Natural treatment for restless legs syndrome (RLS)

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A recent report from Surrey University informs us that British women get significantly less sleep than their male counterparts. This may not come as too much of a surprise bearing in mind that it is usually mums, rather than dads, who provide the bulk of child-care duties during the night. However, it turns out that a more persistent cause of wakefulness in women is not children, but grown-ups. The study identified, amongst other things, fidgeting of their sleeping partners throughout the night as a frequent factor in female insomnia. According to the report, the sleep shortage that often ensues can heighten stress and cause considerable conflict in relationships. It seems that male restlessness in bed can move some women to tears.

A common underling feature in the nightmare that night-time fidgeting can be is a condition known as restless legs syndrome (RLS). This condition is characterised by an uncomfortable sensation in the legs which gives rise to an overwhelming urge to move them. This condition overlaps with another known as periodic limb movements during sleep (PLMS), in which involuntary jerks of the muscles occur at night. There is some evidence that caffeine can worsen or trigger the symptoms of RLS, and my experience in practice is that this seems to be true of PLMS too. Those suffering from one or both of these conditions may benefit from a significant reduction or complete elimination of coffee, tea and caffeinated soft drinks from their diets.

Another nutritional strategy that may be effective in relieving RLS and PLMS is to boost levels of magnesium in the body. Magnesium is crucial to normal muscle function and, in practice, a deficiency in the nutrient does seem to be a common underlying factor in RLS and PLMS. Other symptoms of a deficit in magnesium include cramp and muscle twitching. I find that in individuals who experience either of these symptoms, even on an occasional basis, low levels of magnesium are likely. Those keen to increase their intake of magnesium can do this by emphasising nuts and seeds in their diets. In addition, I recommend supplementing with 350 – 500 mg of magnesium each day. As it can take a while for magnesium levels to build up in the body, the full benefit of supplementation may not be seen for two or three months.

Another nutrient quite commonly deficient in sufferers of RLS and PMLS is iron. This mineral is important for the production of the brain chemical dopamine, a deficiency of which can cause disturbance in body movement. I have found that iron deficiency is not so commonly a factor in night-time restlessness as a deficit in magnesium. However, low iron levels are well worth considering, especially in individuals prone to this such as vegans, vegetarians and women of child-bearing age. Overall levels of iron in the body are best assessed by measuring the level of a substance called ferritin in the blood. In practice, giving additional iron to individuals with ferritin levels that are low or on the low side can help to relieve the symptoms of RLS and PLMS. My experience is that for those prone to nocturnal fidgeting and their partners, nutritional therapies can be the dream ticket.

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