What Restless Legs Could Mean to Your Health

Suffering from restless leg syndrome (RLS)? You may have more serious problems than a case of the jimmy legs, finds research from Harvard Medical School.

The frustrating lower body sensation—described in the research as “burning, creeping, tugging, or like insects crawling inside the legs”—affects 5 to 10 percent of adults. And now, an analysis of more than 18,000 men linked RLS with a 39-percent spike in mortality risk. (The results held even when taking obesity, heart disease, cancer, and other common life-shorteners into account.)

It may be a sleep issue, says study coauthor Xiang Gao, M.D., Ph.D., an epidemiologist at Harvard. Roughly 80 percent of RLS sufferers deal with periodic limb movements of sleep (PLMS)—an involuntary kick that disrupts your shuteye even after you nod off. And dozens of studies have tied poor sleep quality to a shorter life, Gao explains. Elevated nighttime blood pressure—the result of leg movements and PLMS—may also be a factor, Gao says. (Nighttime hypertension has been shown to boost your coronary heart disease risk by 70 percent, the Harvard research explains.)

How can you protect yourself? Studies have associated obesity and low iron levels with higher RLS rates, Gao says. So losing weight through exercise and keeping a healthy diet with plenty of iron-rich foods (spinach or oysters are two good options) could help you live longer without kicking, the research suggests. You could also take matters into your own hands: One 2011 case study found masturbation is an effective remedy for RLS-related sleep problems.