If you’ve been kept awake at night by the irresistible urge to move your legs that’s the main symptom of restless legs syndrome (RLS), you’ve probably searched for ways to find relief.
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The need for relief is important, not just because of discomfort but because it can severely disrupt sleep which leads to other issues. While full relief can be difficult to come by, there are home remedies that can help ease those symptoms.
To get an idea of what causes RLS and what you can do about it, we spoke with sleep doctor J. Andrew Berkowski, MD.
What causes restless legs syndrome?
According to Dr. Berkowski, restless legs syndrome is mostly a sensation problem with your brain, not your legs. But those issues do affect the muscles and nerves in your legs. “It’s not 100% a brain issue, but it does cause these abnormal sensations in the leg area,” he says.
While there are a few potential causes, Dr. Berkowski points out these two main causes:
- Genetics. While much about the genetic components that cause RLS aren’t fully understood, studies indicate that certain genes do elevate the risk of having RLS. Additionally, studies have shown that those with RLS have a high likelihood of having a first-degree family member who also has the condition.
- Iron deficiency. “Low iron levels can affect how the brain processes the sensations that lead to those RLS symptoms,” Dr. Berkowski says. “And iron levels drop at nighttime which is one reason why RLS is worse at night.”
Certain prescription medications can relieve RLS symptoms, including anti-seizure medications. But there are also several things you can do at home to help relieve these symptoms.
Home remedies for restless legs syndrome
For the most part, many of the home remedies for easing your RLS symptoms are easy and painless and don’t require either a prescription or a trip to the doctor. Still, if your symptoms are serious or persist, it’s something to consult your health care provider about.
1. Warm (or cold) compresses can be soothing
Heated or cooled pads, often used to relieve swelling caused by injuries and other conditions, have a long history as a home remedy. Dr. Berkowski says they can be effective by creating a new sensation for the brain to process, reducing the uncomfortable sensation produced by restless legs syndrome.
You can buy an inexpensive cold or warm compress at a store, but the simplest way to make one is to soak fabric in cold or warm water and place it against your skin.
2. Hot bath or shower
If compresses aren’t your thing, a hot bath or shower can also help relieve symptoms, says Dr. Berkowski. Because the issue with RLS is how it originates in your brain, the key factor is distracting those impulses coming from your brain. “If you can stimulate your legs, that can help to shut off the feedback loop to the brain,” he says.
A hot bath or shower provides two stages of relief, he adds. “The hot water opens up your blood vessels and aids circulation. But when you step out of the shower, you’re hit with a wave of cold air which lowers your core body temperature and that can help with sleep onset.”
3. Compression wraps
Another way to help your brain focus on other sensations would be compression wraps. Dr. Berkowski points out that there is currently an FDA-approved wrap, the Restiffic® Restless Leg Relaxer foot wrap, on the market.
This foot wrap applies pressure to specific muscles in your foot which, it’s theorized, sends certain signals to overactive nerves that calm the nerves and muscles, relieving the RLS symptoms.
The catch to this compression wrap is that it requires a doctor’s prescription. But once you’ve got one in hand, you can keep it by your bed for those late-night urges. “Any kind of stimulation to the legs is beneficial,” Dr. Berkowski says. Even rubbing or massaging the legs can provide temporary relief.
4. Get more iron in your diet
Using your diet to safely correct any iron deficiency can help alleviate RLS symptoms. The catch, Dr. Berkowski says, is knowing what your iron levels are. Iron supplements are certainly one way to get those levels up but you’ll need to be sure to consult with your doctor about that. “If your iron levels are already normal or even too high, more iron won’t help you give you those benefits,” he adds.
If you are iron deficient, though, there are plenty of healthy ways to get iron through your diet. “Eating red meat can really boost iron levels,” Dr. Berkowski says, “and if you’re vegetarian, eating tofu, legumes, lentils and spinach is a way to get that iron.”
Other foods that are rich in iron include eggs, fish and nuts, like cashews and almonds.
5. Avoid these before bed
When it comes to what not to consume, Dr. Berkowski lists the four things you should avoid to help ease your RLS symptoms:
“These products are all known to trigger RLS symptoms,” Dr. Berkowski says.
Additionally, if you have wheat or dairy allergies but still consume those products, that could also be a source of trouble. “What and dairy allergies can cause inflammation which, in turn, cause issues with iron absorption,” says Dr. Berkowski, “so it’s something to keep in mind.”
6. Exercise (within reason)
Since RLS is a condition that involves the urge to move your legs, one way to relieve those urges is to, well, move your legs. “A mild to moderate walk in the late evening can do a lot to relieve those symptoms,” Dr. Berkowski says. “And people who are active throughout the day, versus being sedentary, also seem to have a reduction in symptoms.”
There are some paradoxical issues with this approach, though. If you’re too active at night, you could wind up waking your body up more when you need to be winding down. So keep your goal on that sweet spot of enough movement to relieve your symptoms but nothing too heavy.
Additionally, be careful if you’re very active throughout your day. “People who vigorously exercise during the day, like a long bike ride or a particularly long run (including marathon training), can potentially trigger those symptoms,” Dr. Berkowski notes.
Pregnancy and restless legs syndrome
Restless legs syndrome affects between 20% and 30% of pregnant people. A primary cause of this is, not surprisingly, iron deficiency. Iron is an essential part of nutrition while pregnant because of the higher risks of developing iron-deficiency anemia.
Between this and the previously mentioned connection between RLS and iron deficiency, it’s not hard to figure out that connection. Working with your doctor to make sure you’re keeping your iron levels up, as well as other essential vitamins, can help alleviate these symptoms.
Also, as long as your health permits and your doctor gives you the green light, light exercise helps, too, whether it’s walks, aerobics or other types of lower body exercises that help keep those muscles stimulated.
The good news, says Dr. Berkowski, is that if RLS wasn’t an issue for you before pregnancy, chances are it’ll eventually fade within a few months after your pregnancy is over.
When to seek help
Of course, home remedies have their limits. If these ideas don’t work for you — and they don’t work for everyone — don’t hesitate to seek out the advice of a sleep expert.
Not everyone with restless legs needs to see a doctor, but severe cases can be debilitating. “Some people feel so desperate and helpless,” Dr. Berkowski says, as their lack of sleep can cause depression and anxiety.
He says to consult a doctor if either of the following applies to you:
- Your difficulties falling or staying asleep lead to you feeling sleepy or unrefreshed.
- Your sleep is disrupted at least two or three times a week.
If these home remedies still fall short, your doctor can provide you with more information about the potential prescription medicines that can help.