Restless Sleep: A Guide to More Peaceful Nights

Whether you had too much coffee too late in the day or your mind is racing with thoughts, we all struggle with restless sleep from time to time. But, what happens when your sleep always feels restless, no matter what you do?

This could be a sign that something else is the culprit. Specifically, certain sleep disorders could unknowingly be causing your sleep problems and disrupting your ability to sleep well. If you’re suffering from restless sleep, here’s a look at the most common reasons people have sleep issues, plus what you can do to improve your sleep quality to get a good night’s sleep every night.

The Dangers of Restless Sleep

Restless sleep: feet sticking out from under the covers

Restless sleep is characterized by frequent sleep disruptions throughout the night. When a person is constantly tossing and turning, as well as waking frequently, their sleep can be classified as restless. One of the greatest dangers of restless sleep is that it leads to sleep deprivation, which contributes to a host of additional problems.

For one, sleep deprivation causes severe fatigue that can slow a person’s reaction time. When a person can’t react quickly to changes in their environment, they’re more likely to get into an accident or hurt themselves. In fact, The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that fatigue leads to 100,000 car crashes and 1,550 crash-related deaths per year in the United States.

Restless sleep also leads to excessive daytime sleepiness that impairs a person’s functioning at work, which can further endanger their safety and compromise their quality of life. Aside from sleep deprivation, another dangerous side effect of chronic restless sleep is that it can lead to an over-reliance on sleep medicine.

A few signs that you’re taking too much medicine for sleep include: using sleeping pills to treat anxiety, taking extra doses of sleeping pills, and taking a second pill after waking in the middle of the night. While sleep aids can be helpful in certain situations, becoming dependent on them can further disrupt your body’s ability to sleep and function normally.

Restless Sleep and Sleep Disorders

When you’re experiencing restless sleep, the first thing to consider is a sleep disorder. Many people who suffer from lack of sleep have sleep disorders without even knowing that a medical condition is causing their distress. That’s why it’s important to be aware of the disorders that contribute to trouble sleeping and to understand how they can interfere with your ability to get quality sleep.

Restless Legs Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome is one of the most common sleep disorders that can cause sleep disturbances. Also known as RLS, restless legs syndrome is characterized by uncomfortable sensations in the legs. This can include cramping, twitching, or even tingling feelings that cause the sleeper to move in order to relieve the discomfort.

These feelings persist throughout the night, distracting the person sleeping and making it hard to stay still and fall asleep. Restless legs syndrome also tends to wake people once they’ve fallen asleep, making it hard to maintain sufficient sleep throughout the night.

Narcolepsy

Restless sleep: Sunrise seen through a hiker's legs

Narcolepsy is another sleep disorder that’s often associated with restless sleep. While people with narcolepsy tend to feel rested after waking up, they usually feel the urge to fall asleep again shortly after. This extreme urge to sleep can strike a person in the middle of any activity, including talking or driving. Narcolepsy is a neurological disorder that disrupts a person’s sleep-wake cycle, or circadian rhythm.

In addition to experiencing overwhelming sleep attacks throughout the day, a person with narcolepsy may also experience cataplexy: a sudden loss in muscle tone that causes a person to collapse. While it sounds scary, it’s quite similar to the paralysis that all people experience during REM sleep.

Narcolepsy can also cause sleep paralysis, in which a person is unable to move when entering or leaving REM sleep. Sleep paralysis is when a person is conscious and knows they’re awake, yet they’re unable to move.

Obstructive Sleep Apnea

There are three main types of sleep apnea: obstructive sleep apnea, central sleep apnea, and mixed sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea is the most common type of sleep apnea and is when a person stops sleeping periodically throughout the night. This occurs because their airway is too tight or floppy for the breath to flow smoothly from the mouth and nose into the lungs.

These disruptions to the person’s breathing most commonly cause snoring but can also lead a person to wake during the night gasping for air. This causes restless sleep because a person may wake multiple times during the night due to airway obstruction. These frequent disruptions can lead to forgetfulness, daytime drowsiness, poor sleep quality, and irritability throughout the day.

Rapid Eye Movement Sleep Behavior Disorder

Rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder (RBD) is a sleep disorder that occurs during REM sleep, which is the dream phase. Instead of staying still like most people during dreaming, a person with RBD will act out their dreams as if they’re awake, says the National Sleep Foundation.

In some instances, this can involve tossing and turning, thrashing, sleep talking, hitting, or even shouting. More extreme cases involve people getting up out of bed, sleep walking, and engaging in other activities — all while still asleep.

It’s important to understand that rapid eye movement sleep behavior disorder usually happens when a person is dreaming vividly. When these dreams are frightening or unusual, the person suffering from RBD may scare themselves or their partner. This can lead to restless sleep because a person may wake themselves by moving or walking about, or their partner may wake them if they’re engaging in violent behavior.

Lifestyle Changes to Improve Sleep Hygiene

Restless sleep: A dog asleep in bed

Suffering from sleep problems can be a major detriment to your quality of life, but there is hope. Using a sleep tracker is one of the best ways to understand everything about your sleep patterns, since many issues can arise without your knowledge — especially if you don’t sleep with a partner. Even people who suffer from narcolepsy can improve their sleep hygiene by following a consistent sleep schedule and adhering to the following healthy daily habits.

Establish a Bedtime Routine

When you do the same thing every night before bed, your body begins to associate these activities with feeling tired and getting rest. These activities should include relaxing activities like reading, stretching, or listening to music. Similarly, it’s important to only use the bedroom for sleep and relaxation — working on the computer while in your bed can associate the space with the need to be alert.

Avoid Stimulants That Keep You Awake

Most people understand that drinking coffee late into the night can disrupt their sleep. But sleep can also be disrupted by things like drinking alcohol, exercising, and napping too close to bedtime. All of these things can make you more alert when it’s time to get some shuteye, increasing the chances of waking during the night.

Try Melatonin

You can also improve your sleep quality by adding more sleep supplements to your daily regimen. For example, supplementing with melatonin may help with REM sleep behavior disorder. Melatonin has fewer side effects than chemical sleeping pills, and it can offer nearly the same benefits. Since melatonin is a naturally occurring hormone, taking more melatonin can help you sleep better throughout the night.

In addition to supporting a more regular sleep wake cycle, melatonin also regulates body temperature, blood pressure, and hormone levels. Specifically, research says that melatonin “binds to receptors in the brain to help reduce nerve activity. In the eyes, it can help reduce dopamine levels, a hormone that helps you stay awake.”

The greatest benefit of melatonin for people with restless sleep is that it can help a person stay asleep. This is primarily due to the reduction of dopamine and nerve activity, which can keep a person alert late into the night.

Improving Sleep Quality for More Restful Nights

Spending an entire night in restless sleep isn’t fun for anyone. In fact, people who have chronically restless sleep are more likely to suffer from sleep deprivation, which can lead to a host of challenges and dangers.

Restless sleep may or may not be caused by a sleep disorder such as restless leg syndrome, RBD, sleep apnea, or narcolepsy. Taking a look at your sleep habits and overall sleep hygiene can help you understand where you’re missing out on sleep — and how you can catch up.

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