to drink ONE beer after a very good training session. She said "I love that feeling...I can feel it all in my legs".

But she is an olympic athlete that probably used her legs to capacity for 8+ hours a day. I'm guessing you don't. But I have also heard of hardcore cyclists stating this.
posted by hal_c_on at 11:00 PM on February 8, 2010

"I love that feeling...I can feel it all in my legs".

I get that if I've had a bad night's sleep or been for a longish walk that day. It's a weird dead floaty feeling, but it's also one of the first signs of intoxication so maybe doesn't quite fit here? It is what got me lit searching alcohol muscle relaxant activity though.
posted by shelleycat at 11:51 PM on February 8, 2010

Alcohol affects the neurotransmitter GABA which I think is the main reason why it's a relaxant. The tension could be what happens when this effect runs out.
posted by Not Supplied at 1:00 AM on February 9, 2010

Try Black Cherry concentrate. Sounds like a build up of uretic acid.
posted by laukf at 3:16 AM on February 9, 2010

It's dehydration. I used to get that a lot even from one beer, (I gave up beer). It is not restless legs syndrome - I've experienced this when on a hormonal treatment and that is pure hell with a sensation of pins and needles running up and down your legs which will wake you from even deep sleep. It can be equally annoying though, and I found drinking a glass of c-vitamin water before bedtime helped.

Not sure if convex means you're female, but gals can always up their iron intake, and perhaps that's why c-vitamin water helped me.
posted by dabitch at 4:11 AM on February 9, 2010

I've had a number of dehydration side effects from beer, and they're pretty easy to control for - just alternate a large glass of water with your beer and see if it goes away. If so, you can exclude other deficiencies.
posted by themel at 5:32 AM on February 9, 2010

Yeah, I get this too. It's very very annoying. Sometimes after I drink I just want to hop up and down over and over to relieve the tension.
posted by melissam at 6:10 AM on February 9, 2010

I get that too! Not all the time, which makes me think dehydration is a reasonable answer (rather than something inherent in alcohol - I definitely get it with non-beer alcohol as well.)
posted by restless_nomad at 6:20 AM on February 9, 2010

It might be more than just dehydration - not a doctor but I have this exact same issue. It drives me (and my wife) crazy, and I often have to get up in the middle of the night, pace around and stretch my legs for a half-hour before I can get to sleep.

With dehydration from drinking, I've noticed bad leg cramps - what you are describing is not cramps, but something else. I suspect that it has more to do with a buildup of acid (uretic acid as laukf suggests above) or even lactic acid, which is common after exercise. I notice the restless legs even more if I ran that day. Guessing it's a combination of this and the alcohol. But again, not a doctor but very interested in this same issue.
good luck!
posted by smelvis at 6:31 AM on February 9, 2010

I experience this too, and it occurs within about 10-15 minutes of drinking a beer and passes within five minutes or so. It's not unpleasant but it is weird. My calves feel a little bit tense and achy. It may happen more after a hot day (but that could be confirmation bias since it's summer here), but happens so quickly after starting a beer that I can't imagine it being dehydration. I often wonder what's happening there too.
posted by tracicle at 10:50 AM on February 9, 2010

Thanks, all. I think it's probably dehydration. I'll try to hydrate myself better and see if that helps. Now I'm off to have a beer!
posted by ixohoxi at 4:44 PM on February 10, 2010

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