The hidden heart risk of restless legs

Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is frustrating…

Just when you’re about to relax — hop into bed, settle into the couch for a good movie, sit in your recliner to read a book — your legs get the creepy-crawlies.

They’re itchy, throbbing, aching and they don’t want to stay still. The problem is, the rest of your body does want to stay still, so you can sleep or catch up on some well-deserved downtime.

So what’s up with these wacky feelings in your legs that keep ruining your R&R?

Well, there’s still a lot of conjecture about what causes restless leg syndrome. Genetics seem to play a part. Hormonal shifts can make it worse. Some say vitamin deficiencies could be behind it too. But the short answer is: No one really knows for sure.

One fact about this mysterious condition is, however, crystal clear — those uncomfortable feelings in your legs come with serious health risks.

Now, before you get all freaked out about your restless legs, let me clarify what I mean…

RLS usually isn’t caused by a serious underlying health problem. Like I said, for most people it’s hard to pin down a cause at all. But RLS seems to increase your risk of developing serious issues and takes a toll on your lifespan.

In fact, a study published several years ago found that people with restless leg syndrome had a 40 percent higher chance of dying within eight years. And other scientific evidence has tied restless leg syndrome to an increased risk of kidney failure and diabetes.

But perhaps the strongest and scariest RLS-related risk you need to be aware of is heart disease…

Restless legs and an unhealthy heart

A recent study from researchers at Penn State University found that people diagnosed with restless leg syndrome are 43 percent more likely to die from heart disease within the next decade.

The study included 57,417 women who were an average of 67 years old. These women completed questionnaires every two years, which included questions about their RLS, their lifestyle and other medical conditions. During the ten-year study period, 6,448 of these women died.

Now, the good news is, there wasn’t an association between RLS and dying from cancer or other causes. But there was an insanely amplified risk of dying from heart disease — a whopping 43 percent higher risk.

Researchers say this means RLS could be “a novel risk factor for CVD-related death” — but why?

Well, it’s widely known that people with RLS often deal with other health conditions, like high blood pressure and obesity. Those are both risk factors for heart disease, so couldn’t they be mucking up the results and making it look like RLS increases your heart disease risk?

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Nope. Researchers thought of that. So they tried excluding women with these conditions. But that made the connection between RLS and heart-disease-related death even stronger.

For now, researchers can’t say exactly why restless leg syndrome is tied to an unhealthy heart. They also don’t know whether tackling your RLS will improve your heart health. But if there’s even a small chance that getting rid your annoying RLS symptoms will keep your heart healthy, I say it’s worth a shot…

Ridding yourself of RLS

Unfortunately, there’s not an easy fix for RLS. But there are a collection of natural treatments that could cumulatively tame your RLS, like:

  • Putting pressure on your legs and feet. A 2016 study found that people who used a leg wrap that puts pressure on two parts of their foot significantly reduced their RLS symptoms and reduced their sleepless nights by 82 percent. This exact wrap isn’t on the market yet, but you can use other leg wraps, massage or acupressure to produce a similar effect.
  • Checking for nutritional deficiencies. People with RLS are more likely to have certain vitamin deficiencies like magnesium, folate and iron deficiencies. So get checked for nutritional deficiencies. Then get any underlying deficiencies taken care of to see if it makes a difference in your RLS.
  • Eating an inflammation-fighting diet. RLS, like so many other health condition, seems to be tied to chronic inflammation. As you already know, food is the best weapon against inflammation, so tackle your RLS symptoms with an anti-inflammatory diet like the Mediterranean diet.

Hopefully, these simple changes can help you get restful relaxation, better sleep and a healthier heart. Researchers didn’t mention this in their study, but the health risks associated with RLS may come from the fact that it screws with your sleep. Sleep issues, after all, are associated with an increased risk of heart disease and stroke. Just more food for thought, and another reason to wrangle in those restless legs ASAP!

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Sources:

  1. “Restless legs syndrome.” Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/restless-legs-syndrome/symptoms-causes/syc-20377168. Retrieved December 19, 2017.
  2. “Restless Legs Syndrome Fact Sheet.” National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/Disorders/Patient-Caregiver-Education/Fact-Sheets/Restless-Legs-Syndrome-Fact-Sheet#3. Retrieved December 19, 2017.
  3. “Restless leg syndrome risk factor for heart-related death.” MedicalXpress. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2017-12-restless-leg-syndrome-factor-heart-related.html. Retrieved December 19, 2017.
  4. Li, et al. “Prospective study of restless legs syndrome and total and cardiovascular mortality among women.” Neurology, 2017.

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Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.