Due to its peculiar nocturnal onset, Restless Legs Syndrome (RLS) is a great destroyer of sleep. Often associated with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or other dysbiosis, the incidence of RLS seems on the rise. Think ‘fidget spinners’.
Neither conventional or natural medicine have advanced any cause or cure. This, from the Mayo Clinic: “There’s no cure for Restless Legs Syndrome, a poorly understood neurologic disorder…”1. Or, Dr. Andrew Weil, MD: “There is no known cause for RLS, although some researchers believe it may involve an imbalance in brain chemicals.”2. Some medicaments, supplements or therapies give occasional or partial relief. Symptom relapse is the norm.
In 1988, DeLamar Gibbons, MD, once medical editor of the Saturday Evening Post, published “The Self-Help Way to Treat Colitis and Other I.B.S. Conditions”3. As a segue, Gibbons advanced his firm opinion that RLS was caused by eating fruit. His clinical observation was that when patients avoided eating fruit their symptoms abated. If they resumed fruit eating the symptoms promptly re-occurred. Gibbons thought that RLS was immediately caused by an inability to ‘split’ disaccharides. As it turns out, Dr. Gibbons might have been right and he was certainly right about the fruit. Some plants propagate by growing hard shelled seeds that resist digestion. They were designed to be eaten by say, a rabbit which would later, at a distance poop out the protected seed. Other plants produce ‘naked’ seeds intended to be deposited near the mother plant. These plants do not want their seeds to be eaten or carried away by plants or humans. To dissuade predators from eating these fruits such plants produce protective chemicals. If a bunny eats such an apparently succulent plant, it quickly learns that these toxins make it unwell. Humans, with a longer digestive tract and complex diets don’t get it.
The most toxic protective plant chemicals are lectins. There are a great number of these and they occur in abundance in seeds and fruits. Lectins are neurotoxins. They are insecticides. To a degree not seen heretofore humans now consume large volumes of diverse lectin containing foods – tomato, pumpkin, peas, berries, cucumbers, barley etc.
In the human gut lectins bind to sugars embedded in cell walls. In so doing lectins disrupt cell function and communication. The integrity of the nervous system is jeopardized. Symptoms are elicited. Like those of RLS. To illustrate, one drug medication known to alleviate some RLS symptoms is levadopa4. This, on account of the observation that dopaminergic function is impaired with RLS. Levadopa has limited benefit and a problem side-effect profile.
What’s the connection with lectins? Dietary lectins are known to be transported out of the gut, to target dopamine transmission in neurons. Lectins as neurotoxins.
The most puzzling thing about RLS is its diurnal expression at night. What exactly, induces this? The working assumption is that this is due to something about the tides of human chemistry. Maybe not. Lectin toxins are genetically encoded to be more potent or virulent at certain times of the day – like when it is most likely a predator bunny might be about. At night time. The diurnal capability is built into the lectins as part of the plant defense. Humans who eat a lot of lectin rich foods have the stuff continually moving through their digestive tracts. They may be days in transit.
How do the consumed lectins ‘know’ what time of day it is? It is the proximate gut bacteria that deliver the onsite circadian information. The microbiome engine is regulated by the amount and rhythms of blue light (or near UBV) registering on the skin and through the eyes. “The microbiome on the surface layer of the gut undergoes rhythmical changes in its biogeographical localization throughout the day and night; thus, the surface cells are exposed to different numbers and different species of bacteria over the course of a day. This tango between the two partners adds mechanistic insight into this relationship”6.
Yet, RLS often expresses in the daytime. What could account for this? The plain fact that most humans live and work indoors or behind glass that naturally filters out blue, UBV light. The body doesn’t get the regulating influence. The microbiome reads ‘night’. All the time. What can be done? The deleterious effects of dietary lectins have and are attracting the attention of some very bright clinicians and scientists. Leading this emerging field is Steven Gundry, MD with his recently published The Plant Paradox7. Gundry lays out the protocols of lectin-free diets which are practical and doable. There also are a number of dietary supplements that can block consumed lectins from having their effects. Chief among these is N-Acetyl Glucosamine (NAG) which not exactly the same as regular glucosamine. NAG prevents the main wheat lectins – wheat germ agglutinin – from taking hold.
D-Mannose, commonly used for urinary tract infections, attracts and binds lectins. Commercial products like Lectin Lock, Ultimate Lectin Defense or Lectin Shield group together the main anti-lectin ingredients8. Restless Legs Syndrome is so unpleasant and persistent that a decent trial of an anti-lectin diet is worthwhile. The amount of trouble a person has to go to for this is small measured against the hardship RLS imposes. Plus, there isn’t anything else.