Written by: Nicole Likarish
Updated November 20, 2020
Do you find yourself waking up once, twice, or multiple times a night? It’s actually fairly common to wake up during the night. About a quarter of people say they wake up at least once a night. Without a good night’s sleep, you can wake up grumpy, irritable, and suffer from a lack of focus throughout the day. Most adults need 7 to 9 hours of sleep per night to feel refreshed. When that sleep gets interrupted, it impacts your health and well being.
Sleep-maintenance insomnia is the official term for an inability to stay asleep throughout the night, and there are many reasons it can occur. Read on for potential reasons you keep waking up at night, and tips for staying asleep.
Why Do You Keep Waking Up at Night?
Potential causes behind your mid-night awakenings range from the physical to the mental. Your bedroom environment may even be to blame. Once you understand what’s causing you to wake up at night, you can address the problem and get back to sleep.
Certain health conditions have symptoms that can impact your sleep. If you have chronic pain from an injury, arthritis, cancer, or another condition, it may be difficult for your body to relax sufficiently to stay asleep. Acid reflux, GI conditions, and other digestive issues can also interfere with your ability to stay asleep.
Neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, can increase one’s risk of insomnia. In turn, insomnia can worsen the symptoms of these diseases. Bladder infections can also wake you from your sleep with a need to urinate — a condition known as nocturia — or it may be that you’re simply drinking too many fluids before bed.
If you believe a physical condition is impacting your sleep, talk to your doctor. They may propose a different treatment plan, or adjust your medication, to help you manage your symptoms.
Stress is one of the biggest contributors to insomnia. If you are feeling stressed, it can make it harder to fall asleep in the first place. Moreover, stress can increase your cortisol levels, making your sleep less restful.
Several mental health disorders are associated with sleep issues and fragmented sleep, including anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. The medications used to treat these may also be interfering with your sleep.
If your sleep problems persist, consult a mental health professional. Treating underlying insomnia can help relieve some symptoms of depression and aid in overall symptom management.
Certain sleep disorders are associated with fragmented sleep. Individuals with sleep apnea snore loudly and experience temporary lapses in breathing that jolt their brain awake to restart breathing. Sometimes this occurs while you remain unconscious, while other times it’s disruptive enough to wake you up gasping for air.
Individuals with restless leg syndrome experience uncomfortable sensations in their legs when lying down. These symptoms worsen at night and often disturb their sleep. Individuals with periodic limb movement disorder experience jerking sensations throughout the night that may be strong enough to wake them up.
It’s also possible changing sleep rhythms are causing you to wake up in the middle of the night. Our bodies follow a natural sleep/wake cycle — known as a circadian rhythm — that dictates when we feel tired and when we feel awake, often in accordance with the sun. Your circadian rhythm can be affected by changes in hormone levels, your age, and your exposure to sunlight.
For example, if you travel across time zones, you may experience jet lag due to a sudden change in sunlight. Individuals who work night shifts are awake during a time their internal body clock expects them to be asleep. Some develop shift work sleep disorder and have trouble staying asleep as a result.
Your sleep patterns also change as you age, causing you to wake up more often during the night and spend less time asleep overall. Hormonal changes, such as those associated with pregnancy, menopause, and menstruation, may also wake you up at night.
The cause behind your nighttime awakenings could be as simple as poor sleep habits. Following an irregular sleep schedule makes it tough for your brain to know when it’s time to sleep and when it’s time to be awake.
Eating too much late at night, drinking alcohol or caffeine, or smoking can all activate your body and make it difficult to stay asleep. Nicotine and caffeine are both stimulants that interfere with restful sleep, while the sedative effects of alcohol wear off in the middle of the night, causing you to wake up early. Using electronics or engaging in intense exercise at night similarly wakes up the body, energizing you at a time you want to fall asleep.
Lastly, a poor sleep environment could be at fault for your restless sleep. Sleeping somewhere too noisy or warm can trick your brain into waking up instead of staying asleep.
Tips to Stay Asleep Through the Night
Fortunately, there are plenty of techniques you can use to help yourself get a sounder night’s sleep. Start with these.
Step Up Your Sleep Hygiene.
Follow a regular sleep schedule, even on weekends. Make sure you provide enough time to get at least 7 hours of sleep. Avoid using your bed for anything other than sleep or sex to help your brain associate it as a place of rest.
Schedule Exercise for the Morning.
Exercise energizes you, which is great during the day. At night, however, it can leave your body too energized to stay asleep. Avoid vigorous exercise in the early evening and night.
Get Your Daily Dose of Sunlight.
Help reset your natural sleep patterns by spending time outside, ideally in the morning. Pair this time with your exercise for a natural energy boost.
If you nap too long, or too frequently, during the day, your body won't feel the need to sleep as long at night. How long should you nap? Limit your naps to 30 minutes or less, and avoid taking them in the afternoon or evening.
Avoid Alcohol and Caffeine After Lunch.
Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine can disrupt your sleep. Caffeine can stay in your system for as long as six hours. Avoid consuming these substances after 2 pm.
Step Away From the Electronics.
The blue light emitted by electronics looks a lot like sunlight to your brain. As a result, late-night electronic use can prevent your brain from feeling tired when it should. Avoid using electronics one to two hours before bed — and remove them from your bedroom.
Upgrade Your Sleep Environment.
Set the thermostat to a cool temperature, and keep the room as dark and as quiet as possible. If you’re constantly waking up at night from pain, consider a new mattress or pillow.
Wind Down With a Bedtime Routine.
Instead of using your phone or computer, dedicate the last hour of the night to a calming bedtime routine. Read a book, practice meditation, or listen to relaxing music.
Relax your body as well as your mind. Some gentle stretching, progressive muscle relaxation, and breathing techniques can all help your muscles relax, preventing late-night awakenings.
When All Else Fails, Get Out of Bed.
If you wake up at night and can’t fall back asleep after 15 minutes or so, leave your bedroom and do something relaxing in another room until you get tired again. Avoid using electronics or doing anything too exciting.
Is Constantly Waking Up at Night Normal?
While waking up once a night is fairly common, it can be a sign of something more serious if you’re waking up multiple times a night, several days a week. Keep a sleep diary and note what time and how frequently you’re waking up at night.
If you’ve implemented some of the behavioral techniques above and you still find yourself waking up at night, talk to your doctor — especially if it’s affecting your functioning during the day. It’s possible an underlying medical condition or a mental health disorder is causing your insomnia. A doctor can help you diagnose and treat the underlying issue with medication, lifestyle changes, and other sleep management techniques.
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