What is Restless Legs Syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is an unpleasant neurological condition that makes the sufferer feel as though their legs are constantly uncomfortable, and can often result in constant movement, twitching and kicking. Many people find that their restless legs get significantly worse at night, but why?
What causes restless legs at night?
1. Poor circulation & varicose veins
One of the most common causes of restless legs at night is poor circulation, and restless legs are commonly also associated with varicose veins. If your lifestyle is quite sedentary or you have to spend hours sitting or standing for work, your circulatory system will lack the stimulus it needs to bring blood briskly back up the body to the heart. This can bring about heaviness and discomfort in the legs.
2. Lack of exercise during the day
It’s movement that you need to keep your pins perky. Standing up for long periods of time doesn’t do the job – move it, move it, move it during the day to keep your legs calm at night.
If your circumstances don’t allow for brisk marching then become a secret calf flexor and pump your calf muscles under the desk or at traffic lights. Have a look at our other leg exercises you can do from your desk.
Not sure what calf flexion involves? Pull your toes back towards your knees. The muscle you can feel stretching at the back of your calf is the one that you want to extend and release. Pulling your toes towards you and then pointing them away from you will achieve this, and powers blood back up your body to your heart.
3. Long-haul flights
Flying long haul is a common trigger for restless legs. This is due to enforced lack of movement in an environment where the air pressure is greater than normal. If you're flying or travelling during the day you're likely to find that you experience restless legs that night.
It’s even more important to keep moving in this situation, to stop blood pooling in your lower legs. Flex your calves; walk up and down the gangway regularly; and wear compression hosiery to prevent your leg veins from dilating (which makes it harder for blood to fight its way up the legs against gravity).
4. Wearing heels during the day
If you wear high heels a great deal of the time, you may find that this is reducing the flexion of your calves and may be contributing to your night-time restless legs. Try a few days in flat shoes and see if things improve.
The extra weight carried during pregnancy can put extra pressure on the circulatory system, making it harder to sufficiently pump blood up from the legs. This is why swelling of the feet and ankles is common during pregnancy, but also why you might experience restless legs at night.
Keep a 20 minute slot free every day for lying with legs raised above the level of your heart (e.g. with feet up on a pillow) to help drain blood from your lower extremities.
Keep up the calf flexing, even if you lose sight of your calves altogether in the final stages of pregnancy. Don’t shun support hosiery – it may not be glamorous but it will help keep your legs in better shape for running around after the baby!
6. An iron deficiency
Research has shown that improving iron levels in some people with restless legs has reduced their symptoms.1 This doesn’t work for everyone, but it’s sensible to check for other indications of low iron (pallor, on-going fatigue, sore or swollen tongue, cracks in the corners of the mouth, trouble swallowing, light headedness or dizziness).
Interestingly, the research showed that some people had sufficient iron in their bloodstream but not enough of the iron storing protein, ferritin, and this was the cause of the problem.
Your doctor can check your ferritin levels if you think this may be an issue. In the trial, people whose ferritin was increased experienced an improvement in their restless leg symptoms.
This appeared to be due to the effect that iron levels has on the nervous system. It may also be due to improved delivery of oxygen around the body, which is impaired when iron levels are low.
Women with heavy periods are at risk of low iron (an average monthly loss is 35 ml: 4-6 tbsps), and will definitely benefit from considering an iron tonic.
7. Lack of magnesium
Magnesium contributes to normal muscle function, and without sufficient amounts your muscles are more likely to contract and not relax. This means that after a busy day on your feet your legs will not be able to relax at night, triggering restless legs.
As magnesium is used up by both physical exercise and emotional/mental stress, it’s easy to slip into deficiency, especially during menopause, when women are frequently under both physical and emotional pressures. Taking a top up of magnesium can make a whole night’s worth of difference to your legs, and help keep your muscles un-knotted during the day too.
- The best dietary sources of magnesium are wholegrains, leafy green vegetables, and nuts and seeds. Stock up on these foods to make a daily difference
- Tea and coffee can inhibit magnesium absorption, so consider swapping them for herbal alternatives
- Cooking can deplete the magnesium content of food, so eat vegetables lightly steamed whenever you can
- Medications can drain magnesium, e.g. diuretics – check with your doctor if you think this might be a factor for you.
1Wang J et al. Sleep Med 2009; 10 (9): 973-5
Natural remedies to help restless legs at night
Whilst you work on the causative factors, there are several herbal remedies that you may find helpful to help reduce the discomfort associated with night-time restless legs.
Horse Chestnut tones and strengthens the veins in your legs to improve blood flow. If your legs show the distinctive signs of varicose veins, such as blue veins showing through the skin, or forming twisty pathways on the surface of your legs, then this remedy is for you.
A topical gel made from an extract of Horse Chestnut, this has an instant effect of tightening the veins in your legs to get blood moving. Like an invisible support stocking, Venagel can be smoothed gently onto legs before a long day on your feet or a long haul flight, or just before bed, to counter irritating and uncomfortable feelings in your legs.
This ancient and venerable herb improves blood flow around the whole body, making it a good choice if you are in a sedentary job or can’t exercise much for whatever reason.