The Real Causes of Restless Legs Syndrome – and How to Treat it Naturally
By: Alison Moodie
You may know the feeling. You’re relaxing on the couch, watching some Netflix, and suddenly you get the overwhelming urge to move your legs. You may even feel some pain or a prickling sensation. Moving your legs around helps some, but once you stop, the urge starts up again. Or perhaps you experience it while you’re lying in bed, making it difficult to sleep. The phenomenon is known as restless legs syndrome (RLS), and it affects one in ten Americans, making it one the most common sleep disorders.
Doctors often prescribe drugs like alpha-2-delta ligands and benzodiazepines to treat RLS, but they can carry unpleasant side effects like dizziness and drowsiness.
With certain behavior changes and supplements, you can go a long way to easing your symptoms. Read on for the best restless legs syndrome natural remedies.
What is restless legs syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome, or RLS, is considered a sleep disorder. According to the National Sleep Foundation, 94 percent of people say RLS messes with their sleep. Scientists also label it a neurological sensory disorder, since the cause of RLS is likely rooted in the brain (more on that below).
Restless legs syndrome symptoms
A doctor can’t do a test to find out if you have restless legs syndrome. Instead, he or she will question you about your symptoms. People with the condition typically describe the following:
- The irresistible urge to move their legs
- Pain, achiness, tingling, itchiness or a pins-and-needles sensation in the legs
- Symptoms tend to get worse in the late afternoon and evening
- Moving the legs relieves some symptoms, but once they stop moving, the sensations return
Restless legs syndrome causes
It’s not entirely clear what causes restless legs syndrome. There’s growing evidence that genes play a role, especially when the condition starts at a young age. In a study of identical and non-identical twins, genetics were a factor in 54 percent of the cases. Scientists also point to low iron levels in the brain as another major cause.
Other possible causes include:
- Dopamine shortage in the brain
- Lack of sleep
- Dysfunction in the basal ganglia (a part of the brain connected to movement)
- Lactic acid build up in the muscles
- Electrolyte imbalance, particularly a potassium or magnesium deficiency
Restless legs syndrome natural remedies
Increase your dopamine levels
One of the most commonly prescribed drugs for RLS are dopamine-related medications, like pramipexole and ropinirole, that increase levels of dopamine — a neurotransmitter — in the brain. But the side effects of these types of medications aren’t pretty, and may include vomiting, nausea, and hallucinations. The good news is, you can increase your dopamine levels naturally, with the help of certain supplements and foods. Get a daily dose of L-tyrosine, an amino acid that helps your body make dopamine. Supplement with 500-2000 mg a day, or eat foods rich in tyrosine such as avocados, pastured eggs, and grass-fed beef. You can also boost your dopamine with mucuna pruriens, an herbal supplement that contains large amounts of L-dopa, a precursor to dopamine.
Boost iron levels
One of the most well-studied causes of RLS is low iron. Even people with RLS who don’t have anemia and have iron stores in the normal range can benefit from iron supplements. That’s because it’s possible for your brain to be deficient in iron, even when your blood tests show iron levels as normal. RLS patients have shown decreased iron in the substantia nigra, a part of the brain where cells that make dopamine live.
Two studies gave patients 325 mg of ferrous sulfate (a type of iron supplement), twice a day on an empty stomach. One found that iron supplements made little difference to RLS symptoms, while the other found that they did. Ferrous sulfate can cause stomach upsets, so choose carbonyl iron, which is less likely to cause gut issues.
If iron pills don’t work, numerous studies also show that giving patients iron intravenously helped improve RLS symptoms in both the short- and the long-term.
You can also load up on iron-rich foods, like grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, leafy greens, and beef liver. Animal-based iron is more easily absorbed than plant-based iron, from foods like beans and lentils. Vitamin C also boosts absorption of iron, so add vegetables like broccoli and Brussels Sprouts to your meals.
“Magnesium blocks calcium and if magnesium is deficient, nerves can overreact and trigger muscle contractions,” says Patti Kim, ND, a Los Angeles-based naturopath and acupuncturist. She recommends magnesium glycinate or magnesium malate for her patients. Learn how to choose the best magnesium supplement for your body here.
“Also epsom salt baths help your body absorb magnesium, as well as detox, relax muscles, and calm the nervous system,” she adds.
Potassium works synergistically with magnesium. Look for powdered potassium citrate or bicarbonate. Start with 100-200 milligrams at bedtime, and work your way up to 400 mg. Be careful not to mega-dose — too much potassium can cause dangerous heart rhythm problems. You can also eat potassium-rich foods, including wild-caught salmon, spinach, leafy beet tops, and avocado.
Research shows that yoga can ease symptoms of RLS. In one study, women with moderate to severe RLS saw a significant reduction in symptoms after 8 weeks of Iyengar yoga, a gentle form of the exercise. Participants also slept better, their mood improved, and their levels of perceived stress were lower. Bear in mind this was a small pilot study, and more rigorous research is needed. But yoga’s calming effects are well-documented, so it’s not a bad idea to start practicing. Get started with this yoga nidra routine that will make you feel like you got a full night’s sleep.
Fix your gut
Restless legs syndrome can also be a consequence of an iffy gut. Studies show a connection between RLS and gut disorders like irritable bowel disease (IBD) and small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). These conditions cause inflammation, which may lead to iron deficiency, and then RLS. They can also trigger autoimmune changes, which causes antibodies to attack peripheral nerves — the nerves that connect the brain and spinal cord. Focus on healing your gut with a high fat, low carb diet, and consider supplementing with probiotics.
Improve your sleep
The urge to move your legs can get in the way of your sleep, and a lack of sleep can make RLS symptoms worse. It’s a vicious cycle, so it helps to take a multi-pronged approach. Treat the RLS, and also work on improving your sleep. Start by creating the ideal sleep environment — make sure your bedroom is pitch black and the room cool. Shut down electronics two hours before bed, and fill up on the right fats at dinner. Get more sleep hacks here, or try the Bulletproof 30-Day Sleep Challenge to get started.
Take methyl B12 and methyl folate
Some studies suggest a vitamin B12 and folate deficiency may cause RLS. Both folate — an essential B vitamin — and B12 are required for proper brain function, and a deficiency in one usually means a deficiency in the other. Take 5 mg of methylcobalamim (a form of B12) or hydroxocobalamim, and 800 mcg of methyl folate (not folic acid, a synthetic form of folate found in multivitamins).
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