Restless Sleep Isn’t Always Bad (But Here’s When It’s a Problem)

06.28_RestlessSleep_Blog

You’re a restless sleeper. You roll over. You change positions. You wake up briefly. Take a look at your personal sleep data on Fitbit, and you’ll likely notice several periods of restlessness during the night.

While it probably sounds like restless nights would lead to tired days, it’s actually perfectly normal to have somewhat restless sleep, says Michael Grandner, PhD, MTR, a Fitbit sleep advisor and director of the Sleep and Health Research Program at the University of Arizona College of Medicine. “Sleep is not completely still,” he insists. “We all move during our sleep, especially in stages 1 and 2—and this is totally normal.” In fact, research confirms it’s typical to have anywhere from 10 to 30 periods of wakefulness or restlessness during the night. 

That said, certain types of restlessness can interfere with sleep quality. “About one third of Americans report that they have difficulty initiating sleep, difficulty resuming sleep when they wake up during the night, or wake up too early and can’t get back to sleep, at least occasionally,” says Grandner. “Sleep problems are very common.”

Let Grandner explain what types of restlessness are A-OK, and which deserve deeper attention.

Q: What are some red flags that my nightly restlessness is problematic?

Although the occasional sleep hiccup is no big deal, there are certain signs you’re not getting enough restful sleep each night. “When you are so restless at night that you wake up feeling exhausted, and normal ‘sleep inertia’ doesn’t wear off after being awake for 15 minutes or so, that is a warning sign,” Grandner says. “Also, if you are spending more than 30 minutes awake at the beginning of the night or in the middle of the night trying to sleep, and this occurs for more than three nights a week and has lasted over three months, then you might meet criteria for a sleep disorder.”

Q: What causes this too-restless sleep?

Grandner says that so many underlying conditions and daily issues can cause restless sleep. “In addition to stress and mental worrying, physical discomfort like pain or illness can cause it, as well,” he says. “Many people have sleep-related breathing disorders that never get diagnosed, and they can also lead to restlessness.” Disturbed “zzz” time is also the product of interruptions, like that of noise, light, or movement in your sleeping environment.

Q: What health concerns can arise from regular sleep interruption?

Sleep is a necessary and vital part of your overall health and ability to function, says Grandner. Consistent sleep allows the body to recharge and de-stress, the brain to sweep itself clean of toxins (says some emerging research), and will improve your mental clarity and performance throughout the day. Overly restless nights will prevent your body from rebooting properly; sleep issues have been linked to conditions like heart disease and depression. “If you feel like your sleep is restless enough that it’s interfering with your life, you might want to talk to a doctor,” says Grandner.  

Q: What’s the best way to reduce problematic restlessness?

If your restlessness is mild, or you haven’t tried to tackle the problem yourself, Grandner suggests a few simple adjustments to your bedtime habits. “Get rid of some obvious barriers to restful sleep,” he says. “Go to sleep at a reasonable time and keep your sleep as regular as possible. Keep your sleeping area as cool, dark, quiet and comfortable as you can. Cut down on caffeine, alcohol, and nicotine in the afternoon or evening.” If none of that works, and you’ve been dealing with tosses and turns for months, call your doc.

That said, don’t panic if you have a bad night or two. “Remember that some amount of restlessness is perfectly normal!” says Grandner. Phew.

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  • I have been using my fitbit flex for about a week now. I never knew just how restless I am at night. This has certainly brought it to the forefront. I do have mornings that I don’t feel like I slept at all, but maybe once or twice a week. I sleep with my 3 or 4 dogs at night. If they are restless, I don’t get to sleep well. For the most part though I wake them up when my fitbit alarms me!

    • I think it may be time for you to leave the dogs in their own bed – from what you say, you are disturbing their sleep and they are clearly disturbing yours… Do yourself and them a favour and sleep apart!

  • I would like to see example images from the Fitbit app that show normal versus abnormal restlessness. I have tried playing the the sensitivity settings and I think I am very restless. I fall asleep very quickly but toss and turn throughout the night. And I often wake up tired. But typically, I can not stay in bed longer than 7 hours (when I cannot fall asleep again).
    I try to follow all the recommendations for dark, cool, caffiene, alcohol, etc. I really want to fix my sleep patterns. Any suggestions or help surely appreciated.

    • I am totally addicted to checking out my sleep pattern on my Fitbit.

      I have the same problem. I may get 5 hours sleep but am restless 3 of the 5 hours! I am restless 12-18 times. I wake up with a headache every morning.

      Now the problem is I don’t know what to do to fix it.

      I’ve taken homeopathic sleeping aides as well as prescribed meds. Nothing seems to work. Help!!!!

      • You may want to ask your Dr. for a sleep study. I have severe sleep apnea and without my machine, I don’t feel as if I slept at all.

      • Pillows can give you a headache! If I end up sleeping with my head tilted too far forward (chin to chest) the headache I the morning is a given. It goes away on its own once I’m up but it’s miserable the first 10-15 minutes. I discovered this after a friend gave me one of the funny shaped memory foam pillows when I was recovering from something – that bring said, I haven’t discovered my favorite pillow yet. I sometimes use a flatter pillow with one of those curved pillows under my neck. If I don’t throw it out while I sleep it seems to work. Lastly, make sure you have one of the newer trackers with sleep details-

    • Have you tried just using the heart rate feature; records your heart rate every 5 mins and you can slide your finger along the graphics to see what your HR was a 3:05, 3:10 etc. and then you can compare with your sleep stage.

      perhaps an idea to have both in one screen; drag finger along the sleep stage screen and see your HR as recorded?

    • I average between 30-40 minutes restless, with around 25-30 times restless. But I still get on average 7.15 hours sleep and don’t feel overly tired the next day. Maybe some of us just toss and turn a lot during sleep?

    • Wow, I’m really jealous! I’ve had my fitbit for 2 weeks and during the week seem to get 3.5 – 4 hours sleep maximum, with up to 3 hours restless / awake. I don’t have much caffeine (and nothing after lunchtime), rarely have alcohol in the week etc. No wonder I feel tired a lot.

      • I am having the same problem. I am always tired. I am restless at least half of the time I am asleep. Dr. finally is listening now that I have shown him the Fitbit sleep tracking, but keeps having me try sleep meds that are not helping me. Are you able to show your sleep tracking to your Dr.?

  • I’m a sleep technician and study/diagnose sleep apnea and other sleeping disorders. I love using the sleep tracker and telling people it’s a good start if they aren’t sure they want a full sleep study.

  • Well my restless sleep is shortening my sleep by 3 hours a night leaving me with only 5 hours Which is not to good do u think I should do something as it disturbing me in the day time leaving me sleeping constantly with no sleep at all at points can any of you give me advice please.x

  • Hey guys, totally know hat you mean, you sometimes get those really restless nights that make you worry the next day about your sleep patterns. Although the info above is extremely helpful.

  • In general I like my Fitbit tracker, but the sleep app is flawed. It is only 80% accurate and ALWAYS under reports it. The only thing I find useful is the starting and end times. That should be what you emphasize and leave the pontificating to others with medical degrees, equipped with an electroencephalograph. I do not believe it is possible to determine the sleep quality with a wrist mounted device with the level of accuracy Fitbit claims. Restlessness during sleep is not equal to poor sleep, which seems to be what the app uses to make decisions on quality.

    • I totally agree with Keith on his points.
      A wrist band monitor is not accurate at all. Never once has it been accurate. I no longer look at the sleep monitoring because it’s constantly incorrect.
      Sleeping with something electric on your wrist isn’t healthy either.
      And it scares people into thinking they’re not healthy sleepers.
      I’d define better perspectives within the app.

    • If you read the details about light sleep after clicking on the “Learn More” link, it plainly says that light/restless sleep is not a bad thing, its actually an essential part of your sleep. The app did not state at any point (that i seen) that light/restless sleep is a bad thing.

  • I was wondering if you have any suggestions for a over night worker and getting good sleep. I have my room blacked out and keep it as cool as I can stand.

  • i have found if my sleep setting, under advanced settings, is set to “sensitive” it seems like i just get 3-4hrs a night but with “normal” setting, i’m from 6:30 to 7:30 which is what i can “recognize” (i like my sleep!!). i’m starting to understand and like the new sleep stage feature on the app and will continue to see how that looks like.

  • My sleep pattern shows no sleep stages and I always feel tired. Shows very restless. Could this be accurate? I have had sleep studies tears ago that showed no deep sleep.

  • I have always been a restless sleeper. Waking up throughout the night and changing positions. Any little sound wakes me up. After I started using my Fitbit I noticed I didn’t sleep well. It wasn’t a surprise to me. I still is able average 7 to 8 hours sleep with my restlessness. One week after I started the job I have now my restlessness increase. And I am out of sleep went down to average about three hours of sleep a night. I do tend to wake up exhausted and will feel tired I want to fall sleep by the end of the day. Are you stories have to use a night light as I do not like the dark, But now I’ve been able to go without a light as long as there’s us like that and like me in through the window. I cannot have a room completely blacked out. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is and how cool it is in my room I still have my restlessness. I cannot use any sort of sleep aids over-the-counter or prescribed. It makes me feel horrible. I have tried eating bananas right before bed as I’ve heard that is a good source of melatonin. And I’ve also tried taking melatonin supplements. One thing my mom noticed one time well I was sleeping is that she thought it stopped breathing. And then all of a sudden I started breathing again. I don’t know if this means and we have sleep apnea. I don’t snore. And I’m restless throughout the night, not just in the first two stages of sleep. I honestly don’t think I even fully go into a REM sleep.

  • Hi there I have very restness sleeps at night have tubble falling asleep and I wake up. Few times of the night joy

  • At night i have a relaxation/hypnotic tape that I put on and listen with ear plugs. I will go to sleep while this tape plays. This tape repeats itself and it may play three or four times during the night. Does this interfere with the quality of sleep eg REM quality. My fitbit usually shows 15 to 20 periods of restlessness during the night.

  • I was/am alarmed by the sudden turn in my sleep stats which began at once on March 29th of this year. Until then my Fitbit Sleep displayed nights with minimal restlessness for the 15 months prior that I owned my Charge HR. For whatever reason since the 29th of March my restlessness has been consistently between 185 – 240 minutes per night. Still trying to get this figured out 🙁

  • Hello, I’ve started using the sleep tracking recently and though it tells me I’m very restless (2-3.5 hours per night on average) I have noticed that it doesn’t seem to recognise when I’m awake, other than the obvious initial period taken to fall asleep which isn’t very long.
    I will finally be having a sleep study as well, but I’m just not sure how accurate the tracker can be.
    Was good reading other comments which seem to validate this thinking.
    Thanks

  • I used to sleep well but now average about 4 hrs of sleep per night, even if I am in bed for 8 hrs. At least half of the time I am in bed is spent being restless or awake.

    I am always tired and was considering seeing a sleep doctor. When I fell asleep at the wheel on the highway and crashed into a stone wall, that did it. I’m having a sleep study performed at a hospital shortly.

    I wish I had taken my Fitbit statistics seriously sooner.

  • I am remember waking up every 1 hour or 39 mins . I am sleeping 7-8 hours but waking up around 5-6 times as i remember is it normal or is it worryfull. Prior to this restless sleep i had hit with acute insomnia for 3 weeks where i could nt sleep more than 3-4 hours . So this is improvement or not?

    • I have been prescribed Melatonin by my GP and already take Amitriptyline, but unfortunately neither really help. I have had insomnia since teenage years and never have a day where I am not tired. Have been to doctors for years but still not found a cure! I average 3-5hrs a night & its complete torture as I work long hours! My body crashes and burns fir a week at least 1-2 times a year where I can’t even get out of bed. Don’t smoke, only have a couple of glasses of wine at the wkend, don’t have have caffeine etc…

    • Melatonin signals the right time for sleep onset, but it doesn’t keep you asleep. The hormone that builds pressure to stay asleep is adenosine. If you want to know all about sleep, including all the stages and what they do, you should read Matthew Walker’s ‘Why we Sleep’ Penguin Books 2018. It’s a master work, and quite fascinating.

  • I have a sleep disorder diagnosed in the past. However 5 years ago I had a epidural spinal abscess. Since then things have got worse regards sleep. Due to chronic pain I tend to wait untill I feel exhausted to go to sleep in order to get off to sleep. If I do this I may get 4-5 hrs sleep. I notice my fitbit tracker on average only records about 30 mins deep sleep. What I want to know is every morning I wake my face is hot particularly my nose. Is this due to sleep apnoea? Is it because I stop breathing? I am not sure. Thank you.

  • I would like to have a benchmark of an “ideal” sleep pattern. The only benchmark currently provided is for people of the same gender and age group as me, but I know most women in my age group don’t get enough sleep. So seeing my sleep performance ranked alongside that benchmark doesn’t give me any comfort that I’m getting enough of each type of sleep.

  • I have just been given a fit but and have enjoyed all of the info but my sleep pattern has shown that I do not sleep until 1 hour after I go to bed when I don’t remember being awake and one night showed I was awake for two hours from 12 to 2am and I don’t remember that either does this show the Fitbit couldn’t read due to the way I was lying or was I very restless also I set my alarm for 6am yet the fit bit shows I get up st 615 the clocks are in syc

  • I really like how you talk about and address restlessness because this is an issue I have been facing for a long time. I am beginning to think that it may be a pretty serious issue concerning my health. Hopefully, I can find some sort of treatment that can help my health.

  • I have being using my fitbit for over a year. I noticed that was showing 4 hours sleep. I went for the sleep aepnia test and got the machine and steel showing the same pattern 4 hours sleep.. Why?

  • How does the Fitbit track sleep? I’ve just got mine and I hope it helps me as they told me I have Ms in my imuned . I walk alot and help out at the liberty at our little school.but my sleep habits are not so good.i go to bed at 8pm_9pm get up at 5am,but never get to sleep till 11pm_1am so tired and getting gumpy.please help if u can.
    Oh I’m 65 years young id like to stay that way..thank u kj

  • How can I increase deep sleep? I am not getting enough and I do not wake up refreshed. My sleep time is somewhere around 6.5 hours. I am awake 1 hour or so at night. I do keep to the same schedule every night in general. I have pain issues that keep me shifting around during the night and I get hot or cold and that also interferes with sleep. I am wondering if the pain is causing my lack of deep sleep or something else?

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