Sleep deprivation contributes to an increase in pain increase and a decrease in feelings of well-being. There are many causes of sleep deprivation, from lifestyle choices to hectic work schedules to mentally and emotionally triggered insomnia. One of the lesser-known causes of sleepless nights is from a condition known as RLS, restless leg syndrome. It drives those who have it crazy because it steals hours of their REM sleep each night. While there are Food and Drug Administration-approved drugs for treating RLS on the market, a more natural approach is also available.
RLS is a neurological disorder characterized by throbbing, pulling, creeping or other unpleasant sensations in the legs and an uncontrollable, and sometimes overwhelming, urge to move them.
RLS is related to a dysfunction of the brain’s basal ganglia circuits that use the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is needed to produce smooth, purposeful muscle activity and movement.
Who Gets RLS?
According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, up to 10 percent of the U.S. population may suffer from RLS:
- Fibromyalgia increases your risk of RLS by 11 times.
- Twice as many women than men have RLS.
- Pregnancy often brings on RLS.
- RLS can strike at any age, including childhood.
- People with end-stage renal disease are susceptible to RLS.
- People with iron-deficiency anemia are very susceptible to RLS.
- Children with ADHD are more vulnerable to RLS.
- RLS is associated with low levels of dopamine.
People who suffer from RLS describe it as creepy crawly legs, trembling legs and jumping legs. I have had it, on and off. To me, it feels also like a jolt of electricity in my lower back that triggers an incontrollable jump in my legs. Twitching and movement just happen, and it is uncomfortable and disconcerting.
RLS is interesting in that it is triggered by lying down and trying to relax. While most health issues feel better with rest and relaxation, those are the very things that trigger RLS.
RLS is most active in the evening, especially at bedtime. Its symptoms tend to be relieved or are even nonexistent in the morning and throughout the day.
RLS gets more intense as the evening progresses and is often the cause of stress and anxiety among its sufferers. It often postpones the onset of sleep, causing activity-induced insomnia and delayed sleep. Moreover, the shaking leg movements of RLS tend to wake up people in the night, which is what disrupts their REM sleep.
Symptoms of RLS get worse with aging. Getting control of this problem before it gets more problematic is vital.
Common Relief Methods
Those who have RLS tend to share their experiences openly, especially when it comes to what they have tried and seems to help stop the symptoms fastest or the most. Here are a few of the more common do-it-yourself approaches people try to alleviate their condition at night when symptoms intensify:
- Get up and walk around for a while.
- Do a few squats or leg lunges.
- Massage the legs.
- Take a hot bath or shower.
- Rub legs vigorously, with hands, a shower brush or massage device.
- Apply heat or ice packs.
- Apply topical products like Icy Hot, Tiger Balm, etc.
- Drink some tonic water before bed. (It contains quinine, which helps calm nerves.)
In addition, some claim that acupuncture, chiropractic and application of TENS units has helped decrease their RLS symptoms.
Dopamine Is Key
Overall, RLS is linked to low levels of dopamine. Increasing this neurotransmitter seems to be the strongest way to prevention and cure.
Dopamine is an important feel-good chemical that helps regulate the brain’s pleasure centers. It also helps regulate purposeful muscle movement in addition to interacting with emotional responses to stimuli.
Dopamine is dependent on three important things: L-tyrosine, magnesium and iron. L-tyrosine helps up-regulate the production of dopamine in the brain. Magnesium helps move excess calcium out of cells to help muscles relax, and magnesium deficiency causes twitching. Iron is a co-factor in the production of dopamine, and numerous studies show administration of folic acid (iron) alleviates RLS symptoms.
With this in mind, controlling dopamine levels is essential to preventing and reducing symptoms of RLS. And food sources containing L-tyrosine, magnesium and iron may be the safest and most natural way to do that.
Food Sources High In L-tyrosine:
- Soy protein
- Egg whites
- Low-fat cottage cheese
- Fish (cod, salmon, tuna, pike)
- Mustard greens
Food Sources High In Magnesium:
- Leafy vegetables (spinach, Swiss chard, kale)
- Nuts (Brazil, almond, cashew, pine)
- Seeds (squash, pumpkin, sesame)
- Fish (halibut, mackerel, pollock)
- Beans, lentils, soy, white beans, French beans, black-eyed peas and kidney beans
- Grains like brown rice, quinoa
Food Sources High In Iron:
- Seafood (clams, mussels, oysters)
- Seeds (squash, pumpkin, sesame)
- Nuts (cashews, pine, hazel)
- Meet (beef and lamb tenderloin)
Exercise also increases dopamine and makes you feel good. It increases calcium in the blood, which stimulates the production of dopamine and its uptake in the brain.
My recommendation for those suffering from RLS is to get 30-60 minutes of exercise every day, during the day. Walking, hiking, bike riding and swimming are fun, low-impact ways to do it. Overall, a diet modified to include as many of the above-mentioned food sources to help regulate dopamine is necessary. And in the evening, if it comes on, give several of these commonly tried relief methods a try and see which work for you.