What to Do When Wrestling With Restless Sleep

Is restless sleep causing you to drag through the day? Inspecting your sleep environment and sleep-wake behaviors may reveal the solution to your problem.
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Jeff Kahn, M.S., Rise Science Co-Founder
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Woman experiencing restless sleep.

One of the best things about a night of restful sleep is that there’s nothing terribly memorable about it. Sure, you might remember turning out the light or flipping your pillow over a couple of times before you fell asleep. And maybe you woke up briefly once to use the bathroom or take a sip of water, but the next thing you know, it's morning, and you’re awake and ready to start your day.

On the other hand, what you remember about a night of restless sleep is likely a lot of things you’d like to forget: watching the red, snail-slow digits of your alarm clock, trying not to stress about the to-do list items bouncing around in your head, worrying that there must be something wrong with you because you can’t just relax and fall asleep already. 

If the second scenario sounds a tad too familiar, rest assured: Experiencing some restlessness at night is normal. Whether it’s 30 minutes or even an hour of nighttime wakefulness on a semi-regular basis or the odd night of fitful sleep — restless sleep is not usually cause for alarm. 

However, if persistent difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep leads to sleep deprivation and ongoing daytime sleepiness, it’s probably time to take a close look at your sleep environment and your sleep-wake behaviors. Because your daily habits — especially around light exposure and certain substances like caffeine and alcohol — affect your sleep more than you might think.

In this article, we’ll explore the symptoms and common causes of restless sleep as well as interventions and new habits that can help you get the sleep you need at night to have ample energy for your day.

What Is Restless Sleep? 

There is no official clinical definition of restless sleep, but it's usually associated with things like difficulty falling asleep, frequent nighttime awakenings, a racing mind, or the feeling of being only half asleep throughout the night. To better understand restless sleep as a concept, let’s start by defining a few related terms. 

Sleep latency refers to the time it takes you to fall asleep. Up to 30 minutes is usually considered normal.

Sleep efficiency (SE) is the amount of time you spend sleeping expressed as a percentage of the total time you spend in bed. SE is particularly useful in the diagnosis and treatment of insomnia. The SE of so-called "good sleepers" is generally 90% and above. For patients with insomnia, it’s less than 85%.  

Sleep fragmentation is the result of repetitive short interruptions of sleep that can make you feel tired the next day. It increases the older we get. There are many potential causes — including interacting medications and certain diseases — but chief among them is a weakened bladder. Reducing fluid intake from the mid-evening onward can help, but it's not a cure-all.

Inefficient, highly fragmented sleep is no small thing. Studies show that in older adults — even when controlling for factors such as BMI, gender, race, history of smoking, frequency of exercise, medications, etc. —  the lower an older individual’s sleep efficiency, the higher their mortality risk.

Restless Sleep Can Happen at Any Age

Restless sleep: elderly man who can't sleep

Generally speaking, restless sleep is most common among the elderly. As we age, we get less deep sleep with more nighttime awakenings. But restless sleep is also reported by teens and young adults. The teenage years come with a natural biological shift to a later sleep schedule, so it’s not unusual for adolescents to experience restless sleep when they try to go to bed early. 

Depending on its severity and symptoms, restless sleep in younger children  may be diagnosed as a pediatric sleep disorder called restless sleep disorder (RSD), which is often successfully treated with iron supplementation.

In adults, restless sleep could be a sign of a sleep disorder — sleep apnea, obstructive sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or restless legs syndrome (RLS), for example — or an underlying condition like depression, an anxiety disorder, or another mental health issue. (Consult your doctor, a sleep specialist, or other health care provider if you suspect a sleep disorder.) Some medications — including certain antidepressants, steroids, and decongestants — can cause restless sleep as well. 

But one of the most common causes of restless sleep is poor sleep hygiene. 

Why Does Sleep Hygiene Matter So Much?

Sleep hygiene refers to the upkeep of behaviors and habits that affect the way you sleep, and it's not just about a bedtime routine. Sleep hygiene starts the moment you open your eyes in the morning and involves everything from the timing of your light exposure and caffeine and alcohol consumption to your exercise habits and sleeping environment. Good sleep  hygiene guidelines should revolve around your circadian rhythm.

Like an internal biological clock, your circadian rhythm dictates your ideal sleep and wake times, as well as the timing of your energy peaks and dips, during a roughly 24-hour period. Scheduling your day in accordance with your circadian rhythm is an important part of getting the sleep your body needs and keeping your sleep debt low. 

Sleep debt is the amount of sleep you owe your body — as compared to the sleep your body needed — over the past 14 days. It’s the number that best predicts how you feel and perform on any given day. And as long as your sleep debt is below five hours, you can still feel good and perform at or near your best. (The RISE app automatically maps your circadian rhythm and helps you keep track of your sleep debt and your progress toward lowering it.)

But when you start to rack up more and more sleep debt because of restless sleep or other sleep disturbances, it won’t take long for its negative impacts to show up. In the short term, sleep debt causes cognitive impairment and will downgrade your attention span, reflexes, metabolism, and immune system. Over the long term, sleep debt increases the risk of weight gain/obesity, Type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, fertility problems, cancer, and other chronic diseases.

Clearly, restless sleep that leads to high sleep debt is more than just an annoyance, so let’s look at some common sleep hygiene issues and other circumstances that could be preventing you from getting the restful sleep your body needs.

What’s Causing Your Restless Sleep?  

Restless sleep: woman laying in bed with her dog beside her

Because busy lives and full schedules can make sleep issues hard to untangle, consider keeping a sleep journal to inspect influences on your sleep so you can spot patterns and connections. Getting to the bottom of what’s causing your restless sleep starts with asking the right questions. 

Is Your Bedroom Optimized for Sleep?

The perfect sleeping environment is cool (65-68 degrees), dark, and quiet. Because light can disrupt your body’s natural production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin, a zero-light bedroom is best. So unplug your night lights and use blackout curtains or blinds and an eye mask

Noise is also a no-go. Even if you subjectively think you’ve adapted to sleeping in a less-than-silent environment, objectively your sleep is probably suffering. To reduce ambient sounds from disrupting your sleep, use a white noise machine and earplugs.

Is Your Sleep Problem Actually a Light Problem?

What you experience as a sleep problem might more accurately be described as a light problem. Your circadian rhythm is heavily influenced by the cycle of light defined by the rising and setting of the sun, and the timing of your light exposure within each 24-hour cycle can have a big impact on your sleep. 

Avoiding light — especially blue light and bright light— in the 90 minutes before bed will help maximize your body’s melatonin production. (A pair of blue-light blocking glasses can help, too.) And exposing yourself to light — preferably sunlight — soon after waking sends a signal to your brain to stop producing melatonin. 

Is Your Sleep Schedule Erratic?

Your circadian rhythm thrives on consistency, so keeping a regular bedtime and wake time should be a top priority if you want to fill your nights with less restless sleep and more restorative sleep. Just be sure the sleep schedule you set allows you to get the hours of sleep your body needs. (The RISE app uses special algorithms and your recent sleep history data to automatically calculate your personal sleep need and give you an ideal bedtime and wake time based on your chronotype.)

Do You Take Time to Wind Down Before Bed? 

Second only to light problems as an impediment to a good night’s sleep, mental stimulation problems often contribute to restless and insufficient sleep. To stay in the well-rested camp, schedule a nightly wind-down period to help you disconnect from the stress and busyness of the day. Read a chapter of a novel, take a warm bath or shower, meditate, or sip a cup of decaf tea.

The RISE app will tell you the perfect time for your nightly wind-down period and lets you schedule relaxation sessions and customize them with a selection of guides and recordings for relaxing sounds, progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing, and autogenic training.

Do You Drink Alcohol Before Bed? 

Alcohol does have sedative properties — though more akin to anesthesia than naturalistic sleep — but it is a very bad sleep aid because it disrupts normal sleep patterns. Alcohol-infused sleep is fragmented, meaning it’s not continuous but littered with brief awakenings. Alcohol is also a diuretic, so you're more likely to need to get up to urinate during the night. High consumption can also trigger snoring and sleepwalking, which both disrupt sleep, so it’s best to avoid alcoholic beverages 3-4 hours before bed. 

Did You Exercise, Nap, Eat a Big Meal, or Consume Caffeine Too Close to Bedtime?

A balanced diet and regular exercise are key for overall health and wellness, but food and exercise — as well as napping and caffeine — at the wrong time can disrupt sleep. Avoid caffeine 10 hours before bed, big meals three hours before bed, and exercise one hour before bed. 

The best time to nap is during your afternoon dip, which you’ll find on your Energy Schedule in the RISE app. Napping later than that can make it harder to fall asleep that night. The app can remind you of the ideal cutoff times for meals, exercise, caffeine, and alcohol.  

Do You Let Your Pet Sleep in Your Bed?

On an emotional level, there are definite upsides to sleeping in the same space as a pet. But pets can disrupt your sleep, especially if you're a lighter sleeper. Cats tend to be active at night, and dogs’ changing positions or sleep-barking can disturb your bed and your sleep. Pets with restless sleep themselves are more likely to make yours restless as well.

Is Low Blood Sugar Waking You Up?

Sometimes dips in blood sugar can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. If you think your restless sleep is caused by nocturnal hypoglycemia (most common among diabetics) — try a small snack before bed or talk to your doctor.

Are You Pregnant?

Unfortunately, restless sleep is one of the things you can expect when you’re expecting, and the third trimester is when sleep is usually the most disrupted.

Do You Suffer From Orthosomnia?

A recent addition to the sleep disorder family, orthosomnia involves obsessing over the numbers given to us by our wearables and sleep technology, which can make sleep problems worse. This is one of the reasons we at Rise keep things simple and concise. We focus on sleep debt — not the time you spend in REM sleep or deep sleep, for example — as the only "score" that matters.

How to Handle Restless Sleep in the Moment

Woman meditating in her living room

When we wake up during the night and can't fall back asleep, trying to force sleep to happen often backfires. That’s because we tend to not move our bodies as we concentrate on willing ourselves to sleep, which creates tension, pushing sleep further out of reach. 

The most important and sometimes hardest thing to do in that situation is to not be stressed about it! The body's stress response will result in a spike of cortisol that can easily catapult you into a fully awake state.

If you wake up at night and can't fall back asleep within 20 minutes, the best strategy is to perform a sleep reset. Get out of bed and engage in a calming activity. Ultimately, sleep is about relaxation, so keep the lights low, and do something that distracts and relaxes you. 

Read a book, listen to soft music, or meditate. Guided imagery exercises can help, too. By visualizing something pleasurable, the mind is able to focus on something other than restlessness, and the body remains calm, avoiding the release of stress hormones. And whatever you do, don’t lie down during the reset. Only when you start to feel sleepy again should you get back in bed. 

Sleep resets don’t just help you get back to sleep, they also help prevent your brain from forming an association between your bed and wakefulness. It’s important to do what you can to nip poor sleep in the bud before it becomes chronic sleeplessness, in part caused by a fear of sleep — or fear that you won’t be able to sleep. After a certain point, cognitive behavioral treatment of insomnia (CBTI) may be required to de-condition the association between going to bed and poor sleep.

How Restless Is Too Restless?

We all want to sleep soundly through the night, but the truth is, some amount of restlessness at night is normal. It’s also not unusual to wake in the middle of the night (usually about four hours into a roughly eight-hour sleep), as this is typically when the brain is transitioning from deep sleep to longer periods of REM sleep. Because the brain is more active during REM, it’s more likely you'll wake up during that time. 

Waking up in the early hours of the morning is also common. The longer your sleep persists, the more the sleep pressure that helped you get to sleep has cleared. And as melatonin levels dip, the production starts up of hormones that help you wake.

You can also look at bodily movement during the night as a function of restlessness. It is quite normal and even beneficial to shift positions across the night. It helps maintain blood circulation and prevents numbness or pins and needles in the limbs, which may wake you up. 

The average healthy adult sleeper moves their body around 50-60 times per night. In fact, we move around during all sleep stages except REM sleep, when the muscles are temporarily paralyzed. During the lighter stages of sleep, movements tend to only cause "mini arousals," which don't often wake you fully, so you can usually fall back asleep immediately.

On some nights, we’re not conscious of restless movements or mini arousals that happen during sleep. Other nights, restlessness can lead to fragmented sleep that can cause frustration and worry. But a couple nights of restlessness, especially if you have low sleep debt, shouldn't be worrisome. A benefit of keeping your sleep debt low (generally under five hours) is that it does give you more leeway when you have a few bad nights of sleep. 

Similarly, the fact that your sleep debt — a reflection of how you feel today — is a measure of sleep deprivation over 14 days and not just last night is somewhat liberating. One night of restless sleep doesn't always mean you’ll have a lousy day.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that achieving healthy sleep is a lifelong practice. It’s good to take a long-term view on sleep health and being your best self, as it helps keep the occasional restless night in perspective.

However, if your bouts of sleeplessness last more than a month — causing excessive daytime sleepiness that affects your quality of life — it’s time to consult a sleep medicine doctor or find a sleep center. A sleep study and an official diagnosis will help determine the best treatment options for a sleep disorder or other medical condition.

Rest Easy, You’re Human

Woman opening her curtains

The goal of living a life totally free from any sleep problems is probably not realistic. And at some point, most of us will experience restless sleep. But we can take comfort in the fact that as humans, biologically, we know how to sleep. Many sleep issues and disturbances are temporary and have an identifiable solution, and some will resolve themselves without much intervention.

And no matter what, good sleep hygiene is the surest path to more restful sleep. (The RISE app can send you reminders about your sleep-friendly habits.) You might be pleasantly surprised at how a few subtle lifestyle changes can help minimize restless sleep and maximize your daytime energy.

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Rise is the only app that unlocks the real-world benefits of better sleep.

Instead of just promising a better night, we use 100 years of sleep science to help you pay down sleep debt and take advantage of your circadian rhythm to be your best.

Over the past decade, we've helped professional athletes, startups, and Fortune 500s improve their sleep to measurably win more in the real-world scenarios that matter most.

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