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This Sneaky Sleep Disorder Is on the Rise in Women Over 45

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The risk of periodic limb movement disorder (PLMD), a condition marked by involuntary jerking motions during sleep, triples after menopause, report researchers in Clinical Neuropharmacology. The cause of PLMD is unknown, but a postmenopausal drop in dopamine — a hormone that helps regulate muscle activity —seems to play a key role, says W. Chris Winter, MD, author of The Sleep Solution ($11.55, Amazon). “For people with PLMD, dopamine levels drop too low at night, creating restlessness and movements that disrupt sleep.”

Women are often unaware PLMD is disturbing their sleep. “When your foot moves at night, your brain is awake,” notes Dr. Winter. “Imagine getting a phone call every 15 seconds while you’re asleep — even if you don’t have to answer, it still disrupts your sleep.” And if your doctor prescribes antidepressants to treat fatigue-triggered anxiety, limb movements can increase. “Medications that target serotonin can worsen PLMD,” says sleep expert Michael Breus, PhD, since they further deplete dopamine.

A sleep study can diagnose PLMD, but Dr. Winter says a fitness tracker that monitors sleep can help. “Wear it on your non-dominant wrist for a couple of weeks, then on your ankle. The patterns you see can be a clue as to whether you’re having frequent limb movements.” Medication that activates dopamine receptors is often prescribed, but these natural strategies can also help.

Taking 220 milligrams of magnesium glycinate at night reduces PLMD episodes by 59 percent, according to a study in Sleep. Says Dr. Winter, “Magnesium facilitates the synthesis of dopamine.”

Also smart: Aim to exercise 3 times a week, a strategy that reduced limb movements by 47% and increased sleep time in a Brazilian study.

This story originally appeared in our print magazine

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