I've recently been suffering from restless leg syndrome and I can't tell you how annoying it is! My heart goes out to those who suffer this for many years. As with anything that happens to me, I turn to herbs, and I have found some very effective solutions and wisdom I'd like to share.
Restless leg syndrome, and many muscle spasms for that matter, is often due to liver wind (a metaphorical term from Chinese medicine). The "wind" we are referring to here does not mean the wind that knocks trees over, though it does share some characteristics with that type of wind. Almost no name in Chinese medicine is arbitrary, many of which create metaphorical imagery to help us understand the body in more poetic terms.
The liver controls "the sinews" which refers to the tendons, ligaments and to some extent, the muscles and nerves. That means that those tissues rely on nourishment from the liver to remain healthy. This makes a lot of sense from a western context, as glycogen is stored in the liver and transported to tissues as needed. If the tissues do not receive proper nourishment, they will ache and be prone to injury.
What causes this wind, you say? Liver blood deficiency is the most common cause of liver wind. (yes, another Chinese medicine term). Some key symptoms of liver blood deficiency are dizziness, exhaustion, muscle cramps and numbness, paleness, dry brittle hair and nails, seeing black floaters in the vision, blurred vision (the liver also effect the eyes), dull headaches and difficulty going to sleep with excessive dreaming (a terrible combo with restless leg!). I have also found that people who menstruate who have defieicnt liver blood break out around the corners of their mouth at certain times of the month. The last thing I'll say about liver blood, is that it is most often caused by a weak spleen (because the liver may store blood but the spleen makes it). I am not discussing the spleen in this article, because we would be here all day with all the opinions I have on that, just rest assured that the rabbit hole always goes deeper, but you should find something useful in the confines of this article.
I read in a big fat textbook that I can't be bothered to sift through for a citation that "to tonify blood is to extinguish wind". You can imagine that lack of blood leaving a void in the areas that blood normally fills (use your imagination here and let go of the literal for a moment). That void is much like a desert in that just a gust of wind can turn into a great dust devil, tornado, or even a sandstorm due to lack of proper nourishment (trees and water). Deficient liver yin and extreme heat can also cause liver wind, but those are outside the scope of this article and I'll leave you to do your own research there.
Knowing what we now know about the liver controlling the sinews, and wind as something that is drummed up by a lack of blood or yin, it is natural that "liver wind" would result in twitching, spasms, convulsions, vertigo, dizziness and numbness Just like a grocery bag flapping on rock at the beach, so too do your muscles flap when wind is stirred.
Now what are we to do about this? The first category of herbs is to extinguish liver wind. This group acts immediately to stop spasms. The second category of herbs we'll look at is herbs that tonify (increase) liver blood. NOTE: Whenever you take an herb, it is YOUR responsibility to do your research about herb drug interactions, cautions and contraindications. ALWAYS check more than one source (ideally, three sources). Better safe than sorry.
Herbs that extinguish liver wind
- Black Cohosh root: Black cohosh root is perhaps the most suited to this use because of its history treating muscular spasm, and muscle and nerve disorders.
- Cramp Bark: Cramp bark is an antispasmodic with an affinity (meaning it focuses on that area) for the pelvic region and legs.
- Lavender: lavender's action is rather mild, but would be a good herb to include in a before bed tea blend.
- Skullcap: Skullcap is a great match if you also have trouble sleeping or with anxiety, as it is a mild sedative. most herbalists recommend a tincture of fresh aerial parts (so not in a tea blend)
- Jamaican Dogwood bark: Jamaican dogwood bark is also used as a strong sedative herb for pain such as migraines and menstrual cramps. I don't have a lot of experience with this herb as of yet, but I included it on here as an option for your exploration.
- Lobelia: This is a low dose mildly toxic herb that will make you vomit in overly large doses. However, it's an excellent and strong antispasmodic, and is recommended in more extreme cases. If you try it, do not exceed 10 drops per dose.
Herbs that build liver blood:
These are building herbs and should be given at least 3 months, if not 6 or more to be effective.
- White peony root: white peony root is the most suited to restless leg because it both tonifies liver blood AND calms liver wind. A study cited in Chinese Medical Herbology and Pharmacology (Chen and Chen) says that a decoction of white peony and licorice root (15g each, given twice daily) and was effective in 100% of the 54 patients. That's a CRAZY result for a study, and is certainly worth your time to check out.
- Chinese angelica: Chinese angelica is a nice choice because it tonifies liver blood but also moves blood (some people have blood stagnation), AND it tonifies the spleen (the most common cause of liver blood). This herb is very warming and stimulating and may be too stimulating for some people, which is why I listed white peony first as a specific. However, they are often paired and I think they balance each other nicely. Tincture is okay, but for blood building purposes the decoction is the most ideal.
- Nettle leaf: I have not personally used nettle for my restless leg, though I include it here because not everyone has access to Chinese herbs, and nettle is very easy to find and is also a liver blood tonic. I have had clients report to me that they used nettle for blood deficiency related menstrual symptoms with success. It would be best used as a daily hot infusion here.
Foods that build blood
- all meat and fish, but especially organ meats and bone marrow
- liver pate
- goji berries
My restless leg tincture formula
1 part black cohosh root tincture
1 part white peony tincture
1 part cramp bark tincture
Take 60 drops three times a day, especially before bed.