Wellbeing

“Why do I keep waking up hours before my alarm?” – 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 39-year-old academic wonders why she keeps waking up in the early hours of the morning, as she reveals that she’s been plagued by nightmares during the coronavirus lockdown.

A little about me:

  • Age: 39
  • Occupation: academic
  • Number of hours sleep I get each night: 6-7
  • Number of hours sleep I wish I got each night: 9
  • Any officially diagnosed sleep-related problems: I’ve been experiencing nightmares during the pandemic.
  • How much water I drink on average per day: I usually drink around half a litre.
  • How much exercise I do on average per week: 30 minutes swimming (three times each week), a 45-minute walk (twice a week), and a 1-hour yoga session (once a week).

Day 1

My alarm goes off at 6am. I feel pretty good, and get myself a cup of tea, some cereal and toast about 6.45am. 

After going for a 45-minute walk in the sunshine at 8am, I begin working at home, and squeeze in a half-hour nap at lunchtime

I have dinner at 5.30pm – homemade ratatouille, gnocchi and chicken – which I wash down with fruit and a decaf coffee. Then, I sip on tonic water as I spend the evening on the phone (old school, voice calls only), watch a little TV in the living room, and check social media

I find myself fretting about some unresolved work issues, so have a mug of hot chocolate around 9pm. 

I go to bed about 10pm and fall asleep straight away. 

Sleep Diaries: “I go swimming three times a week.”
Sleep Diaries: “I go swimming three times a week.”

Day 2

I wake around 1am, but drift off again quickly. But then I’m up again around 4am – and this time I’m really awake. 

I listen to the radio for 30 minutes or so, and drop back off to sleep. Then, before I know it, my alarm is ringing at 6am and I feel sluggish. 

I manage a bowl of cereal and a cup of tea at about 6.30am before I head to the pool, where I swim for about half an hour. I feel much more energised afterwards, and return home for a coffee (caffeinated this time) and a toasted muffin before I sit down in my home office at 9am. 

I have another half hour nap about 1pm, before getting back to work, and finish everything I need to do at around 5.30 pm.

I eat yesterday’s leftovers for my dinner, and my best friend rings for a chat. Unfortunately, though, I can’t talk for long because I am joining a Zoom group bingo session this evening with a social group I’m in. 

Afterwards I watch a bit of TV and head to bed about 10pm. I read a paperback for a short while then put the light out about 10.30pm.  

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Day 3

I wake feeling refreshed at 5.25am – I haven’t noticed waking up earlier in the night like I do usually – but doze off again until the alarm goes at 6am. 

I’m not rushing to the pool today, so I have a cup of tea and some oatmeal with honey and a boiled egg with a toasted muffin at around 7am, before taking a short drive to the supermarket. 

When I get home, I whip myself up a coffee and start work at 9.30am, with a coffee. 

Sadly, there’s no time for a lunchtime nap today as I have a lot of back-to-back meetings, so I power through until I clock off at 5pm. 

Then, I make myself some pasta for dinner, before joining my weekly Zoom yin yoga class at 7.30pm. 

This form of yoga involves holding postures for around three minutes each and is deeply relaxing. However, it takes a while for me to switch off from my whirring brain tonight. 

Afterwards, I have a mug of hot milk and some chocolate, and watch a little TV. I go to bed at 10.30pm and I’m almost asleep as my head hits the pillow!  

Sleep Diaries: “My quality of sleep is always better after a yoga session.”
Sleep Diaries: “My quality of sleep is always better after a yoga session.”

Day 4

I wake up at 5.25am but feel really refreshed – my sleep has been of really good quality, as it usually is after yoga.

To celebrate, I have some tea and cereal for breakfast at 6.45am, before heading to the pool. I swim for about half an hour and then do a few bits of housework before sitting down to work at 9am, with a coffee.

Again, I have a 45-minute nap at lunchtime, then am back to work for about 5.30pm.

I make myself a chicken pie with mash and vegetables for dinner, before logging on to my monthly book group, which is currently meeting on Zoom because of the pandemic. 

Once it’s finished, I make a phone call and then read for a short time before putting the light out at 10.30pm.  

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Day 5

It’s Friday! At work, we have been trying to keep Fridays free from meetings, so I feel like I can prioritise my own to-do list instead of my diary organising me today. 

It’s a busy one, as I’m trying to get a lot of things tied up before I have a week off. And then my mum arrives in the afternoon (she is staying for the weekend.), so we cook kedgeree for dinner, which we serve with a glass of sparkling wine. 

I go to bed about 10.30pm, but it’s chilly, so I take a hot water bottle with me. 

At around 3.30am, I find myself suddenly awake. Then, for the rest of the night, I’m dozing off and  waking again, right up until 6am when the alarm goes off (I keep it to the same time as during the week). 

 This early morning pattern is something that I have experienced quite frequently in the last few years, and it leaves me feeling sluggish when I do finally get up.  

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

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: “Your main issue is occasional early morning waking – or ‘sleep maintenance’, which is the second most common sleep problem – but you seem to have no problem getting to sleep (the most common sleep problem).

“It’s important that you understand it’s perfectly normal to wake at this time, but you can avoid the disruption by not checking your phone or clock when you do wake. I also think breathing techniques would be very helpful for you, as they may help you to relax when you find yourself unable to get back to sleep. Channel the lessons you learn in yoga to your sleep.”

Ramlakhan adds: “You seem to be a sensitive person, so try to be mindful of what you do before you go to bed – watching the news or having stressful conversations just before bedtime could affect your sleep.

“I also think it’s important for you to ensure you have good support in your life – people you can talk to about how you really feel, so that it doesn’t spill over into your sleep.

“And, finally, I would really recommend increasing your hydration levels, as studies have shown that going to bed even mildly dehydrated can disrupt your sleep. Try to drink around two litres each day, and see if that helps.”

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

Images: Getty

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