Foods to Avoid With Restless Legs Syndrome
If you have restless legs syndrome (RLS), you will do almost anything to avoid it.
The causes of RLS can be complex and multifaceted – as are the treatments. What works for one person does not necessarily work for another. But it is helpful to learn about common denominators. And food is a potential trigger that we at least can exert some control over.
Naturally, it’s the good stuff that can exacerbate symptoms – it’s never celery we’re encouraged to avoid.
As a self-confessed, fully-fledged sweet tooth, it pains me to say that sugar is a potential trigger for RLS – as if there aren’t enough reasons to avoid cheesecake and chocolate.
Some sugars are part of a healthy diet. All carbohydrates contain natural sugars – including fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. Plant-based foods tend to have high levels of fibre, minerals, and antioxidants, while dairy products contain protein and calcium. These nutritional components help the body process the sugars slowly, providing a steady supply of energy throughout the day. All of these are – for most people – fine with RLS.1
The problem with sugars begins with added sugars which are used to improve flavour and texture, or to act as a preservative. Single-ingredient sugars (table sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, etc.) are metabolised differently and are of the greatest concern when it comes to health and nutrition. Excess sugar consumption can lead to erratic blood sugar levels, which can contribute to health problems, including diabetes and heart disease, or inflammatory conditions such as arthritis and restless legs syndrome.1
For many people, consuming dairy products is unlikely to cause exacerbation of RLS symptoms. But for a small number of us, it can be a trigger. Dairy is a common dietary allergen, and if you happen to be one of the people (like myself) sensitive to dairy, then part of the immune response can impact restlessness. The most common allergens in dairy are lactose (a sugar) and casein (a protein).
Dairy is also a common dietary source of calcium, but calcium can impact iron absorption and low iron levels are a known trigger for RLS. If you are actively trying to increase iron intake, try to avoid having dairy products at the same time.2
Other common foods that can cause sensitivities or allergic reactions are eggs, aspartame, chocolate, citrus, raspberries, strawberries, potato, beef, and pork. If you consume these foods, it may be worth considering using a food diary for a period of time to see if your RLS symptoms worsen.3
Tea. Coffee. Chocolate. What’s not to love?! However, caffeine is well known for impacting insomnia and, in particular, restless legs syndrome.
Caffeine is a stimulant, increasing arousal in the nervous system, and as RLS is primarily a neurological condition, it stands to reason that arousing nerves can make symptoms worse.
For many years I cut out all tea, coffee, and chocolate just to ensure I had no caffeine in my system. With well-managed RLS, I can now manage a coffee in the mornings without a detrimental effect – most of the time.
Caffeine is also found in sodas, high-energy drinks, and some alcoholic beverages. If your RLS symptoms are intrusive, it might be time to review your caffeine intake.
Alcohol is a known cause of many health problems, and restlessness is just one more.4
Overall, alcohol has a depressant effect on the nervous system, but complex and contradictory interactions can happen. Very low doses of alcohol can sometimes help people fall asleep, but for most, consuming alcohol causes sleep disruption, which can worsen RLS symptoms.
Alcohol is also a source of sugar which can cause reactions, as discussed previously, and intoxication can cause ataxia, the uncoordinated movement of parts of the body affecting limbs which in turn can contribute to increased RLS symptoms.
“Tobacco is the leading cause of preventable cancers... Tobacco consumption alone accounts for nearly 5.4 million deaths per year, and one billion people may die in this century if global tobacco consumption remained at the current levels.”5
If that isn’t enough inspiration to want to stop smoking, much like caffeine, nicotine is a stimulant which means it raises physiological and neurological activity. Increased neurological activity can exacerbate the symptoms of restlessness that we are all so familiar with in RLS.
Dietary changes make a difference
During the worst of my restless legs years, I tried to make significant dietary changes in order to positively impact my symptoms. In addition to reducing caffeine, sugar, dairy, and alcohol (I’ve never been a smoker), I increased magnesium and iron as both are commonly deficient in RLS patients.
Making change wasn’t always easy and was certainly not a flawless process. I fell off the wagon as frequently as I got back on. But the difference was always noticeable.
When dietary and lifestyle modifications no longer afforded me sufficient relief, I resorted to pharmacological support. For many years now, I’ve had reduced symptoms and been able to enjoy a little more chocolate and the occasional champagne. Rest is a precious commodity, and I’m grateful for every moment I get.
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