Low Iron Can Lead to Restless Legs

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fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts and liver with high iron content

Every cell in our bodies contains some of the mineral iron. Brain cells use it for a special purpose: to make a chemical called dopamine, which our nerves use to communicate with our muscles and control our movements.

When we don’t get enough iron, the messages between our brain and body sometimes go awry. One consequence is restless legs syndrome (RLS), in which uncomfortable sensations cause a strong urge to move your legs.

Causes of Iron Deficiency

There are two main reasons you might end up short on iron. Some conditions or life stages increase your iron needs. Pregnant women, children, and toddlers need more iron to support growth and development. People who lose blood—such as women with heavy menstrual periods or people who donate blood frequently—also lose iron and must replace it.

In other cases, we don’t get enough iron in our diets, or can’t use the iron we do consume. Vegetarians may be at risk because the iron from plants isn’t as easily absorbed as the iron from meat. Kidney failure, Parkinson’s disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and pregnancy all affect how much iron is in the brain or how it’s used—and all increase your risk for RLS.

Increasing Iron Stores

If you have RLS, your doctor may test your iron levels. He or she will also be on the lookout for other symptoms of iron deficiency, including:

  • Fatigue and weakness

  • Not performing as well at work or school

  • Trouble staying warm or keeping cool

  • Frequent infections

  • Glossitis, or an inflamed tongue

If blood tests show you’re lacking iron, your doctor may prescribe iron supplements. Usually, you’ll take them in combination with other medications for RLS, such as Requip, Mirapex, or Horizant.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Jul 18

  1. Advances in pediatric restless legs syndrome: Iron, genetics, diagnosis and treatment. M.A. Picchietti and D.L. Picchietti. Sleep Medicine. August 2010, vol. 11, no. 7, pp. 643-51.

  2. Iron status and chronic kidney disease predict restless legs syndrome in an older hospital population. C. Quinn et al. Sleep Medicine. March 2011, vol. 12, no. 3, pp. 295-301.

  3. Long-Term Management Issues in Restless Legs Syndrome. S. Chokrovert. Movement Disorders. April 29, 2011, epub ahead of print.

  4. Update in restless legs syndrome. R.E. Salas et al. Current Opinions in Neurology. August 2010, vol. 23, no. 4, pp. 401-6.

  5. American Academy of Family Physicians. http://familydoctor.org/online/famdocen/home/common/brain/disorders/868.printerview.html

  6. Office of Dietary Supplements. http://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/iron?print=1

  7. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/nutrition/everyone/basics/vitamins/iron.html

  8. National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health/dci/Diseases/rls/rls_All.html

  9. National Sleep Foundation. http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/sleep-related-problems/restless-legs-syndrome-rls-and-sleep

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