Restless sleep: definition, causes in adults, what to do?

Is your sleep restless, punctuated by nightmares and nocturnal awakenings? Restlessness during the night can have a psychological, physiological, or pathological origin.

A person who has a restless sleep will tend to:

  • Have restless, distressing dreams or nightmares.
  • Having unexpected awakenings (not always) or waking up with a start.
  • To have the feeling, in the morning, of not having spent a restful night.

What are the causes of restless sleep?


Nighttime agitation can have a psychological origin and be linked to anxiety, fears, or trauma (accident, aggression, etc.), which will promote the triggering of agitated dreams or nightmares. The person who has a nightmare may then wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble getting back to sleep. In case of frequent nightmares, do not hesitate to consult a health professional who will offer you different techniques to control your thoughts and make your recurring dreams disappear. 

Restless leg syndrome

Nocturnal restlessness can have a physiological origin: “Restless legs syndrome is a very common form of nocturnal restlessness. When it was characterized in 1861. Strictly speaking, it is not psychological anxiety, but people with it have an irrepressible need to move their legs or even to stand or walk. There are severe forms that will prevent the person from sleeping and less severe forms, which will delay falling asleep and alter sleep quality. Unlike the agitation linked to bad dreams, the restlessness related to restless legs occurs rather in the first part of the night, during the phase of slow sleep.


Nighttime restlessness can be linked to insomnia: the insomniac will not be able to fall asleep and will tend to be restless in bed. Insomnia is characterized by difficulty falling asleep ( taking more than 30 minutes to fall asleep ), frequent or prolonged nocturnal awakenings, and early morning awakening with an inability to fall back to sleep. The restlessness linked to insomnia occurs rather during falling asleep or during nocturnal awakenings. When you suffer from insomnia, it is important to adopt good sleep hygiene:

  • Avoid screens one hour before bedtime.
  • Eat a light dinner.
  • Avoid intense sports at the end of the day.
  • Avoid exciting substances (alcohol, coffee, etc.) at the end of the day.
  • Maintain regularity in the hours of sleep.
  • Sleep in an environment calm, dark, not too hot ( around 19 ° C ), and well ventilated. 

Iron deficiency

An iron deficiency can lead to restless legs syndrome, itself the cause of nocturnal restlessness,” says our interlocutor. Measuring the concentration of ferritin in the blood can detect an iron deficiency. In women under 50, the normal level of ferritin is between 20 and 120 mg / L, in men and women over 50, between 30 and 280 mg / L.

Taking certain medications

Certain medications can promote restless legs syndrome. This is the case with certain neuroleptics , certain antiemetic drugs, or certain antidepressants , indicates the neurologist. If you take these treatments and observe undesirable effect agitation at night, you should consult your general practitioner promptly to describe these symptoms and consider another treatment or a change in dosage.

Sleep apnea

People with obstructive sleep apnea syndrome usually have a restless sleep. It is rather a respiratory agitation due to the obstruction of the back throat’s respiratory ducts, which leads to snoring or nuance. Moreover, it is the bed partner who complains of a restless sleep compared to apneic, which is less aware of it.

What are the solutions?

The first thing to do is to talk to your GP so that he can differentiate the agitation linked to bad dreams from that linked to leg problems or insomnia problems. The diagnosis is, in particular, oriented to the questioning of the patient. Other examinations (blood test, actimetry, etc.) can complete the diagnosis.

The treatment for restless legs syndrome consists of correcting the iron deficiency in the event of a deficiency and eliminating the drugs that promote it. Antiepileptic or antiparkinson drugs may also be prescribed (at appropriate dosage).

Treatment for recurrent nightmares or insomnia may consist of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) or relaxation therapy.

Sleep apnea can be treated by placing a mandibular advancement orthosis (which pushes the lower jaw forward and prevents the tongue from blocking the airway), night ventilation (a device sends air during the night into the respiratory tract), or by surgical treatment (in the event of failure of other treatments and in special cases, related to anatomical abnormalities of the maxillofacial sphere).

By TVOC Editor

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