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Understanding restless legs syndrome

Updated: Dec 15, 2023

Do your legs twitch, ache or throb at night? It can feel like a strong, irresistible urge to move your legs that you can’t control. They may even itch or you can feel a crawling or creeping sensation (sounds like something out of a horror movie doesn’t it?! It’s not, but it may be restless legs syndrome.

Restless legs syndrome

What is Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)?

RLS is a medical condition that can begin at any age and generally worsens with age, and especially in midlife. RLS causes discomfort in the lower legs that creates an overwhelming need to move or stretch. The condition generally causes symptoms to begin in the evening and become more severe as the night goes on. Unfortunately, this means that people with RLS often have a hard time sleeping due to the constant movement and discomfort.

What causes RLS

Some neurologists believe that symptoms of RLS may be linked to the function of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that our bodies make and use to send signals in nervous system. This neurotransmitter is involved in muscle movement and may be responsible for the involuntary leg movements associated with RLS.

Low iron levels may be another cause, although not in the typical anaemia sense. It is more to do with low iron levels in the brain, despite normal iron levels in the body, which may be genetic or to do with specific pathways in the brain.

Some medications may cause RLS, it may be worth discussing alternatives with your GP if you are taking any of the following:

  1. anti-nausea drugs

  2. antipsychotic drugs

  3. antidepressants

  4. sedating antihistamines

  5. calcium-channel blockers

Gut dysbiosis may also be a factor, in those with conditions such as

  1. IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome)

  2. IBD (Irritable Bowel Disease) – e.g. Ulcerative Colitis and Crohns

  3. SIBO (Small Intestinal Bowel Overgrowth) - whereby bacteria have move from the large into the small intestine and disrupt digestion

  4. H. Pylori infection

All of these conditions drive inflammation and disrupt the gut, including affecting iron absorption, which can then affect then lead to central nervous system iron deficiency.<1>

Fluctuations in our hormones may also compound this further - hello menopause!

Anecdotally, magnesium has helped some women too and research is still looking into whether this may or may not be a factor in RLS.<2> More research is needed but either way, RLS is not fun and whilst there is not one clear defined cause, there is still lots that can be done to prevent it from happening, or reducing/stopping the restlessness. This is where functional medicine comes in, and here at Urban Wellness we look at the individual and help determine what might be the cause for them – no protocols or one-size fits all. If you’d like to know more, click here and book a free discovery call with one of the team.

How nutrition can help

It may be beneficial to incorporate more sources of iron into your diet as a way of managing symptoms. This is especially the case if you have a medical condition that affects iron levels such as: rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, or peripheral neuropathy. Additionally, folate and magnesium have also been associated with improving RLS symptoms. This is because folate and magnesium help the body with proper muscle contraction and nerve impulse conduction.

Iron rich foods

  1. Red meat (beef, poultry, pork), aim for good quality, organic lean cuts

  2. Liver, also known as nature’s multivitamin packed with high amounts of nutrients

  3. Spinach and leafy greens, aim for 2-3 portions daily

  4. Dried apricots

  5. Seafood

  6. Beans

Folate rich foods

  1. Liver

  2. Spinach and leafy greens

  3. Black-eyed peas

  4. Lentils and beans

  5. Rice and quinoa

  6. Asparagus

  7. Whole wheat pasta

  8. Brussels sprouts

  9. Avocado

Asparagus are a good source of folate

Magnesium rich foods

  1. Almonds, aim for a handful on regular basis, almonds are especially great as evening snack as they are a great source of melatonin

  2. Spinach

  3. Cashews

  4. Peanuts, peanut butter (avoid sweetened or added oils)

  5. Black beans

  6. Edamame

  7. Whole wheat bread

  8. Brown rice

Simple self-care steps and lifestyle changes may help relieve symptoms:

  1. Regular exercise

  2. Quit smoking

  3. Reduce/avoid alcohol

  4. Optimise hydration (6-8 glasses of water) herbal teas and soups also count towards your fluid intake

  5. Cut out caffeine

  6. Have a warm bath before bed (adding Epsom Salts may boost your magnesium and promote restful sleep)

Things to avoid

If you have RLS, there are also foods that you should try and minimise or avoid altogether. The top foods to avoid are chocolate, sugar, fried foods, caffeine and energy drinks since this can stimulate your nerves and make your symptoms more severe. If you have restless legs syndrome, then do get in touch and book a free discovery call with one of the team and find out how we can help you and get those legs, and you, resting!


Further information can be found on Restless Leg Syndrome Foundation website

Gao X, Schwarzschild MA, Wang H, Ascherio A. Obesity and restless legs syndrome in men and women. Neurology. 2009;72(14):1255-1261. doi:10.1212/01.wnl.0000345673.35676.1c





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