Some people can fall asleep anywhere, any time. This is an impressive ability, and for those of us who have endured an endless plane ride or a restless night, it’s enviable. But there are some conditions that make sleep extremely difficult to snooze soundly, no matter who you are. Chief among sleep ailments is restless legs syndrome (RLS).
What is restless legs syndrome?
As its name implies, RLS causes unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations in the legs often resulting in a strong urge to move them, creating “restless legs.”
People with RLS have described the feelings as tingly, crawling, and even burning. “RLS is one of several sleep disorders that can interfere with sleep, negatively impacting concentration, mood, concentration, and even relationships,” says Terry Cralle, RN, certified sleep educator and author of Sleeping Your Way to the Top.
Restless legs syndrome, also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease (or colloquially as jumping legs or irritable leg syndrome), usually occurs at bedtime, but it can also happen while you’re sedentary during the day, says Cralle. An estimated seven to 10% of the US population suffers from RLS symptoms.
It’s more common in women and can begin at any age. Although there is no cure, non-drug therapies are an option in most cases. Cralle says that many people with restless legs syndrome symptoms ignore them, but “without diagnosis and treatment, RLS suffers generally experience a reduced quality of life.”
How to sleep better with restless legs syndrome
While only a medical professional can diagnose RLS, once you know you have it, there are steps you can take to relieve the symptoms and get your sleep back on track. Here, we’ve outlined five quick tips to help mitigate the unpleasant RLS symptoms.
1. Consider iron supplements
Research from Johns Hopkins Medicine shows iron deficiency is the single most common factor that causes restless legs syndrome in patients, even when their blood contains normal levels of iron. Some researchers think this paradoxical finding is because the brain doesn’t always absorb the correct amount of iron from the blood. A 2011 study published in Sleep Medicine revealed that patients who increased the amount of ferritin (a protein that stores iron) had significantly greater improvement in RLS symptoms than a placebo group. That being said, it’s important to talk to your doctor before adding an iron supplement to your routine, as they can help determine the right dose (taking too much can have harmful effects).
2. Exercise more
Researchers have identified dopamine imbalance as a potential cause for restless legs syndrome. Exercise can help rectify this, and it has the added benefit of tiring and stretching your leg muscles. Researchers suggest exercise could be a relatively quick remedy for RLS symptoms: Participants in a trial study published in the Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine saw improvements after three weekly sessions of aerobic and lower-body resistance training for a 12-week period.
3. Practice mindfulness
More and more people are using mindfulness to enhance sleep quality—and for a good reason. Our brain plays a leading role in sleep hygiene—and when it comes to RLS, the data suggests mindfulness can help. A 2015 study in the journal Mindfulness concluded that a six-week program of mindfulness-based stress reduction improved symptom severity, sleep quality, RLS-specific quality of life, and overall mental health. (Here are 10 nighttime activities to help you relax.)
4. Massage your legs
RLS can affect many of the muscles in your legs. But a 2007 study in the Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies found that focused lower leg rubs twice a week eased symptoms such as tingling sensations associated with restless legs, urges to move, and sleeplessness. This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to shell out for a professional massage—even some light touches, circulation work, or a foam roller could help.
Try an adjustable base to massage your legs
5. Take a hot bath
As part of a pre-bedtime ritual including stretches and leg rubs, consider loosening up with a hot bath. This can help ease muscle pain and release tension for those with restless legs. In addition, the high temperature can help to distract from the irritating tingling sensation that otherwise plagues RLS, and give your mind some relief. Just remember not to make it too warm, because too-high temps can make it harder for you to fall asleep.