Do you ever sit down at night, looking forward to a nice rest, only to find that your legs or feet feel jumpy and restless? It doesn’t matter how hard you try to keep still, you just can’t. The same thing can happen in bed and it’s bloody annoying. For some people it’s more than annoying as it affects their sleep patterns so badly that it impacts on their ability to function and concentrate.
It affects more women than men, it can occur at any age, including children, and probably afflicts 15 in 100 people. But what exactly is it?
What does it feel like?
It’s really difficult to explain what restless legs feel like. It starts with a sudden onset of an unpleasant sensation deep in the legs and it’s impossible to stop moving them in an attempt to relieve the feeling. Some people describe the feeling as a deep rheumatic-type ache, a burning or tugging or sometimes a creeping feeling as though there are things crawling under your skin
There are two types of RLS.
Primary RLS can have many causes from poor circulation, anxiety, stress, heavy cigarette or alcohol use and lack of exercise. It often runs in families and often affects people at a younger age, ie under 45.
Secondary RLS is usually caused by underlying disease:
Deficiency of iron, magnesium, folic acid and Vitamin B12
Pregnancy (although not strictly a disease apparently) affects one in five women especially in the third trimester
Chronic diseases such as Parkinson’s, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid imbalances and diabetes
Some medicines such as anti-depressants, beta-blockers, anti-sickness, some anti-psychotic and a few anti-histamines
- What actually is it?
In both cases it’s a condition of the central nervous system and doctors are beginning to think that it may be related to an imbalance of dopamine. Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that controls movement function in the brain. Although people suffering from Parkinson’s Disease suffer from a loss of dopamine, RLS is not connected with this disease. Outside the nervous system, dopamine functions in several parts of the body as a local chemical messenger. In the blood vessels, it inhibits norepinephrine release and acts as a vasodilator; in the kidneys, it increases sodium excretion and urine output; in the pancreas, it reduces insulin production all of which would explain why people in the Secondary RLS category are affected.
So what can I do about it?
If RLS is worrying you, go and see your GP who will examine you and do some blood tests to check for underlying conditions. Initially, she will probably suggest some lifestyle changes such as:
- stopping smoking
- cutting out caffeine and alcohol from your diet
- taking moderate exercise (but not close to bedtime)
- getting into a good bedtime routine to maintain a regular sleep pattern – for example, going to bed at the same time every evening and getting up at the same time every morning
- taking hot or cold baths – try both to see which works for you
- going for an early evening walk
- if you have to sit for a long time, such as when travelling, try to get up and move around periodically
- massaging your legs
- distracting your mind by watching TV or reading an engaging book
- practising relaxation exercises or yoga
- doing calf, thigh and hip stretches
- eating more foods such as asparagus, spinach, cabbage and kale which are rich in folic acid
- Vitamin B complex and calcium supplements may help. Marmite is rich in B complex
- eat bananas which are rich in potassium
- deep heat / Deep Freeze spray can also be helpful as can spray on ibuprofen
If this has no effect, there are some medicines which can help. Codeine can give relief but other drugs (which sound scary because they are associated with more serious conditions) include anti-epileptics, sleeping tablets and dopamine derivatives can be of great benefit. If the cause is anaemia, she will prescribe iron tablets.
RLS is usually temporary and can usually be dealt with. For further information visit the Restless Leg Syndrome website at the address below.
The Nutrition Almanac by John Kirschman pub 2007
The New Complete Guide to Nutritional Health by Pierre Jean Cousin & Kirsten Hartvig pub 2011