I feel like I have a toothache in my leg. There are bugs crawling around, deep in my muscles. These are just a few complaints of people who have restless legs syndrome (RLS), a neurological disorder typified by the irresistible urge to move your legs. Strangely enough, lying down or relaxing actually exacerbates the symptoms—which range from burning, aching, crawling, and prickling sensations to painful and involuntary cramping and jerking (called periodic limb movements). No one knows what causes RLS, though it may be hereditary and has been associated with pregnancy, diabetes, and anemia. Up to 10 percent of the US population suffers from this disorder, says Georgi Bell, executive director of the Restless Legs Syndrome Foundation.
RLS can’t be cured. But by targeting the symptoms, you can get some reprieve.
Conventional drugs like codeine, Lyrica, and sleeping pills offer quick and temporary relief, but they may cause side effects, including allergic reactions, gastrointestinal problems, dizziness, nausea, sleep apnea, and dependency. Here are five natural ways to suppress and calm those burning, crawly sensations.
Iron insufficiency and low blood levels of the iron-storing protein ferritin coincide with RLS: The lower the iron levels, the more severe the restless legs, says Lyn Patrick, ND, who practices in Durango, Colorado. She recommends supplementing with 50 mg iron picolinate, three times a day, to restore ferritin levels and reduce spasms. Caveat: Too much iron can cause complications, so check with your doctor before starting a regimen.
Your brain needs this B vitamin to manufacture the neurotransmitter dopamine. Low dopamine levels increase involuntary spasms, Patrick explains. Research published in Alternative Medicine Review in 2007 showed folate supplementation improved all RLS symptoms, especially in hereditary RLS cases, in which dopamine metabolism is believed to be the culprit. Supplement with 1 mg of L-methylfolate (a proprietary version of folic acid) daily to balance dopamine levels.
Many leg cramps are the result of a magnesium deficiency, says Patrick. “Magnesium helps nerve endings in the muscles work correctly so they’re able to relax during a cramping spasm.” She recommends 800 to 1,000 mg of magnesium daily for people with magnesium deficiency.
Countless RLS patients swear they find relief in vitamin E oral supplements, though there are few studies confirming its effectiveness. Some doctors speculate E’s antioxidant qualities prevent free radicals from damaging brain tissues. And a 2008 report published in the European Journal of General Practice showed that vitamin E improves blood circulation in the legs, which helps alleviate pain and thrashing. Take 1,000 IU daily of vitamin E complex.
For centuries, Pacific Islanders have made celebratory and medicinal beverages from an extract of the root of this leafy-green plant. Kava is renowned for its calming, sedative properties, which may ease the effects of RLS in much the same way that pharmaceutical sedatives do—but without the side effects. About seven years ago, the ancient herb came under fire for liver toxicity concerns, prompting several countries, including Switzerland and France, to ban its sale and import (it is legal in the US). But according to Christopher Hobbs, a Davis, California-based herbalist, the tides are changing on kava—with research showing that it is safe. (Germany and Wales rescinded their bans.) Hobbs suggests mixing 2 ml (about two droppers) of kava liquid tincture with a cup of relaxing chamomile tea, one to three times per day, or supplementing with 100 to 300 mg of kava one to three times per day.