I used to laugh at Restless Leg Syndrome commercials. I thought it was a “disorder” that drug companies invented. I was at a party once and those commercials came up and I unknowingly cracked a joke to a lady and she said, “I have that, it’s very painful.” Next, a neighbor told me that her six year old son had it. Since then, I’ve found more and more people with this very real affliction. Then, I realized it was affecting me — indirectly.
After my son was born, like all babies, he woke up every couple of hours throughout the night to nurse. But, as he started getting older, he didn’t stop. Some nights were non-stop. It was exhausting. We tried bed-time routines, going to bed earlier, going to bed later. Nothing worked, we dreaded bedtime. When I’d tell people in social circles that he wasn’t sleeping through the night when he was 9 months old, their jaws would drop and gasp, “He should be sleeping through by now!” I’d get defensive because this almost inevitably led to the “let him cry it out” conversation, which I do not believe in. There had to be a reason why he was crying and I needed to help him by comforting him and also finding out what he needed. He continued to sleep in a co-sleeper next to our bed because because it was the only way I could get at least a little rest. Being up all night and being a walking zombie all day became a way of life. I had heard and hoped that he would outgrow it by the time he turned 2.
Aside from the sleeping. I’m constantly interviewing respected friends about different natural approaches to caring for their babies and children. I became interested in what friends were giving their children as far as supplements. One friend told me that in addition to an organic multivitamin, she gave her son iron. I asked why. She explained that he had low ferritin serum levels and that at bed-time he had been refusing to go to sleep and would run in circles. “Wait a minute…” I asked, “what’s ferritin?” She went on to explain that this was the body’s stored iron. The bedtime situation sounded too familiar. At that point, I began researching ferritin serum and landed on an article in Wikipedia and read through it. I read that low ferritin could cause Restless Leg Syndrome and a number of other undesirable effects. I quickly dismissed the RLS part since it didn’t occur to me that my son was actually showing RLS symptoms and continued reading.
Low Ferritin Serum
If the ferritin level is low, there is a risk for lack of iron, which could lead to anemia. Low ferritin levels (<50 ng/mL) have however been associated with the symptoms of restless legs syndrome, even in the absence of anemia and sickness.
In the setting of anemia, serum ferritin is the most sensitive lab test for iron deficiency anemia.
Low ferritin may also indicate hypothyroidism or vitamin C deficiency.
In a certain study in Paris, France, the level of iron in the blood (measured by ordering a ferritin serum test) has been connected to ADHD in children. Specifically, the lower the iron level, the more severe the ADHD symptoms.
A few days later, while I was lying in my bed trying to fall asleep, I started putting things together;
- He’s was running around at bed-time
- He was rubbing his legs with his fingers from ankle to thigh
- He was kicking while he nursed before bed
- In the middle of the night he was bucking and travelling around the bed
OH MY GOODNESS. It’s his legs. His legs must hurt.
Then, I remembered my neighbor’s six year old son and how he had RLS.
My mind was spinning. At this point, he was he was not quite 18 months old — too young to say, “mama” let alone tell me that something hurt. I called the doctors office and made an appointment for a Ferritin Serum test. When he was a year old, he passed his regular iron heel prick test with flying colors but the Ferritin Serum or ‘stored iron’ is different and you can have a healthy iron reading but still have a low ferritin reading.
I asked my husband to join us at the pediatrician appointment, knowing it could be traumatic. Thank goodness he was there. At the time, my son was probably more active then than he is now. So, they suggested a we “papoose him” for the blood draw. Which meant “tethering” him to a board so he couldn’t interfere with the draw. Although it seemed unnatural, I agreed, because i didn’t want him to flail his extremities and get injured by the needle. As we got him onto the board, he probably started feeling claustrophobic and wondered what on earth we were doing to him. He starting crying so hard that his face was turned purple. We talked to him and sang him the “Itsy Bitsy Spider” twice and then it was over and he was fine.
A few days later, I received a phone call from the nurse at his peditrician’s office. His ferritin serum level was at 15ng/mL. They want it above 35ng/mL and ideally, 50ng/mL. They suggested iron pills.
When I hung up the phone, I felt validated. I felt that I had known that something was not right. I’d finally found it. I called a good friend and as I started telling her and just broke down crying because I was replaying moments in my head that it was so pronounced. For example, his first birthday party when he was so tired from being up kicking all night the night before so he was too fatiqued to hold it together to open his presents and had to go upstairs and relax (or hopefully sleep). I also felt relieved that I hadn’t let him cry it out in his crib alone and in pain.
At least we could get on with treating this thing. My goal is to treat his Restless Leg Syndrome naturally, which sounds easy enough, but it’s another long story that I will reserve for Part 2 of my series – Medication, Natural Remedies and Pitfalls.