A condition that quietly blights as many as 30million Americans may have a simple natural remedy, a doctor claims.
Like the name suggests, restless legs syndrome causes aching, throbbing, pulling, itching, crawling, or creeping sensations in the legs that can cause sleepless nights.
It affects up to 10 percent of American adults and one in 20 children, most often when they’re inactive, such as at bedtime – but only a fraction of people see a doctor about the problem and even fewer get an official diagnosis.
Treatment options run the gamut from benzodiazepines typically used to treat anxiety to opioids and drugs that mimic the effects of dopamine or increase levels of it in the brain.
But now doctors are pointing to a promising, natural remedy – cutting back on sugar.
Graphic courtesy of the Center for Vascular Medicine. It shows the various sensations that a person with RLS feels as they try to fall asleep
Saying no to sweet treats is difficult, and even tougher to avoid the laundry list of other foods packed with sugar, from breads to condiments. Sugar is a staple of the American diet.
But vast anecdotal evidence has pointed the finger of blame at sugary foods for exacerbating restless leg symptoms.
Science has not concluded that eating foods high in sugar is a cause of restless leg syndrome, but some scientists with the condition have gone ahead and stripped it from their diets anyway only to find their symptoms subside.
The condition is more commonly seen in women than in men and often manifests itself in an overwhelming urge to wiggle and kick one’s legs to alleviate the disturbing sensations, typically leading to a night of tossing and turning.
Dr George Lundberg, a self-proclaimed ‘antisugar guy’ who specializes in studying the origins of different diseases, experienced the effects of dessert close to bedtime first-hand.
A mini ice cream bar for dessert one early November evening turned into several additional pieces of leftover Halloween candy before bed.
‘Lo and behold, in the dark of that night, and continuing off and on for a few fitful hours, I had bad RLS. Shifting, tossing, turning, compulsively seeking a new sleeping position only to have to soon move again,’ Dr Lundberg said.
He added that he had ‘repetitive leg cramps and that creepy-crawly skin sensation’ that finally gave way to sound sleep.
Dr Lundberg did not repeat his late-night sugar binge in subsequent weeks, and the restless leg symptoms did not come back.
He added: ‘I’m pretty convinced from my unintentional challenge and single dechallenge that my unusually high sugar intake resulted in RLS. I will not undergo a rechallenge, although it might be fun to binge on sucrose and see what happens.’
Science has yet to say conclusively that RLS is caused by a diet high in sugar, but the symptoms have been shown to lessen when people eat less of it.
Last year, a Dutch doctor wrote about the case of a healthy 60-year-old man with RLS. He had normal blood sugar and iron levels, was not a smoker or a drinker, and did not take other drugs.
The man ate a sugar-rich diet, though, and was asked by his doctor to try a few weeks without any added sugar in his diet and then a couple of normal eating weeks. He was also asked to fill out a questionnaire during the cycles of high-sugar eating and the weeks when he ate very little added sugar.
His questionnaire showed an average score for RLS of 26, which is classified as ‘severe.’ But when he stuck to a low-sugar diet, his score fell to six, or ‘mild’ RLS.
The doctor who treated the man said: ‘Following a low-sugar diet requires discipline, but if it significantly reduces or completely eliminates the symptoms of RLS, it is a preferred measure and can be used on a trial basis before prescribing medication.’
Doctors have attempted to treat RLS with a wide array of medications, including benzodiazepines, opioids, drugs that stimulate receptors that regulate the involuntary functions of the body like heart rate, and drugs that mimic the effects of dopamine or increase levels of it in the brain.
Dr Lundberg said: ‘Yes, you read that right; RLS is treated with a broad array of different drugs, which is usually a sign that nothing works very well. Some agents work for a while, but none seem to be the definitive solution.
‘How many millions of dollars would Big Pharma lose if patients with RLS just said no to sugar and it worked?’
A diet high in refined added sugars, including sucrose, dextrose, table sugar, syrups, honey, and sugars from concentrated fruit or vegetable juices, is known to drastically increase one’s risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as obesity and heart disease.
Yet Americans can’t get enough. We eat an average of 17 teaspoons of added sugar daily, more than double and triple the recommended amount for men and women, respectively. That adds up to about 60 pounds of added sugar consumed every year.