Lifestyle Factors Linked to Restless Legs Syndrome

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Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is characterized by unpleasant sensations in the legs and an irresistible urge to move the legs. These issues tend to occur at night or when resting. While age and genetics appear to play a role in the development of the disorder, it has been suggested that lifestyle choices may influence RLS risk and severity.


Can lifestyle choices influence RLS?

Although it has been suggested that lifestyle plays a role in the development of RLS, little research has been undertaken to investigate whether such a relationship exists. This led researchers to undertake a study to examine the link between modifiable lifestyle factors and the risk of developing RLS. Their findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine in 2016.


Data collection

Researchers collected data on 12,812 men and 42,728 women and followed their progress over a period of between four and six years. Individuals self-reported RLS based on the presence of unpleasant leg sensations like crawling, prickling, or pain combined with restlessness and an urge to move the legs. Questionnaires were used to determine lifestyle factors such as diet, physical activity, height, and weight.


Obesity and high BMI increases RLS risk

Researchers found that obesity was associated with an increased risk of having RLS among both men and women. Participants with a BMI over 30 were roughly 1.5 times more likely to have RLS compared to those with a BMI less than 25. The authors of the study suggested that obesity’s effect on blood vessel health may play a role in the development of RLS.


Physical activity is good

The study found that participants with higher levels of physical activity had lower rates of RLS. Although researchers were unable to explain why this may be the case, they suggested that increased blood flow and the release of endorphins and dopamine as a result of exercise may improve RLS symptoms.


Smoking increases RLS risk for women, no effect for men

No significant association was found between smoking and the risk of RLS in men, but women who reported heavy smoking (more than 15 cigarettes per day) had a higher risk for developing RLS compared to women who never smoked. Nicotine is known to have dopamine-stimulating effects — and this may reduce RLS symptoms. Researchers suggested that hormonal gender differences may explain why smoking appears to increase RLS risk in women but not men.


Your diet may not make a difference

Diet quality was measured using the Alternate Healthy Eating Index (AHEI). Scores range from 0 to 10, with higher scores representing the healthiest dietary behaviors. The study was unable to find an association between AHEI scores and RLS — although data did suggest that those with RLS may have changed their dietary habits before the onset of RLS symptoms.


Drink coffee without guilt!

No significant association was found between RLS and heavy consumption of caffeine. As the authors of the study pointed out, this finding was particularly interesting since caffeine had previously been linked to RLS due to the way it stimulates the nervous system and increases muscle tension.


Moderate alcohol consumption may be beneficial

The study suggested a potentially protective effect of alcohol on the risk of RLS — and this finding is actually in-line with previous research that found an association between alcohol abstinence and RLS. With that being said, using alcohol as a sleep aid is never a good idea.


In summary

This study found that some lifestyle factors (specifically obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking) are associated with the risk of developing RLS. Although no association was found when it came to diet quality, those with high BMI were found to be at a higher risk for RLS — and these individuals demonstrated unhealthy eating habits compared to those with lower BMI scores.


What next?

Regular exercise and striving for a healthy weight appear to be the best lifestyle options to pursue if you want to reduce the risk of developing RLS. This knowledge may be particularly helpful if RLS runs in your family and you want to minimize your risk of developing the condition.