Wellbeing

“Why do I wake up at 2am every single night? And how do I stop?” – a sleep expert answers your questions

Welcome to Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, where we’re taking a deep-dive into one of the most important (and elusive) factors in our day-to-day lives: sleep. To help us understand more about it, we’re inviting women to track their bedtime routines over a five-day period – and filing these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 29-year-old social media obsessee wonders why she keeps waking up at 2am – despite clocking up five hours of exercise a week.

A little about me:

  • Age: 29
  • Occupation: team leader, social media
  • Number of hours sleep I get each night: 6
  • Number of hours sleep I wish I got each night: 8
  • Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: No
  • How much water I drink on average per day: I try to drink 2 litres, but often fail
  • How much exercise I do on average per week: 4-5 hours 

Day 1

I spent the day WFH so I forced myself to go to a gym class after work, even though I really don’t want to. Some 50 horrifically sweaty minutes later, I drag myself home and immediately run to the kitchen to see what I can have for dinner. I muster up some grilled chicken with left-over rice, black beans and salad (call it a homemade tortilla if you will) and eat it in about 3-minutes flat while flicking through what’s on TV. My flatmate is away this week and, while I miss the company, it’s nice to have some alone time in the flat.

After dinner I wash up and have an extremely long shower then take ages doing my skincare… something I’m normally very lazy with but I find it helps me relax. By the time this is done, it’s 8.30 and I’m exhausted so I flop onto my bed and watch some Netflix on my laptop. I have a habit of relaxing in my bedroom rather than the living room which I know probably disturbs my sleep but it’s just so cosy.

I fall asleep watching TV, which is standard. Wake up at 9.40pm and I’m so tired I can hardly keep my eyes open, so I get properly into bed. I tend to get tired very early as I wake up pretty early so this is nothing new. Like clockwork I wake up at 2am, check my phone (bad, I know), fall back asleep after 10-minutes. I wake up again at 4am, look at the time, and resist the urge to look at notifications. This goes on every hour until I actually need to get up. 

Sleep diaries: “Like clockwork, I wake up at 2am.”
Sleep diaries: “Like clockwork, I wake up at 2am.”

Day 2

I had a really weird sleep. You know the kind where your body feels so heavy and you sleep so deeply but wake up confused and groggy? That kind.

This, combined with my waking up multiple times throughout the night, means I feel dead to the world. I force myself to get up for my gym class, though, as I’ll get charged £8 if I’m a no-show. Even though I’m reluctant it sorts me right out though (I try to work out at least four times a week as it helps my anxiety and helps me to sleep better).

I rush home after to shower and make a banana protein smoothie before my morning work call at 9am. Lunch is scrambled eggs, avocado, tomatoes and turmeric tea and I force myself to drink 2 litres of water from my giant bottle.

I’m going out for dinner tonight with my boyfriend so at 5.30pm I log off work and head to south London (I live in East) where we try to find a Nando’s that can seat us. We fail, obviously, as it’s Tuesday and the last Tuesday of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme so everyone else has the same idea.

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We settle for burgers, but the food takes forever to arrive and by the time it does, it’s 9pm which I know will disrupt my sleep. It does, I fall asleep quickly around 11.15pm but feel like I’m awake from around 2am till 5am. And, when I properly ‘wake up’, it’s with the worst tummy ache ever at 6.15am.

Unrested and moody, I scroll through my phone a bit, then get up at 7am properly.

Day 3

I head back East and vow to never eat that late again on a work night. Spend the day in back-to-back meetings, manage to make a big halloumi and roasted pepper salad for lunch then head to a barre class at 6pm before meeting a friend for dinner (how is it I haven’t taken advantage of the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme once and then suddenly I have multiple dinners a week?!). 

We go to Franco Manca but I can only eat half so take the rest home to have for lunch tomorrow. I walk the 30-minutes home, do the washing up from lunch and chill out in the living room for a bit then head to bed around 11pm where I scroll through my phone for 10 minutes then turn off my light. 

I fall asleep quickly, wake up around 2am needing the toilet, quickly run there and back with my eyes basically still closed and fall back to sleep until 5.30am.

Sleep
Sleep tips: how to manage your commotion.

Day 4

5.30am is generally the time my ‘natural’ body clock wakes me up. If I’m lucky I can drift in and out of sleep again till about 6.30 when my body refuses to go back to sleep. Today I lie in bed and scroll through my phone for about 30-minutes, checking Instagram and TikTok. I usually start most mornings doing this which I know is terrible but when you work in social media it becomes second nature. 

Around 6ish I get out of bed, make a Turmeric Tea (I don’t drink English Tea and have recently cut out coffee) and get back into bed with a book for an hour. Today is busy at work but I make scrambled eggs on flatbread for lunch, head to Barre class after work and then for dinner I have a veggie stir-fry with some leftovers. 

I watch How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days on Netflix and get into bed around 10.30. For the first and only time this week, I don’t wake up throughout the night. 

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Day 5

I wake up around 5.30am feeling rested but put my eye mask back on and drift back off to sleep till 7am. This is unheard of for me. Even after a late night I’m awake by 5.30/6am and unable to go back to sleep. 

At 7am I get up and ready to head to my co-working space. I rented it during lockdown so I could separate work from home, but this week has been so busy I decided to make the most of a flatmate-free flat and power through my to-do list at home. I get to the co-working space at 8.30, grab a chai latte and a croissant and get ready for a morning of meetings. 

Lunch is a chicken salad from my favourite little cafe, then at 5.30pm I clock-off and walk home. I’m going on holiday tomorrow, so I pack and have the leftovers from the stir-fry I made yesterday. At 9.30pm I get into bed to watch something on my laptop but can’t find anything so instead I read. By 11pm I’m falling asleep, but I have another restless night (I live near a busy road and can hear lots of sirens so from around 1-3am I drift in and out of sleep).

At 6am I wake up and decide to get up and clean the flat, finish packing then make a nice breakfast before my flight. I feel slightly groggy but not too bad as I know I can switch off on holiday.

So, what does it all mean? A sleep expert offers her thoughts

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “You seem to be in overdrive and the key issue is finding more balance to smooth out the energy peaks and troughs. You already have some great habits, such as cutting out caffeine and your exercise routine. Your diet is mostly good and varied, you’re working on your water intake, and your skincare routine is admirable!

“However, you could get more bang for your buck by doing some conscious breathwork during the day as you go about your day so that your energy is more gently balanced and you don’t crash out with fatigue – this type of sleep is not deeply restorative. 

“You know this, but you really need to not watch Netflix in bed, and ideally keep your phone out of the room (or, at the very least, absolutely stop looking at the time when you wake in the early hours). It’s entirely normal to wake during this time, but you’re stopping yourself getting back to sleep with all the phone and time checking. When you wake in the early hours, you need to focus on resting rather than sleeping.”

A mug on a bedside table
Sleep diaries: “Focus on resting, meditating, reading or even keeping a gratitude journal.”

Ramlakhan adds: “You’re probably getting more sleep than you think, but maybe not enough deep sleep. So stop worrying about the sleep you’re getting after 5am (we’ve had most of our deepest healing sleep by then) and instead focus on resting, meditating, reading, or even keeping a gratitude journal. 

“That being said, using an eye mask, as you did, or even a yoga eye pillow (my favourite) for an extra phase of sleep in the early hours if really needed is a good idea. You could also experiment with a fan in the room for white noise as you live in a noisy area.

“I want you to have the amazing energy you deserve with all the good stuff you do, so it’s just a bit of fine-tuning needed here!”

If you would like to take part in Stylist’s Sleep Diaries, please email us at digital.commissions@stylist.co.uk with ‘SLEEP DIARIES’ as the subject. We look forward to hearing from you.

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Dr Nerina Ramlakhan is a renowned physiologist and sleep expert and regularly hosts sleep programmes and workshops. She is the bestselling author of several books about sleep, including The Little Book of Sleep: The Art of Natural Sleep (Gaia, 2018).

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

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