Restless legs syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, causes uncomfortable or even painful sensations in the legs as well as an uncontrollable urge to move them. These sensation are unlike anything that occurs outside of the condition, and, most commonly, these symptoms occur later in the afternoon or evening, especially when a person is sitting or lying in bed at night. Additionally, extended periods of inactivity can also trigger RLS symptoms.
This condition is classified as a neurological sensory disorder because the symptoms are produced in the brain, but it’s also classified as a sleep disorder, because it can impede a person’s ability to fall asleep — and stay asleep. Regardless, RLS plagues millions of Americans every year as well as up to eight percent of the global population, which makes it more common than type 2 diabetes. According to the National Institute of Health, RLS mainly affects adults and occurs more frequently in women than men.
What Causes Restless Legs Syndrome?
The causes of RLS remain unknown, though experts have some leads. Some believe it may be caused by one or more of the following: an imbalance of chemicals in the brain, iron deficiency, genetics, specific medications, and/or anxiety. In fact, with a whopping 20 percent of all pregnant women experience RLS, some leading experts believe pregnancy might be a contributing factor.
As mentioned above, the symptoms appear to begin in the brain. To that end, RLS sensations can even occur in someone who has lost their legs, giving them an irresistible desire to move limbs they do not have. Since the symptoms begin in the brain, many at-home RLS treatments target the brain — or focus on relaxing both the mind and body. Generally speaking, mild RLS can be treated without pharmaceutical medications. However, regardless of the level of severity of a person’s RLS, the following home remedies can certainly help manage it.
Take a Warm Bath
One of the most common RLS remedies? Taking a warm bath. The heat can help to relax the muscles, while the sensation of a warm bath has the ability to soothe the mind. Furthermore, the sensation of the warm water can distract the brain from thinking about moving the legs, thus stopping the cycle. A warm bath before bed is great for preparing both one’s mind and body for rest and preventing symptoms from cropping up during the night.
Use Magnesium Supplements
A natural muscle relaxant, magnesium may be helpful when it comes to relieving RLS symptoms. One study from 1998 found that magnesium provided relief for patients with mild to moderate RLS. Now, a clinical trial is currently underway looking into the use of magnesium for treating RLS as well. In fact, magnesium deficiency may be a potential cause for RLS symptoms. Calcium activates nerves, which can lead them to become overactive. Magnesium blocks calcium, thus assisting in nerve and muscle regulation.
If you do plan to use magnesium to help with RLS symptoms, doctors recommend taking it as an individual supplement rather than in a multivitamin. Additionally, be aware that one of the side effects of magnesium can be diarrhea, so starting with a low dose — between 200 and 400 mg per day — is best. If no side effect occurs, taking up to 1000 mg per day is safe, but it’s still best to consult with your doctor before taking any supplements or changing your diet.
Get Enough Sleep
RLS symptoms can be exacerbated by fatigue. For this reason, getting enough sleep could help minimize or prevent those bothersome symptoms. Get at least seven hours of sleep every night. If you have trouble getting this much sleep, make sure you have a comfortable sleeping environment — dim lighting that doesn’t strain the eyes before bed; comfortable bedding; a quiet space (or, if you need something to clear your head, a white-noise machine); and aromatics, like lavender candles or essential oils, can all help craft a more relaxing environment.
It’s also important to set a routine: go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Sticking to a regimen can do wonders for your overall health.
Eat a Protein Snack Before Bed
One of the triggers for RLS is low blood sugar. Because protein stabilizes blood sugar, consuming a bit of healthy protein before bed is recommended for those who suffer from RLS. A small piece of chicken or meat, a hard-boiled egg, or even some beef jerky are all great options. Sugary protein snacks are not so good, as they can cause a blood-sugar spike and subsequent crash.
Getting regular exercise is good for your overall health, but it may be particularly helpful in relieving symptoms of RLS. Moderate exercises, like stretching, walking, jogging, and yoga, is ideal. A small, randomized and controlled trial from 2006 found that exercise provided a noteworthy improvement of RLS symptoms. Yoga was also found to reduce RLS symptoms and severity in another 2013 study. Later, a 2016 study showed that symptom severity of RLS significantly improved when doing stretching exercises.
However, there are some caveats. Make sure you don’t push yourself too far or exercise too close to bedtime, as both of those things can make RLS symptoms worse.
Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol
Caffeine, a widely used stimulant, may trigger symptoms of RLS because it arouses the nervous system. As such, cutting back on caffeine could help to prevent RLS symptoms. This includes coffee, caffeinated teas and soft drinks, and even chocolate.
Additionally, people with RLS often report that drinking alcohol can cause RLS symptoms to present more often. While alcohol is known to help people fall asleep, it can disturb sleep quality, thus indirectly contributing to a more common or severe experience of RLS as well.
Staying hydrated is important for everyone, but it may be especially important for those who suffer from RLS. Make sure you drink plenty of water, as dehydration can aggravate RLS symptoms. In addition to staying on top of your water intake directly, avoiding diuretics, like caffeine and alcohol, can also help a person maintain optimal hydration levels.
Get a Weighted Blanket
Research has shown a link between anxiety and RLS. As weighted blankets are often used to relieve anxiety, they could also help to relieve RLS symptoms. In fact, weighted blankets can trigger pressure points that help people relax. Additionally, a weighted blanket can serve as a distraction from the restless legs sensation and, even on its own, can aid someone who’s struggling to fall asleep.
- “Strategies for the Treatment of Restless Legs Syndrome” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Management of Restless Legs Syndrome in Pregnancy and Lactation” via Journal of Primary Care and Community Health
- “Care and Treatment for Sleep Disorders” via Stanford Health Care
- “Magnesium therapy for periodic leg movements-related insomnia and restless legs syndrome: an open pilot study” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “The Effect of Magnesium Citrate Supplementation in Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS)” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Restless Leg Syndrome linked to mineral deficiencies, but relief is available” via Natural Health Media
- “Exercise and restless legs syndrome: a randomized controlled trial” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Efficacy of an eight-week yoga intervention on symptoms of restless legs syndrome (RLS): a pilot study” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “The Effect of Stretching Exercises on Severity of Restless Legs Syndrome in Patients on Hemodialysis” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Restless legs, anxiety and caffeinism” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Correlation of anxiety and depression symptoms in patients with restless legs syndrome: a population based survey” via U.S. National Library of Medicine
- “Restless Legs Syndrome Fact Sheet” via National Institute of Neurological Disorders
- Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation