Merton came in to my office complaining that he couldn’t sleep. He was tired all day, falling asleep every time he sat down. After some discussion, we found the reason for his sleeplessness: his legs wouldn’t relax, he consistently felt he needed to get up and walk, or move around, all of which is known as Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS).
Sometimes, this would wake him up in the middle of the night and he just had to get up and move. The problem had gotten worse since he had quit smoking. When he smoked, he found if he could just take one long drag and hold it in, then the feeling would go away.
We tried many remedies, including sleeping pills and natural sedatives, but nothing worked. I was ready to throw in the towel and tell him to take up smoking again, until I thought that his problem might be related to something in the tobacco – nicotine! Nicotine in tobacco can increase dopamine in the brain and “treat” some people with RLS.
Restless leg syndrome is not a disease; it’s merely a symptom. There are multiple reasons for having this problem so there isn’t one cure for people with RLS. Since most RLS seems to be an imbalance of dopamine in the brain, it has been treated as Parkinson’s disease with dopamine-like drugs such as L-dopa or Requip. The problem with these is that they cause inflammation in the part of the brain that produces dopamine and, over time, can make the problem worse. Before you consult a medical specialist I would recommend trying the following, one at a time:
First of all you should avoid stimulants such as sugar (yes, it’s a stimulant), MSG and caffeine. Especially avoid energy drinks.
The ability for muscles to relax requires a proper balance of sodium and potassium, as well as calcium and magnesium.
Mostly, we get enough sodium and calcium, but not enough potassium and magnesium. These can be taken as supplements, but I always recommend using foods first.
Many are amazed at how their restlessness disappears when the eat greens as a significant proportion of their diet.
You have probably heard that bananas contain lots of potassium, and they do, but most other fruit does as well.
•Nuts and seeds
These are best eaten fresh a nd raw so the oils aren’t oxidized.
When grain is processed, the magnesium is removed. I recommend avoiding all processed grains for many other reasons also.
Supplements that I have seen work in the past include:
• magnesium powder
• calcium lactate 400mg at night
• potassium iodide 40mg with a meal
Vitamins E and F
The modern diet has a tremendous imbalance of oils. Those with Restless Leg Syndrome have significantly lower levels of essential oils and vitamin E.
Vitamin F is the name given to all the 5 essential fats that our bodies can’t make – we need to eat them. One of the functions of these fats is to regulate the absorption and utilization of minerals such as calcium. This is the
RLS connection. This regulation allows the muscles to relax normally.
Recommendations: Eat fish or flax seeds or take flaxseed oil or fish oil 5 grams per day. Take “Mixed Tocopherols” or natural vitamin E 600 IU per day.
Vitamin B3 is an important part of energy production. Moreover, having this vitamin in sufficient amounts is important for the production of Serotonin, which is made from L-Tryptophan and has a calming effect on the brain.
Recommendations: Niacinamide, 500mg three times per day with meals and L-Tryptophan 2000mg at night on an empty stomach.
If RLS runs in your family, it might be because of a relative folic acid deficiency. Some people don’t “methylate” folic acid very well. Even though their blood levels are normal, they can’t use it properly. Those with
this problem may need up to 30mg of folic acid per day.
Recommendation: You must use the amount required to relieve the symptoms, adjusting the dose as needed. You may also find that you need considerably less if you get the activated form, called MTHF (methytetrahydrofolate or methylfolate).
Studies indicate iron to be a major player in RLS because it is needed to make dopamine. Most people who suffer from RLS either have low total body iron, or just in the brain. Be careful with iron supplementation because too much iron causes inflammation. Ideally, you would want a test of iron levels before taking extra.
Recommendation: Supplement iron with an iron nail (16-penny NOT galvanized) clean it off with sandpaper or steel wool and put it into an orange. The next day take it out and eat the orange. Put the nail in the next orange. The following day take the nail out and eat the orange, putting the nail into another orange. Continue with this daily. Within one week you should have noticeable improvement. If not, you probably don’t need iron.
There isn’t just one “cure” for Restless Leg Syndrome. Merton finally found relief when we increased his dopamine levels and slept like a baby.
If you feel like you need to move your legs you might consider the above natural treatments: calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, folic acid and vitamin E.
It may take some trial-and-error, but it’s worth avoiding drugs and getting a good night sleep.
Dr. Scott D. Saunders, MD is a practicing physician, specializing in preventative healthcare, who utilizes eclectic health care for the whole family, including conventional, orthomolecular and natural medicine. He is also the medical director of The Integrative Medical Center of Santa Barbara in Lompoc, CA. He went to UCLA medical school and is board certified in family medicine.