Restless Leg Syndrome
Chester J. Zelasko, Ph.D. | August 1, 2006

Our readers have many questions about health conditions and how to improve them. That’s why we’ve written booklets such as the Frequently Asked Questions flipchart, which contains lifestyle and supplement recommendations for 43 different conditions. But there are always other conditions that begin to be diagnosed more often, and one of them is the topic of this newsletter--restless leg syndrome. I’ll approach it in much the same way the booklet is written, but in this case, I’ll include more information describing the condition for those who haven’t heard of it.

Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)
RLS is a disorder of the nervous system. The characteristic sensations of the disorder are described in many ways: burning, creeping, itching, pulling, creepy-crawly, tugging, gnawing, or (my favorite description) like insects crawling inside the legs. Not everyone feels all of them, and the symptoms are worse for some than others, but the net effect is an uncontrollable urge to move the legs--hence the name restless leg syndrome. The problem is that this primarily occurs when at rest. The solution is movement, which often alleviates the sensations, but that causes another problem: inability to get to sleep and stay asleep.

As you might expect, if the condition is untreated, it yields a very exhausted person. And probably an exhausted spouse, too--who can sleep with all that movement going on? RLS can affect relationships, jobs, and other activities as well. What can you do when you’re exhausted? People with RLS are often unable to concentrate, have impaired memory, or fail to accomplish daily tasks.

Both men and women are affected by RLS, women slightly more often. It primarily occurs in people over 50, but it can happen as early as infancy. Researchers estimate that up to 10% of the U.S. population has RLS, but it could be more. Some people don’t feel it’s important enough to visit a doctor about, or they fear they may be viewed as complainers or hypochondriacs because it doesn’t seem that serious. Many people don’t realize anything can be done about it. That’s not the Better Life way of taking care of your health. If something is happening that affects your ability to rest, it’s also affecting your immune system, and that can cause bigger problems.

There’s no cure for RLS, but that doesn’t meant nothing can be done. While the symptoms often get worse as we get older, there are a variety of things that can help quiet restless legs so you can get some rest.

Lifestyle Recommendations
First and foremost, get a diagnosis from your physician or neurological specialist; RLS shares some symptoms with neuropathy and shingles, so eliminating other possibilities can lead to an accurate diagnosis. Once you have a diagnosis, these suggestions may help the condition:
  • Limit the use of caffeine from coffee, teas, and sodas; caffeine is a central nervous system (CNS) stimulant.

  • Decrease the use of alcohol. Although it’s a CNS depressant, alcohol consumption has been associated with RLS symptoms.

  • Quit smoking--it’s also a CNS stimulant. That’s another good reason to finally quit smoking.

  • Take a hot bath or use heating pads or ice packs on the affected legs. Ice packs seem counter-intuitive, but circulation increases after using an ice pack for 20 minutes. In both cases, be sure to protect the skin--you don’t need burns or frostbite on top of the RLS.

  • Massage sometimes helps as well because it increases circulation in the legs.
Conventional Treatment
There are some medications that your physician may recommend to treat the symptoms of RLS, including classes of drugs such as dopaminergics, CNS depressants, opioids (pain relievers), and anticonvulsants. Ropinirole is the only USFDA-approved drug to treat RLS. Talk to your physician about which option is best for you, keeping in mind that all these medications have side effects of some kind.

Physicians may also recommend minerals such as iron, magnesium, and folate: iron is involved in energy production, magnesium in nerve transmission, and folate in many functions in the body. If your physician prescribes them, take them consistently in order to get the desired results.

Dietary Supplements
There are two ways to approach RLS with supplements: helping the nervous system and helping the body get enough sleep.

For better functioning of the nervous system:
  • Omega-3 fatty acids (fish oil with DHA)--3-5 grams/day. DHA is essential to proper functioning of the nervous system.

  • Ginkgo biloba--50-150 mg/day. This herb increases blood flow to the periphery (arms and legs).

  • Magnesium--300 mg/day. Take with calcium in a ratio of 2:1--twice as much calcium as magnesium. Caution: magnesium can have a laxative effect.
For sleep and CNS relaxers:
  • Valerian--150-450 mg

  • Passionflower--200-400 mg. People with ragweed allergies may not be able to use this herb.

  • Melatonin--1-3 mg. Take 15-30 minutes before bedtime.
For all herbs, be sure to choose a product that uses a standardized extract.

There’s no miracle cure from conventional or alternative medicine for RLS, but if you can manage the symptoms, it can dramatically improve your quality of life. Use a systematic approach to find out which combination of lifestyle habits, medications, and/or supplements will help the most, and stick with the regimen.
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