Restless leg syndrome causes unpleasant, creeping sensations in your lower limbs, together with an irresistible urge to move your legs. These annoying symptoms tend to strike when you are tired and are sometimes accompanied by involuntary leg twitching or jerking, pins and needles, burning sensations or even pain.
After moving your legs, the feelings abate for a variable amount of time before building up again. Some describe it as having itchy bones, others says it’s like being attached to a battery, while others describe it as being invaded by soldier ants.
Restless legs syndrome is diagnosed when four criteria are present:
- an irresistible urge to move your legs (usually associated with unpleasant sensations)
- which is partially or completely relieved by activity
- is worse or exclusively present at rest
- and is worse in the evening or at night (or before sleep if you work shifts).
Although it sounds innocuous, having restless legs is maddeningly annoying. They wake you up just as you’ve nodded off, and sixty percent of sufferers report waking three or more times at night. Several nutritional approaches, supplements and herbal remedies can help you treat and overcome these symptoms.
How common is it?
Restless legs syndrome affects most people at some time during their life. During childhood, it is often dismissed as ‘growing pains’ and up to 10% of the population experience it on a regular basis.
Among people with diabetes, almost one in two is affected, as polyneuropathy – a form of nerve damage that can complicate diabetes – increases the risk, although this only partly explains the link.
Restless legs are also common in pregnancy, and in people with kidney problems, chronic respiratory illness and stroke – all of which are associated with changes in circulation or metabolism.
What causes restless legs?
Symptoms of restless legs are associated with reduced oxygenation of muscle and nerve tissues in the lower limbs. This can result from:
- Poor circulation of blood eg due to fatigue, anxiety, stress, smoking or age-related hardening and furring up of the arteries.
- Low levels of iron, vitamin B12 or folate which reduce oxygen transportation before they lead to anaemia
- or with low levels of nutrients needed for oxygen processing in cells, such as co-enzyme Q10, B vitamins or magnesium.
Dehydration is also thought to play a role by interfering with electrolyte balance.
Some researchers suggest that a sudden desire to move the legs is a protective mechanism, designed to pump more oxygen-rich blood into tired, under-perfused muscles, and to remove metabolic wastes such as carbon dioxide and lactic acid which irritate nerve endings and contribute to the twitching, pins and needles and burning sensations experienced.
Another theory is that restless legs occur when a brain mechanism that ensures you turn during your sleep switches on too early. When activated during sleep, this mechanism prevents the development of pressure damage to your joints, pressure sores on the skin, or waking with a ‘dead’ numb arm. If this mechanism switches on before you are fully asleep, then restless legs may result.
This tendency may be hereditary. More than half of people with restless legs have a strong family history of the condition, and researchers in Iceland have now identified a gene that increases the susceptibility to restless legs.
Restless legs is strongly associated with iron deficiency. Iron is needed to synthesise haemoglobin, the red blood pigment which carries oxygen around the body, and when iron levels are low, the oxygenation of tissues is compromised even before full-blown iron-deficiency anaemia sets in.
Iron is also needed to make a dopamine, a brain chemical involved in nerve and muscle co-ordination. There is increasing evidence that restless legs syndrome is linked with abnormal dopamine function, and treatment with drugs that stimulate the effects of dopamine are sometimes prescribed when symptoms severely affect quality of life.
If you have restless legs syndrome, your doctor is likely to check your blood levels of an iron binding protein called ferritin. This is a more sensitive measure of iron status than just measuring haemoglobin levels. If levels are low then increase your dietary intakes, and consider taking an iron supplement.
Nutritional approaches to treating Restless legs
Drink plenty of water. If you are dehydrated, drinking just one glass of water can relieve symptoms. Coconut water is especially good as it provides additional electrolytes and a little sugar for instance muscle energy.
Omega-3 fish oils supply essential fatty acids that help to maintain healthy cell membranes and a healthy circulation.
Calcium and magnesium supplements may help to prevent twitching and cramping. Magnesium supplements have been shown to reduce periodic limb movements during sleep. Read my Expert Health Review on the best magnesium supplements here.
Co-enzyme Q10 encourages oxygen uptake and improves energy production in muscle cells. The ubiquinol form may be more useful for people with restless legs syndrome than the ubiquinone form. Read my Expert Health Review on the best co-enzyme Q10 supplements here.
Garlic tablets increase blood flow through small blood vessels in the legs and is especially useful for treating poor circulation. Garlic contains compounds which relax blood vessels and dilate small arteries and veins by around 5%. This can increase blood flow to peripheries (such as the nail folds) by almost 50 per cent.
Ginkgo biloba is a traditional herbal medicine that dilates blood vessels to improve blood flow to the legs. A meta-analysis of 14 trials, involving over 700 people, found that in people with reduced circulation (intermittent claudication) taking Ginkgo supplements helped them walk, on average, a further 64.5 metres on a flat treadmill (with an average speed of 3.2km/hour) before developing leg pains, compared with those taking a placebo.
Valerian root extracts are used to improve sleep quality. When 37 people with restless legs syndrome took either 800mg valerian extracts or placebo for 8 weeks, those receiving valerian showed significant improvements in leg symptom and a reduction in daytime sleepiness compared with those taking placebo.
Padma Circosan is blend of Tibetan herbal medicines, which includes valerian, that has been licensed as a drug to treat circulatory disorders in Switzerland for almost 40 years. It improves blood flow to the legs and helps to relieve symptoms of tingling, heaviness, crawling sensations, tension, numbness and cramps.
|Padma Circosan includes valerian root, columbine, clove, cardamom, allspice liquorice, knotgrass, calendula, red sandalwood, Iceland moss, galanga and other herbal extracts used in traditional TIbetan medicine.|
B vitamins are needed for energy processing in cells, so also ensure good intakes of these. Food sources are listed under each vitamin under the A-Z vitamin tab at the top of this page.
A multivitamin and mineral supplement helps to safeguard against micronutrient deficiencies.See my Expert Health Review on the best multivitamins here.
Lifestyle self help
- Avoid alcohol and caffeine which usually make symptoms worse.
- Get sufficient sleep to avoid becoming over-tired.
- Find the right level of exercise to suit you – too much worsens restless legs, while too little may trigger it. Going for a walk round the block before bedtime often solves the problem.
- Try leg stretching exercises before going to bed – yoga is ideal.
- Massage your lower legs with a body lotion or pain-killing gel to stimulate the circulation.
- Experiment to see if using a hot or cold pack on your leg muscles helps.
- Apply a magnetic patch or leg wrap over the affected area. A magnetic field helps to open up circulation through tiny blood vessels and stimulate blood flow.
Image credits: dto1968/pixabay; geralt/pixabay
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