Can Alcohol Cause Restless Leg Syndrome?

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Restless leg syndrome is a not well-known disorder that impacts approximately 7-10% of the US population. Symptoms of this disorder include a strong desire to move or kick one’s legs while lying down during sleep. A person with RLS may also experience pain, throbbing, aching, itching, or crawling sensations in the legs.

RLS starts to occur in the late afternoon and evening. It appears when a person is lying down during sleep. The severity of sensations ranges from mild to severe. Additionally, symptoms occur in the legs. However, other body parts may experience these sensations too.

Does alcohol cause restless leg syndrome? Most likely, no; however, alcohol worsens this medical condition and may also impact sleep. Let’s understand more about restless leg syndrome and how alcohol may impair this disorder.

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What Is Restless Leg Syndrome (RLS)?

Restless leg syndrome is a mystery to many medical experts. It is a neurological disorder that impacts people primarily at night and mostly when a person is in bed attempting to sleep. You may wonder what causes a person to become diagnosed with RLS. It is believed to have a genetic component, typically seen in families, and occurs around age 40. RLS is linked with dopamine dysfunction, a neurotransmitter related to Parkinson’s disease.

Common Medical Conditions Associated with RLS: 

  • End-stage renal disease.
  • Iron deficiency.
  • Medication side-effects.
  • Use of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine.
  • Pregnancy-usually last trimester.
  • Neuropathy.

Because there is no specific test to diagnose restless leg syndrome, a doctor will gather information on particular symptoms. Here are the five main criteria a medical professional will look for in diagnosing and treating restless leg syndrome.

Restless Leg Syndrome Diagnosis Criteria: 

  • A strong urge to move legs with an uncomfortable sensation.
  • The desire to move legs gets worse during rest.
  • The urge to move is partially relieved after movement has occurred.
  • The urge to move legs is aggravated at night.
  • There is no other condition attributed to these symptoms.

Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome

As mentioned, restless leg syndrome comprises an intense desire to move legs and uncomfortable physical sensations. This all occurs primarily at night when attempting to sleep. Here are the symptoms associated with RLS.

Common Symptoms of Restless Leg Syndrome:

  • Sensations in the legs consist of tingling, burning, itching, or throbbing.
  • Creepy crawly feeling.
  • Feeling like “fizzy water” is in blood vessels.
  • Painful cramping sensation in legs.
  • Symptoms can range from mild to severe.
  • It can occur periodically or daily.
  • Sitting on a train or plane may trigger uncomfortable sensations.

More than 80% of people diagnosed with RLS also have periodic limb movements (PLM).

With PLM, people will jerk or twitch their legs uncontrollably at night during sleep. The movements are brief and repetitive and occur every 20 to 40 seconds. It can happen when awake and resting.

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Can Alcohol Worsen Restless Leg Syndrome?

There is little research to indicate whether alcohol negatively impacts restless leg syndrome. However, anecdotally, people report that their symptoms worsen when alcohol is consumed and they are diagnosed with RLS. It is not surprising that alcohol may exacerbate these symptoms because we know how alcohol impacts the brain, which is a common reason why people experience RLS. Additionally, alcohol affects a person’s sleep which can also trigger symptoms.

It is understood that restless leg syndrome occurs because of an impairment of dopamine. Research has indicated how alcohol impacts dopamine in the brain. Perhaps this is why a person’s symptoms may worsen when alcohol is consumed, as it triggers dopamine production, which affects a person’s mood and physical symptoms of RLS.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Unfortunately, a person detoxifying from alcohol can also experience increased symptoms associated with restless leg syndrome. Research indicates that 22% of people who had alcohol use disorder experienced intensified symptoms of RLS during detox. This is concerning as sleep disruption, and uncomfortable physical sensations may be significant indicators for people to relapse, as many people may use alcohol to sleep and numb pain for discomfort.

Alcohol’s Impact on Sleep

As discussed in previous articles, alcohol can have a long-term adverse effect on a person’s sleep. Alcohol has been known to impact a person’s health over time. It also impairs sleep as it can contribute to disorders such as sleep apnea and insomnia. Approximately 2-4% of Americans suffer from obstructive sleep apnea. It has been found that excessive alcohol use can lead to sleep apnea as alcohol not only increases snoring but narrows the air passageway leading to apnea. Alcohol, sleep apnea and snoring increase a person’s risk for stroke, heart attack, or sudden death.

Alcohol and insomnia are frequently linked. It is estimated that 36-91% of people with alcohol dependence also have insomnia. So how does alcohol cause insomnia? Alcohol increases the quantity of non-REM sleep during the night’s first half but then decreases REM sleep in the second half. When alcohol is metabolized in the body, it often causes frequent wakings and fragmented sleep.

Unfortunately, sleep disturbances are prevalent for people in the very beginning stages of alcohol treatment and can last for many months after alcohol consumption has stopped. In a study, 58% of a sample of 40 alcoholic men during the first 6 days of alcohol withdrawal. Three-quarters of 82 inpatients reported sleep disturbances after detoxification, and one-third of 294 patients reported sleep disturbance within the first month of treatment.

Drinking Alcohol at Night

Some people may have a drink or two at night to help them fall asleep. However, alcohol is not helpful for people to get deep or quality sleep at night. Alcohol may make a person feel tired initially, as alcohol is known to impact a person’s central nervous system. However, alcohol is also known to affect a person’s sleep cycle, preventing a person from getting into the most restful stage of sleep, REM, or rapid eye movement. Not getting a complete sleep cycle will contribute to various health problems, such as high blood pressure, depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity.

How to Relieve Restless Leg Syndrome Symptoms

Here are the following suggestions from medical experts to treat and relieve the symptoms associated with restless leg syndrome.

Lifestyle Changes to Relieve Restless Leg Syndrome:

  • Avoid caffeine.
  • Avoid alcohol.
  • Avoid tobacco.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Regular daily exercise.
  • Good sleep habits.
  • Massage legs if experiencing symptoms.
  • Take a hot bath in the evening.
  • Apply a hot compress to the legs.
  • Engage in distractions such as reading or watching TV.
  • Relaxing activities such as yoga or tai chi.
  • Walking and stretching.

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Reviewed professionally for accuracy by:

Ryan Soave


Ryan Soave brings deep experience as a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, certified trauma therapist, program developer, and research consultant for Huberman Lab at Stanford University Department of Neurobiology. Post-graduation from Wake Forest University, Ryan quickly discovered his acumen for the business world. After almost a decade of successful entrepreneurship and world traveling, he encountered a wave of personal and spiritual challenges; he felt a calling for something more. Ryan returned to school and completed his Master’s Degree in Mental Health Counseling. When he started working with those suffering from addiction and PTSD, he found his passion. He has never looked back.

Written by:

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark

Cayla Clark grew up in Santa Barbara, CA and graduated from UCLA with a degree in playwriting. Since then she has been writing on addiction recovery and psychology full-time, and has found a home as part of the Guardian Recovery team.

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