Are your legs keeping you awake?

Are you legs keeping you awake?

Quite often we see people in clinic with disturbed sleep patterns due to restlessness and in particular those with restless legs syndrome. One in four people diagnosed with restless legs syndrome experience sleep disturbances as they are constantly moving throughout the night – kicking, jerking and shaking their legs (and possibly arms). This in turn causes difficulty falling asleep, night-waking, as well as the loss of important restorative sleep not just for themselves, but often for their partners too.

What is restless legs syndrome?

The symptoms of restless legs syndrome can be quite varied and overwhelming. Some clients describe is as an electric-current sensation flowing through the legs, and sometimes even the arms, tugging from the inside and is relieved by movement and these symptoms often increase when they are resting. The criteria for restless legs syndrome include:

  • A pins and needles sensation urging you to move your legs

  • Symptoms are worse at night

  • Symptoms begin or increase with rest

  • Movement provides immediate relief

The exact cause behind restless legs syndrome is unknown however studies have linked it to low levels of dopamine, a hormonal neurotransmitter. Low levels of dopamine and trigger the urge to move our limbs, as found in restless legs syndrome. Dopamine is an important messenger in the brain helping to regulate many body functions, including thinking, behaviour and mood and especially in the case of restless legs syndrome – sleep and movement.

The theory behind the increased symptoms at night is due to the timing and patterns of the natural release of dopamine. This neurotransmitter mirrors our circadian rhythms, releasing high levels in the morning and low levels in the evening, causing disruption in sleep.

What can be done?

As we are uncertain about the definitive causes of restless legs syndrome, we look towards the lifestyle and environmental factors that can influence the development of restless legs syndrome. In clinic, we often see factors that may contribute to or exacerbate restless legs syndrome, such as smoking, excessive caffeine use, excessive alcohol use and some medication. Actually, anything that counteracts our ability to produce dopamine can have an impact. The good news is that we can positively influence our dopamine production through more focused nutrition, which research is now revealing to have a significant role in the approach to restless legs syndrome. Both iron and folate play a crucial role in dopamine production, and magnesium has been shown to be quite effective in managing restless legs syndrome.

How nutrition can help:

Iron: As mentioned previously, iron plays a key role in the production of dopamine. In fact, iron deficiency is a known condition associated with restless legs syndrome. Iron supplementation is encouraged with laboratory tests reveal lower than normal levels. It’s important to maintain appropriate iron levels – not too much, and not too little. If your iron levels are low, you can increase your iron through diet or possibly an oral iron supplement. Iron-rich foods include:

  • Beef, pork, lamb; liver and other organ meats

  • Chicken, duck, turkey (especially dark meat and liver)

  • Seafood, including clams, mussels, anchovies, sardines, and especially oysters

  • Broccoli and leafy greens, such as kale, turnip greens, and collards

  • Legumes like lima beans, pinto beans, green and black-eyed peas

  • Walnuts, cashews and peanuts

Folate: A pregnant woman requires 8 – 10 times more folate than normal, which could explain the increased restless legs syndrome occurrence in pregnant women. Folate deficiency can lead to symptoms associated with restless legs syndrome, including lower limb numbing and tingling, fatigue, and depression. In some cases clients may feel that adding folate is not helping and assume it’s because they don’t need it but this may not be the case. Some people have difficulty metabolizing folate, due to a common genetic variant present in anywhere from one to forty percent of people, depending on ethnicity and other factors. Foods rich in folate include:

  • Brewer’s yeast

  • Kidney beans

  • Lentils

  • Bran

  • Walnuts

  • Fresh spinach and kale

  • Asparagus

Magnesium: Magnesium is important for proper conduction of nerve impulses and muscle contraction. In clinic we have found magnesium to be quite beneficial for those suffering from restless legs syndrome who added magnesium through food, as well as supplementation. Magnesium-rich foods include:

  • Almonds

  • Ground flaxseed

  • Black beans

  • Walnuts

  • Soybeans

  • Sesame tahini

  • Pine nuts

It important to address restless legs syndrome sooner rather than later as over time, insomnia or lack of sleep can impact our health in many ways. Our moods and daily functioning becomes unstable after prolonged bouts of inadequate sleep, and if this pattern continues for years, our cognitive function, stress response, mood regulation and our immunity can all be severely affected. If you would like further advice or support please contact the team at Naturally Dynamic Health on (02) 6021 0557 to arrange for a consultation with one of our naturopaths.