Stress and Restless Legs
Many doctors and websites recommend controlling stress to reduce restless leg syndrome, yet few ever explore the association between stress and RLS.
It's not clear exactly what causes restless leg syndrome, or why the experience differs from person to person. RLS may have a genetic or nutritional component, and in rare cases can be triggered by an underlying disease, but generally RLS simply occurs with no known trigger.
Yet despite the lack of a known cause, there are issues that are known to worsen RLS symptoms.
One such example is stress. Restless leg syndrome and stress have a complex relationship, both because stress itself may lead to RLS and RLS may contribute to a cycle of stress that worsens the severity.
Based on what scientists understand about RLS, it's unlikely that stress itself is a "cause."
It's possible that for many people, stress triggers the onset of noticeable symptoms. However, it is likely that those that experience RLS would otherwise not have experienced as severe symptoms as they would have if stress were not present – with some experiencing possibly no symptoms at all.
Scientists are also open to the idea that stress does create RLS, but stress itself is a subjective experience and without understanding the exact cause of RLS, it's very difficult to link stress as the main trigger.
Regardless, doctors strongly believe that stress is related to the severity of RLS symptoms, indicating that stress reduction plays a crucial role in reducing the experience of RLS. Those that experience a great deal of stress tend to report a worsening of restlessness, difficulty sleeping, and more symptomatic restless legs.
When the science doesn't seem to explain why something occurs, it's best to look at related studies.
One of the issues that has been linked to RLS is dopamine. While it's not exactly clear how dopamine may cause RLS, several studies have indicated that RLS seems to occur at the same schedule as dopamine increases and decreases in the brain.
Dopamine agonists have also successfully been used to treat RLS, indicating that dopamine is likely involved in many cases of RLS.
With that in mind, stress appears to reduce dopamine production, and may affect the way dopamine is balanced and used by the body. Assuming that's the case, stress itself may "cause" some of the dopamine balance issues that lead to the onset of RLS symptoms, and possibly increase their severity.
RLS from stress may also be linked to anemia, although the link is not entirely clear.
What is known is that in some cases, stress can lead to nourishment issues that throw off your body's vitamin balance. It's possible, although not highly likely, that stress may be causing issues with anemia and vitamin intake – both of which may lead to RLS symptoms.
Restless leg syndrome has been linked to a magnesium deficiency as well. Stress is known to reduce magnesium deposits in the body, so it's possible that stress is exacerbating magnesium induced restless leg symptoms.
In addition, it's possible that stress and stress causes may also contribute to restless leg syndrome.
For example, stress is more common in those that are unable to regularly exercise. Similarly, unused energy in the muscles appears to contribute to a worsening of restless leg symptoms, and those with stress and anxiety may also be more prone to focusing on the symptoms of RLS themselves, thus making the RLS experience feel stronger, despite no other increase in RLS.
The relationship between stress and RLS may not be entirely clear, but there are many reasons to believe that stress has an effect on the way restless leg is experienced.
Another issue that relates to stress is the effect that RLS has on sleep, and the two may lead to a cycle that creates more symptomatic RLS.
Namely, RLS itself disrupts sleep, and this disruption is one of the primary reasons that restless leg syndrome is considered an issue. Those that have RLS tend to report a lower quality of life as they deal with poor sleep and a lack of restfulness.
Sleep disruption naturally causes stress, as sleep is one of the most important parts of maintaining good mental health. Without sleep, stress tends to have longer lasting physical and mental consequences.
If the link between stress and RLS holds true, then the stress caused by not sleeping would also increase the likelihood of restless leg symptoms, which – in turn – would then cause more sleep disruption.
All of this could contribute to a cycle of RLS and stress that continues to disrupt the quality of life.
Research has still not linked the exact connection between RLS and stress, but that connection may not be possible until there is a known RLS cause.
Subjectively, however, those suffering from RLS report that their symptoms are worse with stress, and their symptoms are better when they control their stress. With the other potential evidence above, it does indicate that controlling your stress is important for treating RLS.
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