If you have restless legs syndrome, commonly known as the heebie-jeebies, you could have low iron reserves. It’s a complex area, with many other factors involved, but given that nearly one in four women and almost one in two teenage girls have a worryingly low iron intake, it’s the first thing to check.
People with iron deficiency anaemia are nine times more likely to experience restless legs than those without.
Your haemoglobin level doesn’t need to be low enough to cause overt iron-deficiency anaemia, however. You could have an acceptable haemoglobin level, but low available iron stores, which is detected by measuring levels of an iron-binding protein called ferritin.
Even so, only around 15% of people with restless legs syndrome have a blood ferritin level that is low enough to confirm a peripheral iron deficiency. This led scientists to wonder if it were possible to have a central, rather than a peripheral iron deficiency, which just affected the brain.
Analysis of cerebrospinal fluid supported the idea of a central iron deficiency in people with restless legs, despite normal levels of ferritin and iron within the general circulation. This was further supported by brain imaging scans which suggested that people with restless legs had lower than normal levels of iron within the basal ganglia – parts of the brain associated with the initiation and control of movement.
If you experience restless legs, your doctor is likely to assess your haemoglobin and ferritin levels. If these are low, increasing your dietary intake of iron and/or taking an iron supplement (as described here) will solve the problem.
Not everyone with restless legs has iron deficiency, in which case other nutritional and lifestyle approaches can usually help, as can some herbal remedies as described here.