Restless Legs Syndrome: Causes and how to manage it
Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is characterised by the overwhelming urge to move your legs. Movement provides temporary relief from the unpleasant crawling or creeping sensation in the legs. Here we explain what is believed to cause RLS, who is affected, and helpful vitamins for RLS.
Some people describe the sensation like an itch you can’t scratch or like there’s fizzy water inside the legs. For some, the symptoms of restless legs syndrome are mild and may come and go, while for others it can be constant and can prevent them getting sleep which can have a big impact on quality of life.
What causes Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?
The cause of RLS is not 100% understood. Some experts studying the nervous system believe the symptoms may be related to how our body deals with dopamine. Dopamine is a chemical involved in controlling muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with RLS. However for some people the cause may be genetic, especially if other family members also suffer from it.
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Who is affected by RLS?
RLS is thought to affect 1 in 10 people in the UK according to RLS-UK, a registered charity supporting people living with RLS.
Women are twice as likely to experience restless legs syndrome than men, and around 1 in 5 women have restless legs when pregnant, particularly during the last trimester. You might enjoy our nutritionists' article 'The best pregnancy diet'.
Menopause also seems to increase the occurrence and severity of RLS. It’s not clear why this is, but it’s thought the changes and fluctuations in hormone levels such as oestrogen during menopause (rather than absolute levels of oestrogen) may be the cause of the symptoms.
Vitamins for Restless Legs Syndrome
Magnesium is very commonly recommended for RLS based on users enjoying relief from the symptoms, particularly at night. Research also suggests Magnesium supplementation may also be beneficial among those who suffer RLS and who's levels of magnesium are too low. Deficiency in magnesium is common - learn more in 'How do I know if I'm deficient in Magnesium'.
A small clinical trial is currently being conducted to further examine the effect of magnesium supplementation in RLS and we will update this article when the results are published.
Symptoms of RLS are often most notable in the evening or when trying to sleep and Iron deficiency may be a cause of restless legs in some people. Iron helps with the actions of dopamine. Both Iron and dopamine levels dip in the evening and at night due to the body’s natural circadian rhythm (your internal body clock).
If you think you may have low Iron, it may be useful to have your body’s Iron stores checked by your GP via a blood test.
There is also thought to be an association between Vitamin D deficiency and RLS, however as yet only a few studies have explored this. Results from one study showed a Vitamin D supplement lessened the symptoms of RLS among people who were deficient in Vitamin D.
Read our article on How do I know if I’m deficient in Vitamin D.
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How lifestyle can help RLS
There are some lifestyle changes you can also make to help with managing the symptoms of restless leg syndrome.
Try to keep active during the day and avoid sitting for long periods. If you work at a desk most of the day, have regular breaks where you move and stretch your legs. A walk in the evening and daily stretching will also help.
Establish a good sleep routine
Stick to a regular bedtime routine at night and try to get out of bed at the same time each day. A warm bath before bed or some relaxing yoga moves can also help relax your muscles.
Avoid smoking and alcohol
If you can't cut them out completely try to avoid alcohol or smoking for several hours before going to bed.
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- Magnesium supplementation for the treatment of restless legs syndrome and periodic limb movement disorder: A systematic review. Marshall et al (2019), Sleep Medicine Reviews. 48: 101218.
- NHS (2018) Overview of Restless Legs Syndrome.
- RLS-UK (Restless Leg Syndrome-UK) https://www.rls-uk.org/
- The Association Between Vitamin D Level and Restless Legs Syndrome: A Population-Based Case-Control Study. Wali et al (2018), J Clin Sleep Med 14(4): 557-64.