Restless Legs

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Giraffe: copyright Micha Fleuren, Dreamstimers Stock images

Some people get restless legs all day, others just in the evenings, and for some it prevents them from sleeping. I've heard of all sorts of solutions, including putting corks in the bed near your feet (also said to help foot cramps at night).

In Chinese medicine I've come across several syndromes that include twitchy legs in their picture and which, if correctly diagnosed and treated, often benefit from acupuncture.

The way I understand the condition from the Chinese perspective is this. If Qi and Blood were reaching your legs and feet smoothly you wouldn't have a problem.

Since you do have a problem, the Chinese reasoning goes, either Qi or Blood isn't getting there as needed. Taking an analogy, it's rather like what happens when your car runs short of fuel and the engine starts missing. Power goes, then suddenly as the fuel pump finds a bit more fuel and shunts it through, the engine picks up again for a quick spurt before failing again.

Another way of considering the analogy is that the fuel pipe from tank to engine gets a kink in it, blocking the smooth flow of fuel. This kink can occur for a variety of reasons.

From the Western perspective restless legs occur because nerves twitch. They twitch mostly because of lack of Iron although there are many other possibilities: varicose vein or venous reflux, folate deficiencymagnesium deficiencyfibromyalgiasleep apneauremiadiabetesthyroid diseaseperipheral neuropathyParkinson's disease and POTS and certain auto-immune disorders such as Sjögren's syndromeceliac disease, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Some Restless Legs Syndromes are similar to these Western suggestions

Chinese medicine has been in constant development for probably 3000 years so they've had plenty of time to think about it, and an awful lot of Chinese probably suffering from the condition! Their problem was that they lacked our understanding of the nervous system, so they had to explain it another way.

In Terms of Yin and Yang

If your legs are resting quietly, warm and comfortable, then while yin and yang are balanced, yang is slightly less active.

When your restless legs leap into action, you can see it as yang escaping or as yin being unable to restrain it. Because there are few other signs of excess yang (heat, redness, irascibility etc.) the condition is seen as deficient yin, hence the above analogy with fuel reaching the engine.

Another possibility is obstruction caused by Heat or Damp, the first being excess Yang, the second excess Yin.

Why is the condition improved by movement?

Caterpillar: copyright John Neely, Dreamstimers Stock images

Usually the condition occurs after a period of rest, either sitting or lying in bed. The condition forces movement. If you get up and walk around or shake your legs, the condition is ameliorated though not cured. You have to keep moving or it returns. Of course, if you are trying to get to sleep this is a disaster!

In Chinese medicine, the movement you make - walking around and shaking your legs - is Yang and as Qi is Yang's manifestation in the body, as Yang increases, Qi leads Blood (Yin) along the channels (meridians of acupuncture). As it passes along the channels, it nourishes the tissues and stops miscreant Yang escaping and giving restless legs.

If that explanation seems bizarre - or a bit difficult to comprehend at first exposure - think of it as a restless child's father taking the child for a walk, so occupying the child's mind and relieving its tensions, at the same time as forcing oxygen (from the exercise) into the child's lungs, and so improving its blood, helping the child to relax.

Once the child is relaxed it may go to sleep more easily.

Is it a lack of Yin or of Blood?

This depends on the other symptoms. If you look at the list of conditions proposed in Western medicine:

  • varicose vein or venous reflux: probably Spleen deficiency, with Blood stasis obstructing the channels
  • folate deficiency: Blood deficiency
  • magnesium deficiency: Blood deficiency
  • fibromyalgia: there are a number of possible syndromes, including Damp and Blood deficiency
  • sleep apnea
  • uremia: many possibilities including the effects of Damp-Heat
  • diabetes: various possibilities including Spleen deficiency, deficiency Heat injuring Yin, Kidney Yang deficiency, etc
  • thyroid disease: hyperthyroidism is usually considered to be due to a combination of Liver Qi stagnation producing Fire which depletes Yin.
  • peripheral neuropathy: Blood deficiency as root
  • Parkinson's disease: Blood deficiency leading to the appearance of Internal Wind
  • POTS and certain auto-immune disorders such as Sjögren's syndrome
  • celiac disease: Heat in Intestines, for example
  • rheumatoid arthritis: obstruction from one or more of Wind, Cold, Damp, Heat, leading to - for example - Kidney and Spleen deficiency

Overall, restless legs occurs mainly from Yin or Blood deficiency of one kind or another.

This lack of Yin-type energy means that Yang energy is un-restrained and because the channels (meridians) affected are those to do with Blood and the manufacture of Blood, eg the Stomach channel, it is often the Yang channels in the legs that give restless legs.

So ... What to do for Restless Legs?

From the above you'll understand that this supposedly simple though tiresome condition is anything but simple - even in Chinese medicine!

From my own experience, the following syndromes often explain it:

Heat in the Intestines: this blocks the flow of Qi and Blood along the channels: usually the Stomach channel, but can be others. I notice this in myself in the evenings when I am tired and may have eaten something (usually containing gluten, or yeast - including alcohol, or something too sweet). I don't have gluten sensitivity usually. This approaches Stomach Yin deficiency, see below.

If you think this is your problem-syndrome, then avoid the foods that, from your experience, cause it. Simple! But you could also consider treatment to improve your health so that you suffer less from this syndrome. Acupuncture might help.

Blood Deficiency: this mainly affects one of the Extraordinary Meridians called Chong Mo or the Penetrating Vessel. As a result you get abdominal distension, restless legs, the tendency to be worried or anxious, and if you are female to have menses at irregular times - and your periods may be scanty. You probably look pale and your tongue will be pale. 

If this is the syndrome that affects you, then what and how you eat will be important. Read our pages on Nutrition and on Supplements. However, this probably won't be enough: treatment with acupuncture to balance your Chong Mo vessel might make a huge difference.

Liver and Kidney Yin deficiency: this comes about over time so usually affects older people more than younger people unless the younger person has been through great tribulations. (Tribulations? Such as huge amounts of work without time to relax, endless worries and/or fevers and chronic disease.)

This syndrome takes time to develop and isn't usually cured quickly. Accept that you may need quite a few treatments. Start soon, however, because as you grow older your body's ability to repair this syndrome becomes less effective. A good acupuncturist will be able to suggest both foods and exercise to help, and to explain what not to do, although if you read the linked page, including my page on Yin deficiency and Yin Deficiency Causes you'll get a pretty good idea.

Paddling-in-trousers Dreamtimers Stock images id180404-copyright Marilyn Barbone

Doesn't the image on the right look good - especially if you have hot, restless legs! (It's 'Paddling-in-trousers' Copyright Marilyn Barbone from Dreamtimers Stock Images.)

Stomach Yin deficiency: this syndrome means you lack the wherewithal in your digestion to digest food: either you don't feel hungry or thirsty or, even if you do feel even slightly hungry, you become uncomfortable and full if you eat or drink too much.

You are often constipated and may have what you are told is too much stomach acid.

What to do about Stomach Yin Deficiency? Read the link above and you'll begin to understand the underlying causes of this, and what to do about it.

I doubt if your body will be able, on its own, to repair this syndrome, unless you happen to be able to live the ideal desert-island life, so treatment with acupuncture and Chinese medicine is advisable.

Return from Restless Legs to our page on Insomnia or read about other possible causes of insomnia in Chinese medicine, such as:

  • Calf Cramps 
  • Difficulty falling asleep 
  • Restlessness 
  • Restless legs - this page
  • Excessive dreaming prevents restful sleep
  • Snoring 
  • Keep Waking Up
  • Sleep Apnea: this is when you stop breathing during sleep

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