by guest blogger Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrative medicine pioneer
The symptoms often come at the worst possible time: at night when you’re trying to sleep. You feel a throbbing, itching, or uncomfortable sensation in the legs that escalates until you feel an overwhelming need to move them. Shifting the legs relieves the discomfort temporarily, but the symptoms soon return, and sleep is elusive.
This is restless legs syndrome (RLS), classified as a sensorimotor disorder that may affect as much as 10 percent of the U.S. population. The condition is more common in women, and may even affect a million school-age children. People often experience RLS when they’re trying to sleep or just relax. It can also strike during a movie or a long flight. And for many people with RLS, symptoms are worse during the winter.
Researchers are not sure what causes RLS, though it’s suspected that genetics play a significant role. There’s also evidence that RLS is caused by problems with the neurotransmitter dopamine, which helps govern muscle movements. Reduced dopamine is also an issue for Parkinson’s patients, resulting in numerous neuromuscular symptoms. Some women also experience worsening RLS during pregnancy or with other hormonal changes.
At present, there are few treatments for RLS. Medications that boost dopamine have been shown to provide some relief; however, they can be problematic and cause multiple side effects with long-term use. There are also treatments to lessen symptoms, such as painkillers to manage the discomfort and sedatives to help patients sleep. Again, a long list of potential side effects comes with these Band-Aid approaches.
Heeding a Warning?
While RLS is uncomfortable, it may not seem that bad on the surface. However, the condition can be associated with a number of far more serious health issues, such as kidney failure, diabetes, and peripheral neuropathy. Other disorders associated with a high occurrence of RLS are attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and multiple sclerosis. Because RLS is often found in conjunction with other conditions, it is underdiagnosed and, therefore, frequently left untreated.
People with RLS may also be at a higher risk for heart disease. One study published in the journal Circulation, showed that women with RLS had a significantly higher risk of cardiovascular disease. Other studies have confirmed an association between RLS and heart disease. In addition, men with RLS may have more risk of lung, metabolic, and immune conditions. One study showed men with RLS have a 39 percent increased risk of early mortality.
Does RLS cause these conditions? Probably not, but they seem to share underlying factors, such as poor circulation, nervous system imbalances, and inflammation. From that standpoint, RLS may serve as an early warning sign, cluing us in to the presence of more serious conditions.
One commonly recommended supplement for RLS is iron, as a deficiency can create imbalances in the brain’s dopamine system. Other minerals, such as potassium and magnesium, may also prove helpful, particularly for the nervous system. One study at the Mayo Clinic found that the RLS patients in the sample had donated blood several times, suggesting there may be link between blood donation and iron deficiency. With iron being a strong pro-oxidant however, it’s advisable to have your doctor check your iron and iron storage levels before starting any iron supplementation.
Also, be careful if you’re taking acid reducers, such as Prilosec or Prevacid, which can hamper the body’s ability to absorb iron and other nutrients. Additionally, there is a reported link between RLS and antidepressants, such as Prozac and Zoloft. It’s a good idea to limit caffeine and alcohol and to plan a strategy for quitting if you smoke cigarettes.
There are a number of simple ways to boost circulation. Simply standing up and walking more frequently can work wonders. You can also stretch, touch your toes, and practice deep breathing. Strengthening your circulation is especially important for people in office jobs, as sitting for many hours is known to be bad for your health on a number of levels, specifically cardiovascular.
I particularly recommend an ancient and extensively researched Tibetan herbal formula, which has been shown in clinical studies to support circulation and cardiovascular health, along with other benefits. The formula includes Iceland moss, costus root, cherubic myrobalan, and other more unusual botanicals. In addition to boosting circulation, the formula also supports cellular health and immunity and provides antioxidant protection, demonstrated in more than 40 years of published studies.
We’re still learning about RLS, so I would encourage people to keep an eye on emerging research. However, by combining moderate exercise and minor lifestyle changes, together with circulation-boosting formulas and essential minerals, people struggling from RLS may find significant relief.
Even better, by supporting circulation and cardiovascular health, they can help lower their risk for heart disease and other serious conditions.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, MS, LAc, integrates Western medicine with his extensive knowledge of traditional Chinese, Tibetan, ayurvedic, homeopathic, and complementary medical systems. With more than 25 years of clinical experience and research, Dr. Eliaz has a unique holistic approach to the relationship between health and disease, immune enhancement, detoxification, and cancer prevention and treatment. For more health and wellness information, visit www.dreliaz.org.