Legs causing fraught sleep? It’s true for many women

Restless legs syndrome, which unevenly afflicts women, is a significant issue that can stand in the way of quality sleep.

Media Contact: Barbara Clements, 253-740-5043, bac60@uw.edu

Saturday Sept. 23 marks Restless Legs Awareness Day. The syndrome is a significant reason why women generally experience more sleep problems throughout life than do men, according to UW Medicine sleep expert Dr. Martha “Molly” Billings

“I think women have probably at least 30% more sleep problems than men on average,” said Billings, a physician at the Sleep Medicine Center at Harborview.  

A 2005 JAMA Internal Medicine general population study found the prevalence of restless legs syndrome, or RLS, to be approximately twice as high in women than in men. RLS affects 5% to 10% of U.S. adults, according to the National Institutes of Health

“It’s a disorder related to iron stores, so having menses or having kids where they take your iron stores, that leads to low iron,” said Billings. “That can lead to the urge to move your legs or kicking at night when you're unaware, and that can really disrupt sleep.” 

Billings says many women also feel the effect of hormonal changes on their quality of sleep during specific times throughout life, including pregnancy and menopause. 

For those considering treatment, she encourages anyone to seek medical help for their sleep if they have continuous issues nightly for weeks on end. These can include trouble staying asleep, falling asleep, or waking up too early. 

“Having insomnia is normal from time to time. I think you should get evaluated for a possible sleep disorder or get help with your insomnia if it's persistent,” said Billings. “I think it's important to have a holistic approach to treating the patient and incorporate what's going on in their home environment, in their neighborhood, to make sure that they can improve their sleep.” 

Learn more about symptoms and treatment for restless legs syndrome, and about Sleep Medicine at UW Medicine

Download broadcast-ready soundbites featuring Billings on sleep struggles women commonly face. 

UW Medicine