Why Do We Toss and Turn at Night?

Ever wonder why it’s so hard to combat restless sleep? We looked into causes, treatment, and prevention tips.

Man shifting in his bed, tossing and turning at night
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On the list of “Things to Do When We Can’t Sleep,” tossing and turning is up there. The pillow is too hot, our legs are restless, our elbow hurts, our partner is snoring... And so we move back and forth with hopes of finally finding the perfect position in which to drift off to dreamland.

Despite the universality of tossing and turning though, the reasons behind it are less consistent. Restless sleep isn't an official sleep disorder, which means your tossing and turning can be a response to anxiety, stress, overstimulation, a poor sleep schedule, or a host of other issues.

The formula for breaking that cycle, however, is the same: Addressing the underlying issues that may be contributing to your nighttime discomfort, according to Jim Maas, Ph.D.

Keep reading to learn about common nighttime discomforts, their solutions, and how to prevent them from rearing up as you try to fall asleep.

Common causes for tossing and turning at night

While an inconsistent sleep schedule can cause your body to toss and turn when you want it to stay still, there may be other reasons your sleep schedule is off in the first place. It could be anxiety or physical discomfort but finding that answer may take some trial and error.

Here are some common reasons tossing and turning occurs:

Feelings of pressure and stress

Tossing and turning can have less to do with our bodies and more to do with our minds. “When you’re psychologically uncomfortable,” Maas says, “You’re often physiologically uncomfortable.” Stress, he says, is both a cause and effect of sleep difficulties.

The more stressed you are, the harder it is to sleep. Every lump in your pillow can feel like a boulder. Your back aches. No matter how you try to shift your attention, these issues seem impossible to ignore. And, in turn, they can cause a lack of sleep that lowers our tolerance to stress.

Addressing issues of mental health prior to going to bed could help with stabilizing your sleep, lessening middle of the night awakenings.

Living with depression and/or anxiety

Existential worry over the future, like the pandemic and climate change, can be just as taxing on the sleep cycle as day-to-day stress. Researchers have long understood that Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) often disrupts normal sleep-wake mechanisms, and, consequently, our circadian rhythms.

This can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule, resulting in a night of tossing and turning instead of snoozing and snoring.

The same can be said for anxiety and insomnia, which studies claim are inextricably linked. All that stress and anxiety can send our minds racing, despite our body's natural cues signaling it’s time for bed. Sleep specialists call those racing thoughts ruminative thinking, which is considered a symptom of insomnia.

Overstimulation from electronic devices

Experts widely acknowledge that blue light can inhibit the release of melatonin and lead to less restful sleep.

Though the short, high-energy wavelengths that make up blue light are everywhere (their largest source is the sun), reducing exposure to smart phones, TVs, tablets, and computers after sunset is just smart sleep strategy.

Pain and other physical conditions

Researchers have noted that having chronic pain does not guarantee bad sleep, but it certainly doesn’t help. Severe pain — from brief to more lasting episodes — affects nearly 40 million people in the U.S., with most sufferers reporting intermittent sleep disturbances like tossing and turning. Sleep deprivation can also worsen existing chronic pain.

Other conditions known to impact sleep, include:

Eating foods that cause gas or indigestion later in the day

Given food’s capacity to induce changes through our sleep stages, research shows that eating within an hour of bed can interrupt your sleep quality.

There are also foods you should avoid, as they can bring on digestive symptoms that disrupt your sleep:

  • black beans  
  • fried foods  
  • grapefruit  
  • pizza  
  • tomatoes
  • watermelon 

Additionally, ad libitum eating — when you eat as much or as often as desired — over a three-day period has led to a reduction in deep sleep and increased the time it takes to fall asleep, compared with controlled eating. Saturated fat was also associated with less of the deepest stages of sleep, and sugar was linked with increased sleep arousal.

Drinking caffeinated or alcoholic beverages at night

Caffeine, which can be found in coffee beans, tea leaves, and cacao, among other things, can disrupt your biological clock and extend your circadian rhythm. Research has shown that large doses of caffeine in the evening can delay the REM cycle, fueling morning exhaustion.

Alcoholic beverages also prevent optimal sleep quality. And it’s not just because of hangovers: Alcohol also causes the body to suppress, then overproduce, a natural stimulant called glutamine. When the stimulant rebounds, it can increase waking and light sleeping — often in the form of tossing and turning.

Uncomfortable environmental conditions

Even when there aren’t historic weather events going on outside, general instances of uncomfortable bedtime temperatures can be enough to put our bodies in motion. High temperatures on summer evenings can cause frequent wakefulness and restless sleep. Cold can also have an effect and increase spontaneous sleep arousals as well.

Help your brain reset its thermostat and optimize sleep conditions by making sure your bedroom is at the optimal temperature for sleep. (Hint: It varies between 60- and 72- degrees Fahrenheit for most people.)

For those who sleep with multiple layers of bedding, a setting closer to 60 degrees may be best. Lighter layers? You may desire a higher room temperature.

How do I stop tossing and turning at night right now?

Woman wearing an eye mask and engaging in a relaxation routine to prevent restless sleep
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Just relax

For many people, “just relax” ranks pretty low on the scale of effective advice. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless, Maas says.

He recommends a specific way to de-stress called progressive muscle relaxation. This technique requires you to tense or tighten a muscle group and then release before moving through the next set of muscles. Free guided meditations are available online, or you can do it on your own.

To practice, follow these instructions:

  • Start at the head and working your way down to your toes, clench each muscle group as you inhale and hold for 5 to 10 seconds.  
  • As you exhale, release quickly and completely.  
  • Pay close attention to how your muscles feel when tense versus relaxed.  

You can also try exercises like journaling, listening to music, reading, meditation apps, ASMR clips, adult bedtime stories, anxiety-soothing affirmations, CBD, natural aides, or even sleep hypnosis.

Muffle external distractions

Whether it be from neighbors, sounds of the city, or a couple of racoons fighting outside your window, a white noise machine can help drown out all those annoying sounds that can keep us awake, says Maas.

If you find yourself unable to disconnect from your phone, try a WiFi blocker that will keep you from doomscrolling, gaming, or watching another episode of whatever’s available. Even just half an hour of screen-free time before bed could help swing you into sleep mode.

Cool yourself down

Another way to prevent sleep disturbances is to take a bath or shower before bed. It’s not too late to do so either, if you still can’t sleep. Whether you turn the dial to be hot or cold depends on how hot it is. Heat wave temperatures, for example, may call for a cool shower to help lower your body temperature.

Also consider unmaking your bed before sometime before going to sleep, giving the mattress and bedding a chance to cool down. You can also switch to lighter bedding or pajamas made of sweat-wicking material like bamboo or cotton.

Or just sleeping naked. Marilyn Monroe famously once said she wore nothing but Chanel No. 5 to bed. For lowkey folks like us, a spritz of linen spray may be just as soothing.

Tips for preventing tossing and turning at night

Two woman walking on the beach as part of their exercise routine for better sleep hygiene
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Take a hike (or at least a walk)

When it comes to setting yourself up for good sleep, one of the most important things you can do is move your body. It doesn’t have to be a long, intense run, either. Even a short walk can help. Studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as sleep medication for people with chronic insomnia.

Physical activity, like evening yoga, helps regulate the body’s natural circadian rhythm and sleep-inducing neurochemicals like melatonin. It’s also effective for general stress and anxiety management.

Just don’t exercise within three hours of going to bed, Maas says, since that raises your core body temperature too high and interferes with your sleep.

Eat a balanced diet that has tryptophan and melatonin

If your diet is lacking in these foods, you may be missing out on some sleep-inducing nutrients, such as tryptophan and melatonin. Eating specific foods for sleep may help with the production of sleep-hormones and ease your tossing and turning.

Foods rich in melatonin can be a good source of sleep support as well. Walnuts and tart cherries, especially, are known for their sleep-inducing qualities. Some studies found that people who consumed tart cherries improved their sleep time, sleep efficiency, sleep onset latency, and had fewer awakenings.

You can get creative in the kitchen for easy bedtime snacks.

Address chronic pain

Taking steps to mitigate chronic pain before bed could help keep it at bay during sleep. Be sure to use a holistic approach, trying multiple strategies throughout the week, from exercising to practicing cognitive behavioral therapy. You may need to experiment to find what works for you as your neck, hips, and lower back will benefit from different approaches.

Of course, consult a doctor before making any changes to your health routines or investing in products or supplements for specific conditions.

Get the right gear for your bed

Although insomnia can make even the most comfortable sleep situation feel horrible, having the proper bed gear is a good start to ending the cycle of tossing and turning.

Choosing the right mattress should account for your sleep position, health concerns, space requirements, and, of course, comfort preferences. From there, you can do all manner of customizations to build your sleep sactuary, including sheets, pillows, and even robots.

Got time? Take a tip or two from a luxury hotel interior designer on transforming your space into a cozy sleep haven, taking things like layout and lighting into consideration.

Consistency is, as always, key

Self-discipline can go a long way toward easing the annoying cycle of tossing and turning. Experiment with different routines and rituals until you find one that works for you. Then, do the hard part of sticking with it.