Restless leg syndrome (RLS) is known to give uncomfortable sensations in your legs as well as an intense urge to move them. Unfortunately, it occurs most frequently at night, particularly when trying to sleep. It affects 1 in 12 people in the UK.
But can diet help actually reduce RLS?
It is widely recognised that one of the big contributors to RLS is believed to be dopamine. But what is dopamine? Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that is responsible for transmitting signals in between the nerve cells (neurons) of the brain. It is required to produce smooth, purposeful muscle activity and movement.
A lack of specific nutrients in your diet could cause the condition or even make it worse because of either their association to dopamine or normal muscle functioning. Let’s have a look at these nutrients in more detail and what could be done to try and improve the symptoms of RLS
Iron is required for proper dopamine signalling, so if iron is low this can cause RLS symptoms. If you suspect that you are low or deficient in iron it is important to consult your doctor and ask for your “ferritin” level to be checked. The doctor may then prescribe iron tablets. Iron deficiency is especially common in infants, pregnant women, vegetarians and vegans. There are some great dietary sources that you can use to boost your iron levels these include:
• Red meat/liver (this is 8 times more available to our bodies than plant-based iron)
• Poultry & pork
• Spinach and other dark leafy greens
• Dried fruit
• Iron-fortified cereal
• Beans – black, pinto, garbanzo, soy, navy and kidney
It is important when you are consuming iron-rich foods (or taking iron supplements) to also consume foods rich in Vitamin C, these could include citrus fruits, broccoli, red pepper and melons. Without vitamin C your body struggles to absorb the iron into your body
Folate is a water-soluble B vitamin and actually boosts dopamine levels in the brain by helping to convert an amino acid, called tyrosine, into dopamine. Folate/folic acid can be found in:
• Fortified breakfast cereals
• Beef liver
• Green peas
If you think you could be low in folate or you are pregnant it is worth visiting a doctor to check your folate levels. It is important not to exceed your recommended intake through the excessive use of supplements.
Many of us do not consume enough magnesium in our diets, although deficiency is rare. Good sources of magnesium include most whole foods, including:
• Nuts – almonds, cashews, peanuts
• Green leafy vegetables – spinach
• Wholegrain cereals
• Brown rice
Magnesium has been found to relieve RLS symptoms, when experienced in moderate form. This is because it is well known to help you feel sleepy, as well as relaxing muscles and nerves.
Vitamin D plays an important role in dopamine signalling. There is growing evidence to suggest that it has an important role to play in increasing dopamine levels in the brain as well as protecting dopamine associated neurons. Recent studies have shown that using vitamin D supplementation can improve the severity of RLS symptoms.
It is easy to get your vitamin D level tested by the doctor. Ways to increase Vitamin D intake include:
• Cod liver oil
• Vitamin D3 supplements
• Or, regular sun exposure (which could be a little tricky in the UK!)
Foods to Avoid
I have covered some of the key nutrients that can help relieve RLS but what food/drink should be avoided? These are:
• Fatty or fried foods
• Sugary drinks
• Energy drinks
• Tea & coffee
All of these can interfere with sleep patterns and make RLS symptoms worse.
By Adrian Massey, PhD