We’ve all heard how important a good night’s sleep is for our health and well-being. Imagine not being able to fall asleep, or waking up frequently, because you can’t help but kick your legs. Welcome to the frustrating, exhausting world of people with restless legs syndrome (and their sleep-deprived partners).
What is restless legs syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom disease (RLS/WED), is a movement disorder that may affect up to 14 percent of people. It can cause insomnia, depression, and trouble concentrating, taking a large toll on a person’s quality of life.
The telltale symptom of RLS/WED is uncomfortable or even painful feelings in the legs such as itching, burning, or pulling. These sensations lead to a strong urge to move the legs, which provides only temporary relief. The symptoms of RLS/WED tend to happen at night when people are trying to relax and sleep and may worsen throughout the night. For people with RLS/WED, the symptoms tend to get worse as they get older.
What causes it?
There’s no known cause for RLS/WED. It may be the result of the area of the brain responsible for movement not being able to use dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that creates smooth and decisive movements.
RLS/WED does seem to run in families, and it’s more common during the last trimester of pregnancy (although it often disappears within a month of delivery) as well as in chronic diseases such as diabetes and kidney failure. People with RLS/WED tend to have inflammatory conditions, leading researchers to explore whether inflammation could play a role.
Certain medications can also cause RLS/WED. Talk to your health care practitioner to see if your medications could be the culprit.
What’s the treatment for it?
While RLS/WED is essentially a lifelong condition, don’t be discouraged. There are things you can do to help reduce the symptoms and have more restful sleep.
There are medications that can help with RLS/WED, but there isn’t one drug that works for everyone. Speak to your health care practitioner about the best treatment plan for your situation.
Assessing and treating nutritional deficiencies is an important step in improving symptoms of RLS/WED. Start by including foods in your diet that are rich in these five key nutrients.
Top 5 nutrients for RLS/WED
Restless legs are sometimes caused by changes in dopamine levels during the night, which interrupt sleep. Iron is needed for dopamine production, and treating iron deficiency may help relieve RLS/WED. A randomized controlled trial found that ferrous sulphate (iron pills) improved symptoms and quality of life in people with RLS/WED.
Food sources: Iron is found in animal sources (called heme iron) such as fish, eggs, and poultry, and in plant sources (called non-heme iron) such as beans, peas, and lentils; fortified cereal; and blackstrap molasses. Non-heme iron is absorbed half as well as heme iron. Add foods rich in vitamin C to your meal for better iron absorption.
A magnesium deficiency can cause neurons (nerve cells) to be overexcited. Taking magnesium sulphate may help calm the nerves and muscles. Magnesium has been studied for its help for people with insomnia and restless legs syndrome; however, more studies are needed to confirm the role of magnesium in RLS/WED.
Food sources: Magnesium is found in whole grains, leafy greens (spinach, Swiss chard), legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, and milk products.
Lower levels of folate in the blood are associated with RLS/WED.
Food sources: Folate is found in broccoli, spinach, and asparagus, as well as legumes such as chickpeas, beans, and lentils.
While calcium deficiency doesn’t necessarily cause RLS/WED, low blood levels of calcium increase the excitability of nerve endings and muscles, leading to muscle cramps that could be mistaken for RLS/WED.
Food sources: Calcium can be found in leafy greens (spinach, turnip greens, kale), almonds, milk products, fish with bones, and beans.
Not getting enough vitamin D can hinder calcium absorption, leading to muscle cramps, which can be mistaken for RLS/WED.
Food sources: Vitamin D can be found in oily fish such as salmon, halibut, mackerel, or sardines; egg yolks; and fortified milk or milk alternatives.
Natural remedies for RLS/WED
People with RLS/WED may want to talk to their health care practitioner about the following natural remedies that may help relieve symptoms and improve sleep.
- folic acid
- iron (if deficient)
- Nerve-toning plants such as milky oats, gotu kola, and ashwagandha may improve nerve tone and adrenal and central nervous system control of muscle tone, helping reduce RLS/WED symptoms over time.
- Passionflower and valerian taken before bed may help improve sleep quality and relax the muscles.
- Curcumin and ginger may help reduce inflammation and can be eaten in foods or taken as a supplement.
- Avoid caffeine, tobacco, and alcohol, which cause restlessness and worsen RLS/WED.
- Get tested for deficiencies in iron, folate, and magnesium, and talk to your health care practitioner about how to correct any deficiencies.
- Keep a regular sleep pattern (go to sleep and wake up at the same time each day).
- Exercise at a moderate intensity for 30 minutes, five days a week.
- Massage your legs or take a hot bath before bed to help relax leg muscles.
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