"The sleep deprivation was just becoming a slow death," says Kaiser. "It was eating away at my health, and honestly, there were times when I never thought I would make it."
Kaiser finally learned her nocturnal symptoms had a name: restless leg syndrome (RLS), a neurological disorder of the part of the nervous system that affects the legs, usually at night. For this reason, RLS is also considered a sleep disorder.
The Sleep Doctor’s Rx for Restless Leg Syndrome
The cost of sleepless nights is enormous for people with RLS, so finding relief is essential. Kaiser’s case in particular is more rare and extreme, Breus says, because of the bodywide symptoms. But although there is no cure, RLS can be mastered. Doctors still aren’t sure what causes RLS in the first place.
Go for iron. "I'd start by getting her iron levels evaluated, including ferritin, a protein that binds to iron," Breus says. "Some studies show RLS symptoms are mimicked by low ferritin. Anything lower than 60 ng/mL (nanograms/milliliter) might be making her symptoms worse. Certain brain receptors that help cells absorb iron may have gone awry, which is one cause of RLS. Boosting iron may mean less leg movement and more sleep for Kaiser."
Boost the brain.Medications (usually dopamine agonists) for RLS can be a further sleep solution for Kaiser. Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that controls body movements. If dopamine signals aren’t working properly between nerve cells, RLS can result. A dopamine agonist might get these important receptors back on track.
Get active. Even though Kaiser says exercise is hard for her now, "it’s an important part of her prescription for sleep," Breus says. "She should try to push through her fatigue, because activity will reduce her symptoms as soon as six weeks after she starts a routine and builds muscle strength."
Keep in mind. With her iron in check, the next step is "mind over muscles" when her head hits the pillow -- that is, the more engaged her mind is, the less her muscles will move. "To do that, she could try reading or working Sudoku or crossword puzzles in the evening to occupy her mind," Breus suggests. "That sort of mental focus will allow her to relax and minimize the restless feeling."