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Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment
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Original Research
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Possible association between vitamin D deficiency
and restless legs syndrome
This article was published in the following Dove Press journal:
Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment
21 May 2014
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Mustafa Oran 1
Cuneyt Unsal 2
Yakup Albayrak 2
Feti Tulubas 3
Keriman Oguz 4
Okan Avci 1
Nilda Turgut 4
Recep Alp 4
Ahmet Gurel 3
Department of Internal Medicine,
Department of Psychiatry, 3Department
of Biochemistry, 4Department of
Neurology, Namik Kemal University,
Faculty of Medicine, Tekirdag˘, Turkey
Background and aim: Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a distressing sleep disorder that
occurs worldwide. Although there have been recent developments in understanding the
­pathophysiology of RLS, the exact mechanism of the disease has not been well elucidated. An
increased prevalence of neurologic and psychiatric diseases involving dopaminergic dysfunction
in vitamin D−deficient patients led us to hypothesize that vitamin D deficiency might result in
dopaminergic dysfunction and consequently, the development of RLS (in which dopaminergic
dysfunction plays a pivotal role). Thus, the aim of this study was to evaluate the relationship
between vitamin D deficiency and RLS.
Methods: One hundred and fifty-five consecutive patients, 18–65 years of age, who were
admitted to the Department of Internal Medicine with musculoskeletal symptoms and who
subsequently underwent neurological and electromyography (EMG) examination by the same
senior neurologist, were included in this study. The patients were divided into two groups
according to serum 25-hydroxyvitamin D (25(OH)D) (a vitamin D metabolite used as a measure
of vitamin D status) level: 36 patients with serum 25(OH)D levels 20 ng/mL comprised the
normal vitamin D group, and 119 patients with serum 25(OH)D levels 20 ng/mL comprised
the vitamin D deficiency group. The two groups were compared for the presence of RLS and
associated factors.
Results: The two groups were similar in terms of mean age, sex, mean body mass index (BMI),
and serum levels of calcium, phosphate, alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and ferritin. The presence of RLS was significantly higher in the vitamin D deficiency group (χ2=12.87, P0.001).
Regression analysis showed vitamin D deficiency and serum 25(OH)D level to be significantly
associated with the presence of RLS (odds ratio [OR] 5.085, P0.001 and OR 1.047, P=0.006,
Conclusion: The present study demonstrated a possible association between vitamin D
­deficiency and RLS. Given the dopaminergic effects of vitamin D, 25(OH)D depletion may
lead to dopaminergic dysfunction and may have a place in the etiology of RLS. Prospective
vitamin D treatment studies are needed to confirm this relationship and to evaluate the efficacy
of vitamin D as a treatment for RLS patients.
Keywords: 25 hydroxyvitamin D, dopamine, dysfunction
Correspondence: Mustafa Oran
Department of Internal Medicine, School
of Medicine, Namık Kemal University,
Tunca Caddesi, Tekirdag˘ , 59100, Turkey
Tel +90 542 388 4317
Fax +90 282 250 0001
Email [email protected]
Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a distressing sleep disorder that affects many
adults.1 The major characteristic of this disease is a compelling urge to move the legs,
with an unpleasant feeling in the lower extremities. It typically starts or becomes
worse during rest periods and deteriorates during the evening and at night; the symptoms partially or totally disappear with movement.2 RLS is an important clinical
and public health problem in the Western industrialized world, affecting 4%–29%
of adults.3
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Oran et al
RLS is divided into primary and secondary forms.
­ rimary (or idiopathic) RLS lacks physiological context or
comorbidities that can be related to the patient’s symptoms.
Alternately, secondary RLS patients have comorbidities or
other recognizable causes, such as chronic renal failure,
medications, or iron deficiency.4 While the ­pathophysiology
of RLS has not yet been fully elucidated, brain iron deficiency and dopaminergic dysfunction have long been
regarded as the key culprits.5 The successful results of
dopamine agonist use in RLS treatment supports the dopaminergic dysfunction hypothesis in RLS.6,7 Furthermore,
brain iron deficiency has been shown to be associated
with dopaminergic dysfunction,8 and it has been suggested
that dopaminergic dysfunction is a consequence of iron
­deficiency in RLS.9
Vitamin D is synthesized photochemically in human
epithelial cells and acquired from dietary sources. The classical effects of vitamin D include the regulation of calcium
and phosphorus homeostasis and bone metabolism. Recently,
nonclassical effects of vitamin D have gained renewed attention. One of the important functions of this vitamin is the
regulation of nervous system development and function.
It has been suggested that vitamin D deficiency might lead
to an increased risk of central nervous system disease, such
as schizophrenia and multiple sclerosis.10 It has been shown
that low doses of 1 alpha, 25 dihydroxy­v itamin D 3 (1,25-(OH)2D3) (the hormonally active form of vitamin D)
are able to protect the mesencephalic dopaminergic ­neurons
against toxins that cause a decrease in glutathione content.11 Decreased glutathione content has been shown to cause
selective dopaminergic neuron death.12
Although a large number of studies have investigated the
role of vitamin D in neurological disorders, data regarding
the relationship between vitamin D and RLS are scarce. In
the present study, we aimed to investigate the relationship
between vitamin D and RLS by evaluating RLS and symptom
severity in patients with and without normal 25-hydroxy­
vitamin D (25(OH)D) (a vitamin D metabolite used as a
measure of vitamin D status) levels.
Patients and methods
The study was conducted from September 2013 to January
2014 at the Internal Medicine and Neurology Clinics of the
Namik Kemal University Medical Faculty. Two hundred
and forty-three consecutive patients 18–65 years of age
who were admitted to the Department of Internal Medicine
with musculoskeletal symptoms were included. Patients
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were excluded if they had abnormal complete blood
biochemistry results; abnormal thyroid hormone, sedimentation, vitamin B12, or ferritin levels; a familial history of
RLS or known causes of secondary RLS; osteoporosis or
systemic ­inflammatory and connective tissue disease; consumed alcohol excessively (40 g/day) or smoked; diabetes,
renal failure, or chronic hepatic failure; or medical treatment with corticosteroids, calcitonin, estrogen, calcium,
bisphosphonates, or vitamin D. According to the exclusion
criteria, 68 patients were excluded from the study, and
175 patients were included and referred to the neurology
clinics at the same center. All of the subjects underwent
neurological examination. Nerve conduction studies were
carried out by the same senior neurologist (who was blinded
to the vitamin D status of the participants), using a Nihon
Kohden Neuropack M1 electromyography (EMG) device
(Nihon Kohden Corp, Tokyo, Japan), to evaluate for the
presence of RLS and to exclude patients with any symptom
or sign of neurological disorders or neuropathy. Twenty
more patients with EMG findings of peripheral neuropathy were excluded following the neurological and EMG
examination. Thus, 155 patients were finally included in
the study. Demographic and clinical characteristics, including age, sex, and body mass index (BMI), were noted. The
patients were divided into two groups according to serum
25(OH)D level: 36 patients (six male and 30 female) with
serum 25(OH)D levels 20 ng/mL comprised the normal
vitamin D group (VDN), and 119 patients (nine male
and 110 female) with serum 25(OH)D levels 20 ng/mL
comprised the vitamin D deficiency group (VDD). The
study was conducted in accordance with the principles of
the Helsinki Declaration and was approved by the local
ethics committee; written informed consent was obtained
from each participant.
Biochemical measurements
Venous blood samples (20 mL) were collected in plain
glass tubes from all of the participants for the 25(OH)D
assessment. Serum 25(OH)D levels were estimated using
an electro chemiluminescence method (Cobas e 411 immunochemistry analyzer; F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd, Basel,
Switzerland) with interassay and intra-assay coefficients of
variation of 2.6% and 5.8%, respectively. Vitamin D concentrations 20 ng/mL were defined as insufficiency, and concentrations 20 ng/mL were considered adequate.13 Calcium,
phosphate, alkaline phosphatase (ALP), and ferritin levels
were estimated with commercially available kits (Cobas C
501; F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd).
Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 2014:10
Vitamin D deficiency in restless legs syndrome
Evaluation of RLS
The International Restless Legs Syndrome (IRLS) Study
Group essential criteria scores were used by the same
neurologist to evaluate RLS in the patient and control
The data were analyzed using the Statistical Package for
the Social Sciences, Version 16.0 (SPSS, Inc., Chicago, IL,
USA). A confidence interval (CI) of 95% and a two-tailed
P-value 0.05 were considered to be statistically significant
for all analyses. Variables were tested for homogeneity of
variance with Levene’s test and for normality of distribution
with the Kolmogorov–Smirnov test. Statistical comparisons were carried out with chi-square (χ2) and independent
­samples Student’s t-tests. The strengths of association
between presence of RLS (dependent variable) and vitamin
D deficiency, age, BMI, sex, and serum levels of vitamin D,
calcium, phosphate, ferritin, and ALP were examined with
a series of logistic regressions. The results are presented as
odds ratios (ORs) for independent variables of interest, with
associated 95% CIs.
The mean age of the patients was 49.32±11.63 years old.
Fifteen patients were male (9.7%), and 140 were female
(90.3%). Vitamin D serum levels were in the normal range
in 36 patients (23.2%) and lower than normal in 119 patients
(76.8%). Sixty-six patients were diagnosed with RLS
The mean age of the VDD group was 48.80±11.44 years,
and the mean age of the VDN group was 51.03±12.31 years.
The mean ages and sex ratios of the two groups were similar
(P0.05). Sixty patients (50.4%) in the VDD group and six
patients (6.7%) in the VDN group were diagnosed with RLS.
The percentage of presence of RLS was significantly higher
in the VDD group (χ2=12.87, P0.001). The mean vitamin D
serum levels were 11.19±4.73 ng/mL in the VDD group and
37.19±9.97 ng/mL in the VDN group (t=21.59, P0.001).
The mean serum phosphate levels were 3.27±0.44 mg/dL
in the VDD group and 3.61±0.52 mg/dL in the VDN group
(t=3.79, P0.001). The calcium, ferritin, and ALP serum
levels and the BMI scores of the two groups were found to
be similar (P0.05). The percentages of upper extremity
involvement were 8.2% in the VDD group and 33% in the
VDN group. The mean IRLS scores were 23.54±4.25 in the
VDD group and 21.50±3.72 in the VDN group (Table 1).
Age, BMI, and serum levels of vitamin D, calcium,
­phosphate, ferritin, and ALP, as continuous predictors, and
sex and vitamin D deficiency, as categorical predictors,
were included in a logistic regression. The logistic regression equation was able to classify 62.3% of the cases correctly. Presence of vitamin D deficiency was significantly
associated with presence of RLS (OR =5.085, 95% CI:
1.972–13.113), as was serum vitamin D level (OR =1.047,
95% CI: 1.014–1.082). The associations between the other
Table 1 Comparisons of demographical and clinical factors among the VDD and VDN groups
Age (years)
Vitamin D (ng/mL)
Calcium (mg/dL)
Phosphate (mg/dL)
Ferritin (ng/mL)
BMI (kg/m2)
Upper extremity involvement
IRLS score
VDD (n=119)
VDN (n=36)
t=1.01, P=0.31
9 (7.6%)
110 (92.4%)
6 (16.7%)
30 (83.3%)
χ2=2.62, P=0.10
60 (50.4%)
59 (49.6%)
6 (16.7%)
30 (83.3%)
χ2=12.87, P0.001*
10 (8.2%)
50 (81.8%)
2 (33.3%)
4 (66.6%)
t=21.59, P0.001*
t=-0.55, P=0.58
t=3.79, P0.001*
t=-1.76, P=0.08
t=1.96, P=0.051
t=1.01, P=0.23
Notes: Values are expressed as mean ± SD. A P-value 0.05 was considered statistically significant. *Significant P-value.
Abbreviations: ALP, alkaline phosphatase; BMI, body mass index; IRLS, International Restless Legs Syndrome rating scale; RLS, restless legs syndrome; SD, standard
deviation; VDD, vitamin D deficiency; VDN, normal vitamin D.
Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 2014:10
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Oran et al
Table 2 The logistic regression analysis of variables associated
with RLS
Age (years)
Presence of vitamin D
Vitamin D (ng/mL)
Calcium (mg/dL)
Phosphate (mg/dL)
Ferritin (ng/mL)
BMI (kg/m2)
Notes: A P-value 0.05 was considered statistically significant. **Significant P-value.
Abbreviations: ALP, alkaline phosphatase; BMI, body mass index; CI, confidence
interval; OR, odds ratio; RLS, restless leg syndrome.
independent factors and presence of RLS were insignificant
(Table 2).
Although RLS has long been a clinical problem, recent
developments have contributed to understanding the
pathophysiology and treatment of the disease. The exact
pathophysiology of RLS has not yet been well elucidated; however, accumulating data have shown that the
pathophysiology of RLS is centered on dopaminergic
dysfunction and brain iron deficiency.15,16 One of the most
persuasive arguments for dopaminergic dysfunction is
the improvement of RLS symptoms with dopaminergic
drugs.17 Imaging studies further support the role of dysfunction of the dopaminergic pathways.18 Single-photon
emission computed tomography imaging of striatal preand postsynaptic dopaminergic status has shown a mild
reduction in postsynaptic dopaminergic status.19 Similarly,
fluorine-18-L-dihydroxyphenylalanine (18F-dopa) positron
emission tomography studies have shown a decrease in
RLS patients’ striatal 18F-dopa uptake compared with that
of healthy controls, supporting presynaptic dopaminergic
dysfunction in the striatum.20,21 Moreover, in an autopsy
study, a significant decrease in dopamine 2 (D2) receptors
was observed in the putamina of eight patients with primary
RLS compared with those of a neurologically normal control
group; reduction in D2 receptors was correlated with the
severity of RLS.22 Increased incidence of RLS in neurological diseases that involve dopaminergic systems, such
as Huntington’s disease, Tourette syndrome, and essential
tremor, may also support dopaminergic dysfunction in
RLS patients.23–25
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Iron deficiency has been shown to be an important risk
factor and to play a pivotal role in the pathophysiology of
RLS.26 It has been demonstrated that RLS severity is negatively correlated with serum ferritin levels,27 even within
­normal laboratory ranges, and that symptoms improve with
iron treatment.28 Recently, Rizzo et al used magnetic resonance imaging phase analysis to study brain iron content
in idiopathic RLS in vivo. The researchers found that significantly higher phase values were present in RLS patients
compared with healthy controls, at the level of the substantia
nigra, thalamus, putamen, and pallidum, implying reduced
iron content in several regions of the patients’ brains.29
A clear link between iron deficiency and nigrostriatal dop­
amine dysfunction has also been reported, which appears to
have an important role in RLS.30 Nevertheless, the underlying mechanisms remain unclear. In a recent animal study
conducted by Jellen et al iron deficiency was shown to alter
the expression of dopamine-related genes in the ventral
midbrain in mice.31
The important role of vitamin D in skeletal health has
been well described; however, many recent studies have also
linked vitamin D deficiency to various nonskeletal conditions, including cardiovascular disease, cancer, metabolic
disorders, and neuropsychiatric diseases. Accumulating data
have provided evidence that 1,25-(OH)2D3 is involved in
brain function, and the nuclear receptor for 1,25-(OH)2D3 has
been localized in neurons and glial cells.32 1,25-(OH)2D3 has
been reported to increase glutathione levels, suggesting
that the hormone has a role in brain detoxification pathways.33 Nakamura et al showed that decreased glutathione
content may cause the selective death of dopaminergic neurons.12 Furthermore, results of a study by Shinpo et al found
that low doses of 1,25-(OH)2D3 were able to protect mesencephalic dopaminergic neurons against toxicity induced by
L-buthionine sulfoximine and 1-methyl-4-phenylpyridium
ions, which was reported to cause a depletion of glutathione
content.11 Similarly, Orme et al observed a dose-responsive
increase in numbers of rat primary dopaminergic neurons
when 1,25-(OH)2D3 was added to culture media.34 They
­s uggested that 1,25-(OH) 2D 3 increases dopaminergic
neurons by upregulating the expression of glial-derived
neurotrophic factor.
While various studies have investigated the relationship
of vitamin D depletion and neuropsychiatric disorders,
such as schizophrenia, dementia, Parkinson’s disease, and
multiple sclerosis, only one study has been conducted to
evaluate the relationship of vitamin D and RLS. Balaban et al
Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment 2014:10
evaluated 25(OH)D levels in patients with and without RLS
and found statistically significantly lower serum 25(OH)
D levels in female RLS patients compared with control
subjects matched for sex.35 They concluded that decreased
25(OH)D levels, which may affect dopamine function, might
be an etiological factor for RLS. However, this conclusion should be questioned as both the patient and control
groups had low average levels of 25(OH)D. In our study,
subjects with and without normal levels of 25(OH)D were
compared for the presence of RLS, and an association was
found between 25(OH)D serum level and presence of RLS.
In addition, the VDD group had an increased prevalence of
RLS, and the presence of vitamin D deficiency was found
to be strongly associated with RLS. Given the dopaminergic effects of vitamin D, decreased 25(OH)D may lead to
dopaminergic dysfunction, and consequently, to increased
RLS prevalence.
Some limitations of the present study should be mentioned. Evaluation of disorders that have been shown to be
frequent in RLS patients, such as periodic limb movements
during sleep, would be useful to support RLS diagnosis;
however, we did not evaluate these because a variety of
disorders have been argued to be frequent in RLS patients.
Also, it would have been better to calculate a sample size
estimation for each group; instead, we included all patients
who had adequate inclusion and exclusion criteria. This might
be considered as another limitation.
In conclusion, our findings may support an association
between vitamin D deficiency and RLS. Vitamin D deficiency
should be considered in RLS patients, particularly those
who have been diagnosed with idiopathic RLS. ­However,
prospective vitamin D treatment studies are needed to
support this relationship and to evaluate the efficacy of
vitamin D as a treatment in RLS patients.
The authors report no conflicts of interest in this work.
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