You may fall asleep with relative ease, but what happens if you’re waking up in the middle of the night, hours before your alarm is scheduled to go off, and you’re unable to fall back asleep?
To make matters worse, by the time you’re able to doze off again, you start to hear that familiar alarm buzzing in your ear, telling you that, once again, you failed to get a good night of restful sleep.
While it’s normal to wake up a time or two throughout the night, most people are able to easily fall back asleep. For those of us who can’t stay asleep, there could be a number of issues causing this challenge.
Luckily, many of them are an easy fix. It’s just a matter of finding out the cause and making small lifestyle adjustments to improve our sleep.
Reasons Why We Wake up at Night
There could be a variety of medical conditions responsible for your interrupted sleep, ranging from narcolepsy to restless leg syndrome. Narcolepsy is when you involuntarily fall asleep at regular intervals throughout the day. The result is trouble sleeping at night.
Another medical condition, restless leg syndrome, is when you have an uncontrollable urge to move your legs, usually to relieve pain or tingling.
As you can imagine, both of these conditions can cause you to experience the phenomenon known as “middle insomnia,” or not being able to stay asleep in the middle of the night.
Millions of Americans have sleep apnea, which is characterized by the body ceasing to breathe at regular intervals throughout the night. Scary, right? Luckily, our bodies are smart enough to wake us up, so we can resume breathing again. While this is a life-saving adaptation, it does cause interrupted sleep.
Many times, the awakening is so brief that we won’t remember it, but if you sleep with a partner, they may point out that you stop breathing at intervals during the night. There are devices called CPAP machines that help regulate your breathing. You may also want to switch sleeping positions and lie on your side. Or get a wedge pillow to help keep you propped up if you’re a back sleeper.
It’s logical that if you also have regular insomnia, which is trouble falling asleep, you could also experience middle insomnia. If you experience stress and anxiety on a daily basis, for example, not only will it cause you to have trouble falling asleep, you’re also likely to wake up more in the middle of the night.
People suffering from anxiety may have regular panic attacks or have trouble relaxing at the end of the day. Having a calming nighttime ritual can help signal to your body and mind that it’s time to relax and get some rest.
Eating a hearty meal right before bedtime could cause acid reflux, heartburn, and indigestion. This condition is exacerbated if you sleep on your back. It’s generally recommended to eat your last meal at least four hours before bedtime. If you find that you’re hungry right before it’s time to sleep, choose a light snack like a handful of nuts or berries. Avoid the temptation to indulge in junk food, which could also spark bouts of indigestion.
Bosses, kids, spouses, and even traffic can cause high amounts of stress. Built up over the course of the day, it can feel impossible to take a deep breath and put it all behind us when we crawl into bed.
If you find that you’re picturing all the ways to murder your boss or get back at a coworker with a scathing email, use that mental energy on something more relaxing instead like yoga or meditation. Or, escape with something pleasant like a bubble bath or an engaging novel.
Your bedroom should be in complete and total darkness to encourage sleep. If you live on a busy street with headlights shining in through your window or you have a partner that turns on the light for some ungodly reason at 2 am, it will disrupt your sleep.
Invest in heavy curtains to block out light and consider turning your alarm clock away from you, so the digital display doesn’t illuminate your field of vision.
Sudden noises can jar you awake. Sirens, chatty neighbors or a snoring partner can all wake you up and make it difficult to fall back asleep. Try a white noise machine to block out the sounds. You may also want to wear sleep headphones, especially if your partner or roommate doesn’t want to hear the noise.
We seldom recommend ear plugs due to safety issues. You might not hear impending danger. But, to each their own.
A room that is too hot or too cold is a likely culprit when it comes to discovering what’s robbing you of sleep. The ideal temperature of your bedroom should be between 60 and 65 degrees. This might seem cold, and it is.
As our bodies prepare for sleep, our internal temperature drops. And, in order to stay asleep, we have to maintain a temperature that’s about a degree below the standard 98.6 degrees. If our bedroom thermostat is set too high or low, it causes our body to work harder to maintain that equilibrium, and that can have the effect of waking us.
Need to Urinate
If you tend to drink a lot of water before bed, or you have an enlarged prostate, you might have the need to urinate in the middle of the night. An isolated episode once in a while isn’t a cause for concern, but if you are waking up multiple times during the night or several times a week, it’s time to make a change.
Limit your water intake before bed, and if you’re a male over a certain age (around 50), consult with your doctor about what you can do to reduce prostate inflammation.
Ways to Get Back to Sleep
Get out of Bed
Lying still or tossing and turning is an exercise in futility. If you have trouble staying asleep and can’t easily nod off again, get up, walk around your home, and stretch. If you’re wide awake, try working on a crossword or Sudoku puzzle for a few minutes to relax. Whatever you do, don’t reach for your smartphone or tablet! That is the ultimate distraction and the type of light from those screens doesn’t do any favors for your sleeping habits.
Don’t Stare at the Clock
We’ve all been guilty of this behavior at one time or another. We look at the clock and will ourselves to go back to sleep. We watch as the minutes, and even hours go by. Turn your clock away from you and don’t look at it. Think of something else like sandy beaches and piles of money or something.
Turn the Lights Off
If they’re not off already, kill the lights. This includes lights in other rooms, porch lights that may leak into your bedroom and smart devices that have lit screens. For optimal sleep, your bedroom should be as dark as a cave.
Easier said than done, right? However, if your mind’s racing a mile a minute, you’re never going to get back to sleep. Take a deep breath, grab a cup of herbal tea (assuming you don’t fall into the category of nighttime urinators), and let go of the day.
There are a variety of deep breathing techniques, but there’s one that’s our favorite. Deeply inhale through your belly for a count of three. Hold it for a second, and then exhale at a slow count of three. Repeat this ten times.
Meditating is a perfect way to clear the mind and help you sleep. Try free guided meditations on YouTube or a smartphone app. You can do a meditation either right before bed to help you stay asleep. Or, if you’ve woken up, say 2 hours after falling alseep, find a comfortable chair and do a ten to fifteen-minute session. It could be just the thing to help you doze again.
You’ve heard of visualization techniques that tell you to picture your favorite beach. You’re lying on a hammock sipping a Pina Colada. By distancing yourself from your immediate environment and picturing yourself in an idyllic environment, you may be able to relax and fall asleep faster.
Progressive Muscle Relaxation
This technique is often done at the end of a yoga class, and it works wonders for sleep. What you do is tense and relax each muscle in your body, starting with your feet and moving up to the top of your body. Most likely, you’ll be back asleep before you reach your shoulders.
How Do I Stay Asleep?
Establish a Bedtime Routine
To maximize the amount of time you stay asleep, it’s helpful to have a routine. This helps signal your body that it’s time for bed and should work to relax you enough to drift off easily. It might be a bath, a few minutes with a good book or a hot cup of herbal tea. Maybe you finish off the night with some stretching right before bed.
Even the act of brushing your teeth before crawling into a bed is a powerful signal that can train your mind to stop its internal chatter and prepare for sleep.
Make Your Bedroom Conducive to Sleep
We mentioned earlier that your bedroom should resemble a cave. This means pitch darkness, a colder temperature, and complete silence.
Caffeine stays in your system long after your last cup. The exact number of hours varies depending on who you listen to, but on average, expect to feel the effects of caffeine up to eight hours after your last cup of joe. So, if your goal is to be asleep by 10 p.m., finish your final cup by 2 p.m.
Avoid Daytime Napping
We know that those afternoon meetings are boring and big lunches inspire a snooze fest. But if you indulge in a nap during the day, you’re more likely to have trouble falling and staying asleep. If you absolutely must nap, limit the time to around 20 minutes.
Relax Your Body
Think about what it would take to make you forget about your daily troubles and relax. Is it a warm bath or something else? Relaxation techniques are different for everyone but find a special activity that you enjoy that helps put you in the mood for bed. You may be able to read between the lines here.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is it normal to wake up every hour at night?
Unless you’re Robert De Niro in the movie Hide and Seek, then no, it’s not normal or encouraged to wake up that often. Actually, it wasn’t ideal for him either, but in case you haven’t the seen the movie, we won’t add any spoilers. Considering that the film was released in 2005, we’re exercising some restraint here.
That being said, our Paleolithic ancestors did wake up several times throughout the night to make sure they were safe. However, they also fell back asleep easily. So, if you do wake up a few times per night, it’s not abnormal. What isn’t normal, however, is spending an hour or more tossing and turning, trying to get back to sleep.
What is middle insomnia?
Unlike insomnia, which is the inability to fall asleep, middle insomnia means it’s difficult for you to sleep during the middle of the night. Waking up between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. and not being able to fall back asleep is the most common symptom of middle insomnia. Those times are the average.
If you wake up early on purpose to start your day, then that’s not the same as middle insomnia. That’s just having a tough schedule!
Can nighttime waking have a spiritual or paranormal meaning?
Many of us have experienced the feeling of being jarred awake by a spirt in the room. We look at the clock, and inevitably, it’s between two or three in the morning. Our first thought is that there’s a ghost in the room and maybe it’s trying to communicate with us.
The truth is (at least this is what we’ve found in our research) that this hour is often when we’re in our most intense state of REM sleep (rapid eye movement). This phase of sleep is when dreams occur, and even if we don’t remember them, they’re often intense.
Therefore, we may suddenly sit up fully awake thinking that someone from beyond the grave is in the room with us, but in reality, it’s only a dream.
Why do I wake up hungry and thirsty?
This is completely normal, though, for some reason, it freaks people out. Considering the fact that you’ve been asleep in bed for about six to eight hours without food or water, it’s natural and expected that you’d often wake up wanting water or a snack.
For those that wake up around 1 to 4 am with an urge to drink (water), it could be a sign that you consumed a lot of salt dehydrating food at dinner. Pizza and MSG (monosodium glutamate) are often culprits. If these episodes continue for consecutive nights despite a healthy diet, it could be a sign of diabetes, and you may want to consult your physician.
If you have trouble staying asleep at night, there are lots of tips and tricks you can try to help ease you back into a restful and dreaming state. While you may consider using this time to be productive and get a jump start on the day, remember that adults need about seven to nine hours of sleep to maintain their health.
Sources and References:
- Is it normal to wake up in the middle of the night? – headspace.com
- Can't sleep? Try these tips – medlineplus.gov
- Why We Wake Up in the Middle of the Night (and Why It's OK) – psychologytoday.com
Author: Sleep Advisor
Our team covers as many areas of expertise as we do time zones, but none of us started here as a so-called expert on sleep. What we do share is a willingness to ask questions (lots of them), seek experts, and dig deep into conventional wisdom to see if maybe there might be a better path towards healthy living. We apply what we learn not only to our company culture, but also how we deliver information to our over 12.7M readers.
Sleep research is changing all the time, and we are 100% dedicated to keeping up with breakthroughs and innovations. You live better if you sleep better. Whatever has brought you here, we wish you luck on your journey towards better rest.