You’re lying in bed, ready to drift off, and suddenly you get the unbearable urge to move your legs. After a quick wriggle and stretch, all is right again, until a minute later when that familiar feeling starts to creep back in…again. And again. And again. That’s restless leg syndrome, and it can range from mildly irritating to completely debilitating. If it’s driving you crazy or keeping you from getting a good night’s sleep, you’re probably keen to know if magnesium can help with restless legs. The good news is it just might! Read on to find out more about magnesium and restless legs…
What is restless legs syndrome?
Restless legs syndrome is another name for a condition called Willis-Ekbom disease. The main symptom is an overwhelming urge to move your legs, especially at night or after sitting or lying still for long periods of time. You can relieve the urge by moving or stretching your legs, but it quickly returns. It can also be accompanied by uncomfortable symptoms like:
- Muscle cramps, especially in the calf muscles.
- A tingling, itching, or crawling sensation on the skin.
- A burning, twitching, or throbbing sensation in the muscles.
- A “fizzing” or “bubbling” feeling under your skin.
According to the NIH, more than 80% of people who suffer from restless legs syndrome also experience periodic limb movements, or PLM, where the legs will jerk or twitch uncontrollably. This usually happens during sleep, but it can also strike when you’re resting for a long period.
What causes restless legs?
Restless legs syndrome can affect anyone of any age, but it’s twice as common in women than in men, and it’s more likely to develop in middle age. Despite being such a common condition, though, we know surprisingly little about what causes restless legs. Here are a few factors that may contribute:
- Genetics – Research has identified some genes linked to restless legs syndrome, suggesting a hereditary element.
- Dopamine – This neurotransmitter helps to control muscle and nerve movement. We know that low dopamine can cause spasms and involuntary movements, and that dopamine is naturally lower at night, leading researchers to theorize that low dopamine plays a role in the nocturnal symptoms of restless legs.
- Iron deficiency – Low blood iron levels can lead to lower dopamine levels.
- Pregnancy – Restless legs syndrome affects 20% of pregnant women, most likely due to hormonal changes. It usually disappears within four weeks of giving birth.
- Chronic health conditions – Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disease, kidney disease, diabetes, and obesity are all connected to restless legs.
- Medications – While they may not cause restless legs, some medications can make symptoms worse. These include some antidepressants, antipsychotics, antihistamines, anti-epileptics, lithium, beta-blockers, and dopamine blockers.
- Dietary habits – Excessive caffeine and alcohol consumption can both make restless legs worse.
Can magnesium help with restless legs?
In some cases, magnesium does seem to help people who suffer from restless legs syndrome, both directly and indirectly.
Directly, magnesium may help because of its relationship with calcium and its joint role in muscle movement. Your muscle movements are controlled by impulses from your nerves. Calcium helps to trigger these impulses, sending an electrical signal to the muscle to make it contract. Magnesium is a calcium blocker, so it acts against calcium to allow the muscle to relax. If you don’t have enough magnesium, it stands to reason that this communication process will be disrupted. There’s nothing to counter those nerve impulses so the muscle may not be able to properly relax, leading to involuntary movements and uncomfortable sensations.
Indirectly, magnesium may help restless legs by addressing some of the problems associated with the condition.
You need iron to make hemoglobin, a molecule in your blood that transports oxygen around your body. If you don’t get enough, you can develop a condition called iron deficiency anemia, a potential cause of restless legs. Magnesium can help by reducing your risk of anemia and ensuring that your muscles are properly oxygenated. Even better, malic acid improves the absorption of iron from the diet, and you can take it alongside magnesium by choosing a magnesium malate supplement.
Diabetes is thought to contribute to restless legs syndrome because uncontrolled high blood sugar damages peripheral nerves (those in your limbs and extremities), causing pain and uncomfortable sensations. Magnesium may help in two ways: first, by relieving nerve pain and supporting healthy nerve function, and second, by supporting blood sugar regulation.
There is a wealth of evidence that magnesium deficiency can increase the risk of developing diabetes. In turn, diabetes can make magnesium deficiency worse by increasing the amount of magnesium lost via the urine. Magnesium supplementation may help to break this cycle by making it easier to control blood sugar and restoring insulin sensitivity (as shown here, here, here, here, and here). As a result, magnesium may reduce the risk of diabetes and its many complications, one of which is peripheral nerve damage.
This is a side effect of restless legs syndrome, rather than a cause. But we mention sleep because it’s one of the most debilitating aspects of this condition, and it happens to be one of magnesium’s biggest benefits. We’ve written an entire article about the many ways magnesium supports quality sleep, so check it out if restless legs have been keeping you up at night.
Learn more about magnesium for sleep.
Which magnesium supplement is best for restless legs?
There are many different types of magnesium supplements, but when it comes to restless legs, we recommend magnesium malate and magnesium glycinate. Both are known to be particularly good for muscle health and function and are often used by people suffering from painful muscle conditions. Magnesium glycinate is especially helpful for regulating blood sugar and promoting quality sleep, while magnesium malate is of course great for those at risk of iron deficiency (e.g. vegetarians, and vegans).
How much magnesium should I take for restless legs?
The recommended magnesium dosage and intake vary depending on your age and sex. The table below shows the adequate intake (AI) and recommended dietary allowance (RDA) from the National Institute of Health:
|Birth to 6 months||30 mg*||30 mg*|
|7–12 months||75 mg*||75 mg*|
|1–3 years||80 mg||80 mg|
|4–8 years||130 mg||130 mg|
|9–13 years||240 mg||240 mg|
|14–18 years||410 mg||360 mg|
|19–30 years||400 mg||310 mg|
|31–50 years||420 mg||320 mg|
|51+ years||420 mg||320 mg|
*Adequate Intake (AI)
Anything else I should know?
There are a few things to keep in mind when taking magnesium supplements for restless legs syndrome. First, stick to the recommended dosage on your supplement label. Taking a little more than recommended is unlikely to be dangerous for an otherwise healthy person, but it can increase your risk of digestive side effects like nausea, stomach cramps, and diarrhea.
Second, be aware that magnesium supplements can interact with lots of different medications, including some that you might be taking to help your restless legs syndrome. If you currently take any meds for any reason, check with your doctor for advice on how to take magnesium safely alongside them.
Third, if you’re taking iron supplements, it’s best not to take them at the same time of day as magnesium supplements as they can interact with each other and reduce absorption. For best results, leave at least three or four hours between them.
Finally, magnesium supplements are generally considered safe, and sometimes even necessary, for pregnant women. However, if you’re pregnant and thinking of using magnesium to help with restless legs, run it by your doctor or midwife first to be on the safe side!