Photo Credit: by Skye Sherman
If you’ve ever felt the all-too-familiar discomfort of needing to move your legs around, especially at night when you’re trying to fall asleep, then you’re probably well aware of the unpleasant sensation that is a sign of Restless Legs Syndrome, or RLS. The condition is also known as Willis-Ekbom Disease and it leads to a very uncomfortable sensation for those who are suffering from the syndrome, most often described as aching, throbbing, pulling, itching, crawling, or creeping feelings in the legs.
If you’ve ever suffered from RLS, you’re not alone. But did you know that the syndrome is even more sinister than simply an uncomfortable sensation? Because of the sleep-disturbing effects of Restless Legs Syndrome, the urge to constantly move your legs while resting may carry an even more dangerous side: it may lead to a lack of sleep that can compromise your immune system.
If you’re curious about Restless Legs Syndrome and how it may be related to immunity, read on. We’ll cover the basics of RLS and what you can do to protect yourself and ensure your health.
The basics of Restless Legs Syndrome
What exactly is RLS and what does it do? RLS causes an irresistible urge to move your legs and often strikes in the late afternoon or evening hours when you’re trying to rest, usually when you’re sitting down or lying in bed, especially for an extended period of time.
RLS also commonly strikes when you’re inactive or sitting for a long while, like when you’re on a long plane ride or watching a movie. Many people who don’t typically suffer from RLS will experience a bout of the unpleasant feeling while they’re crammed into a confined sitting position during a plane, train, or long car trip.
However, RLS goes beyond the temporary feeling of needing to move your legs. A very common side effect of RLS occurs when it hits overnight. RLS can make it difficult to fall asleep or fall back asleep if the sensation has woken you up. In addition, one of the only ways to get relief from RLS is to move the legs or walk around, but the feeling returns as soon as you stop, so an attack of RLS may keep you up and miserable for hours when you’d rather be sleeping.
What causes RLS?
Why does RLS strike some people and not others? And why does it only occur some days and not all the time?
According to The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, “RLS is classified as a sleep disorder since the symptoms are triggered by resting and attempting to sleep, and as a movement disorder, since people are forced to move their legs in order to relieve symptoms. It is, however, best characterized as a neurological sensory disorder with symptoms that are produced from within the brain itself.”
The article continues, “RLS is one of several disorders that can cause exhaustion and daytime sleepiness, which can strongly affect mood, concentration, job and school performance, and personal relationships. Many people with RLS report they are often unable to concentrate, have impaired memory, or fail to accomplish daily tasks. Untreated moderate to severe RLS can lead to about a 20 percent decrease in work productivity and can contribute to depression and anxiety. It also can make traveling difficult.”
Obviously, RLS is more serious than a simple feeling of discomfort. Mayo Clinic also reports that up to 10 percent of Americans have RLS. The syndrome can occur in both men and women, but it strikes women more often than men. People affected by RLS are usually middle-age or older.
There are other conditions related to RLS and sleep, too. According to Health, “RLS is also linked to periodic limb movement of sleep (PLMS)—about 80% of those who have RLS also have PLMS, which is characterized by involuntary leg or arm twitching or jerking during sleep that can happen every 15 to 40 seconds, sometimes throughout the night.”
But what exactly causes RLS? According to Mayo Clinic, the cause of RLS is unknown in most cases. However, there are a few contributing factors. “RLS has a genetic component and can be found in families where the onset of symptoms is before age 40. Specific gene variants have been associated with RLS. Evidence indicates that low levels of iron in the brain also may be responsible for RLS.” Some evidence suggests that RLS is related to a dysfunction in the brain related to dopamine, which is needed for smooth, purposeful muscle activity.
Can RLS lower your immunity?
It’s scientifically proven that a lack of sleep can be a major contributing factor to a vulnerable or weakened immune system. So if RLS can cause you to miss out on sleep, does that mean that this uncomfortable leg condition might actually be harming your immune system? The research suggests there could be a connection, because preventing a good night’s sleep won’t just make you tired the next day.
The Mayo Clinic states, “Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as a common cold virus. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick. During sleep, your immune system releases proteins called cytokines, some of which help promote sleep. Certain cytokines need to increase when you have an infection or inflammation, or when you’re under stress. Sleep deprivation may decrease production of these protective cytokines. In addition, infection-fighting antibodies and cells are reduced during periods when you don’t get enough sleep. So, your body needs sleep to fight infectious diseases.”
Beyond leading to illness, missing out on sleep can lead to even worse long-term outcomes: “Long-term lack of sleep also increases your risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart and blood vessel (cardiovascular) disease,” the Mayo Clinic reminds its readers.
That’s why RLS can be so dangerous: if the condition is disrupting your sleep or preventing you from getting adequate rest, you may be putting your immune system in harm’s way and leading to an increased risk of getting sick.
HealthScope agrees: “It’s fairly common for those with RLS to suffer from chronic insomnia, feel tired during the day, and struggle to concentrate, perform satisfactorily at work, or continue with once enjoyable activities. Eventually, this chronic sleep loss can result in mood issues like depression. It can also contribute to weight gain, a compromised immune system, or serious medical conditions like heart disease and diabetes.”
Getting your RLS under control is vital. If RLS means you’re suffering from a lack of sleep and your immune system is struggling because of it, your health and wellness is at risk. Your immune system is the last thing you want compromised! RLS isn’t just an annoying and unpleasant condition that leads to physical discomfort in the legs; it may also be lowering your body’s ability to fight off illness and making you susceptible to viruses and worse.
RLS relief: treating RLS and boosting your immune system
How can you deal with RLS, get adequate sleep, and maintain a healthy immune system? The good news is that you have a lot of options.
For those who require medical intervention for their RLS, Requip, Neupro, and Mirapex are popular prescription treatments for RLS. Of course, these drugs require a valid prescription from your doctor, so you need to visit a medical professional to determine whether this course of treatment is right for your situation.
If the prescription route isn’t right for you or a doctor does not recommend drugs to treat RLS, there are some natural treatments for RLS that you can try, too. These include soaking in a warm bath, massaging your leg muscles, applying cold packs or warm compresses, and establishing a healthy routine when it comes to diet, sleep, and exercise. Avoiding caffeine and using a foot wrap compression are other options that could lead to relief. Best of all, these steps can contribute to your overall health on top of providing RLS relief.
According to Mayo Clinic, RLS can be treated by relieving the symptoms, such as moving the affected limbs. “Sometimes RLS symptoms can be controlled by finding and treating an associated medical condition, such as peripheral neuropathy, diabetes, or iron deficiency anemia. Iron supplementation or medications are usually helpful but no single medication effectively manages RLS for all individuals. Trials of different drugs may be necessary. In addition, medications taken regularly may lose their effect over time or even make the condition worse, making it necessary to change medications.” Other RLS treatment options include lifestyle changes, iron supplements, anti-seizure medications, dopaminergic agents, and other drugs.
Unfortunately, in most cases RLS is a lifelong condition and there is no cure. Still, patients are able to manage their symptoms and, in most cases, RLS does not occur all the time, but instead sporadically or only at certain times of day. It can still be possible to lead a healthy, active lifestyle that involves plenty of sleep, even if you’ve been diagnosed with RLS.
If you’re looking to keep your immune system in tip-top shape, you have a lot of options there too. Some people like to create a fizzy “quarantini” cocktail out of Nutrazul Vitamin C for a tasty way to boost their immune system and give their bodies a fighting chance to combat illness. Luckily, this Vitamin C drink doesn’t require a prescription and it has a nice citrusy taste.
Eating a healthy, balanced diet is another important part of nourishing your body, which is why many people have started home gardens in recent months. There’s nothing better than fresh, flavorful fruits and vegetables to make eating healthy a breeze.
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