Few things are more frustrating than lying in bed at night exhausted, but not being able to fall asleep because of an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. This phenomenon, known as restless legs syndrome (RLS), affects between 4% and 29% of adults in North America, and sadly the condition is still not fully understood.
There are a few proposed causes that when addressed tend to allow for a much more restful sleep.
Uncontrolled inflammation. Systemic inflammation due to poor diet or underlying infections has been known to lead to RLS. Reducing processed, highly refined foods and limiting sugars helps reduce inflammation as does abstaining from alcohol and smoking. These are all things we know we should do, but often find it hard to commit to. Start with looking at your pantry and freezer. Are they jammed full of boxes of processed foods and quick fix meals? If so, a simple trick next time you go to the grocery store is to only shop the perimeter. That is where all the fresh products are located and this will force you to reduce reliance on foods that may be sabotaging your sleep.
IBS or chronic intestinal infections. We know that our gut health impacts our mental and immune health but did you know it also impacts our ability to sleep as well. If you suffer from RLS, IBS or chronic digestive issues, improving your digestion is crucial for a deep, restorative sleep. Start to track your diet and make a note of what foods you eat and how your body and your digestion responds. Try to eliminate some common trigger foods (wheat, dairy, sugar, eggs) and see if minimizing those reduces your digestive problems, as well as your restless legs. Also, many people diagnosed with H.pylori or any other form of gastrointestinal microbe often notice that their sleep is worse and RLS is more pronounced. If you suffer from ulcers (a possible sign of H.pylori) or noticed that your RLS got worse after a bout of food poisoning or gastroenteritis, it is worth having stool testing done to rule in or out this as a root cause.
Vitamin D Deficiency. Ineffective dopamine signaling has been associated with RLS. Vitamin D has been shown to improve dopamine levels and it’s metabolites, which work to protect our precious neurotransmitters. If you find you sleep better in the spring/summer and early fall, when we generally have more exposure to sunlight, and therefore natural Vitamin D, then maybe you need to consider supplementing with Vitamin D. I suggest 5000IU of Vitamin D from Halloween to Easter to all of my patients.
Iron Deficiency. One of the first treatments people with RLS try is iron supplementation and often this helps. However, simply supplementing with iron may not help unless we also address the root cause of why the iron is low in the first place. Reduced intake is one reason, but often the issue is poor absorption. Those with low stomach acid levels may have increased risk of RLS, and so supplementing with a high quality digestive enzyme can improve your nutrient status, and your sleep!