Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome (RLS), also known as Willis-Ekbom disease, can cause uncomfortable sensations in your legs and an intense urge to move them. It often strikes at night, particularly when you’re trying to sleep. A lack of specific nutrients in your diet may cause the condition or make it worse.

Which foods should I add to my diet if I have RLS?

Foods to add

  1. Spinach or other dark leafy greens
  2. Fortified cereals
  3. Beans

Iron, folate, and magnesium are thought to have the most direct impact on RLS symptoms.

Adding iron to your diet

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, lack of iron or the incorrect use of iron in the brain are the main causes of RLS. Several conditions may impact iron levels, including:

  • kidney failure
  • peripheral neuropathy
  • diabetes
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • rheumatoid arthritis
  • iron deficiency

You may be able to treat iron deficiency and decrease RLS symptoms by eating more iron-rich foods, such as:

  • red meat
  • liver
  • spinach and other dark leafy greens
  • dried fruit
  • poultry
  • pork
  • seafood
  • iron-fortified cereals
  • beans

Eating foods rich in vitamin C along with iron-rich foods can help your body absorb iron better. Good sources of vitamin C include citrus fruits, broccoli, and melons.

Adding folate and magnesium to your diet

RLS may also be caused by folate or magnesium deficiencies. Both nutrients are critical to proper muscle contraction and nerve impulse conduction. Eating more foods that contain these nutrients may help RLS.

Foods rich in folate include:

  • liver
  • spinach and other dark leafy greens
  • fortified cereals
  • black-eyed peas
  • lentils and beans
  • rice and quinoa
  • asparagus
  • whole wheat pasta
  • Brussels sprouts
  • avocado

Examples of magnesium-rich foods include:

  • almonds
  • spinach
  • cashews
  • peanuts
  • soy milk
  • black beans
  • edamame
  • peanut butter
  • whole wheat bread
  • brown rice

If you’re unable to get enough iron, folate, and magnesium through the food you eat, talk to your doctor about taking supplements.

Which foods should I avoid if I have RLS?

Foods to avoid

  1. Chocolate
  2. Sugary sodas
  3. Fried foods

Foods and beverages that contain caffeine may stimulate your nerves and aggravate RLS. This includes:

  • coffee
  • tea
  • energy drinks
  • chocolate

You should also limit or avoid fattening items, such as:

  • soda
  • fried foods
  • processed foods
  • foods high in sugar

A 2009 study showed people who are obese have an increased risk of RLS. This may be because obesity is linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and lower dopamine receptors. All of these conditions have the potential to cause RLS.

Some people report that avoiding gluten eases RLS. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s found in foods such as breads and baked goods, as well as in some condiments, soups, and salad dressings.

There isn’t any scientific evidence that gluten causes RLS. If you feel gluten may be behind your symptoms, consider eliminating gluten for a few weeks to see if your symptoms improve.

If I’m pregnant, are my dietary needs the same?

According to a 2009 study, up to 26 percent of pregnant women have RLS. The exact cause isn’t clear, but changing hormones, low dopamine levels, and nutrient deficiencies may be responsible.

If you’re pregnant and have RLS symptoms, you should talk to your doctor about getting your iron levels checked. If they’re low, your doctor may recommend eating more iron-rich foods or taking iron supplements.

If diet and lifestyle changes don’t help, your doctor may prescribe antiepileptic drugs, opioids, and certain benzodiazepines. According to a 2008 study, these drugs are safe to use during pregnancy. Because all drugs pass through the placenta to your unborn baby, you should use the least amount necessary for the shortest amount of time.

In many cases, pregnancy-related RLS goes away on its own after your baby is born.

How else can I relieve my symptoms?

RLS is often at its worst when you’re trying to sleep. So it’s important to make your bedroom a relaxing place that promotes sleep. Keep the room cool and eliminate clutter. Turn off devices that make it difficult to fall asleep, such as your computer and cell phone.

Other changes that may help relieve RLS include:

  • quitting smoking
  • getting regular exercise
  • taking a warm bath before going to bed
  • massaging the affected area
  • limiting alcohol consumption, especially before bedtime
  • distracting yourself with a crossword or book before going to sleep
  • using heat or ice on the affected area
  • using a foam roller

Certain medications may cause RLS. Talk to your doctor about other drug options if you take:

  • antinausea drugs
  • antipsychotic drugs
  • antidepressants
  • sedating antihistamines
  • calcium-channel blockers

What you can do now

To give yourself the best chance of overcoming RLS, stay as healthy as possible by practicing common-sense diet dos and don’ts. For example:

  • Do eat a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially dark leafy greens.
  • Do eat a variety of iron-rich lean meats (unless you’re a vegetarian).
  • Do eat tree nuts, seeds, and legumes.
  • Don’t eat a lot of processed foods.
  • Don’t consume foods and beverages high in sugar or high-fructose corn syrup.
  • Don’t eat fried foods and other foods that cause weight gain.

In many cases, RLS can improve with diet and lifestyle changes. Although your results will vary depending on the cause of your RLS, certain changes may take a while to show effects. If your RSL hasn’t improved or has worsened after a few weeks, consider talking to your doctor about the risks and benefits of prescription drug treatments.

Keep reading: Medications for restless leg syndrome »