Stylist's Sleep Diaries: why do I keep waking up at 2am?

“What are the 5 rules for a good night’s sleep?” A sleep expert answers your questions

Posted by for Sleep

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 presenting these diaries to sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan for analysis.  

In this week’s Sleep Diaries, a 32-year-old SEO executive wonders why she’s so tired all the time. 

A little about me:

Age: 32

Occupation: SEO executive

Number of hours sleep you get each night: 6.5

Number of hours sleep you wish you got each night: 8

Do you grind your teeth/have nightmares: both, occasionally

How much water you drink on average per day: probably only about 1 pint (so bad I know), I drink about 4 coffees though

How much exercise I do on average per week:  probably about 45 min per day, mainly via a daily walk

Day 1

Finish work around 6pm, go out to the shop and buy a bottle of wine. I end up drinking three-quarters of the bottle in a short space of time and decide I can’t be bothered to cook (such a bad habit) so I order a pizza. The takeaway takes forever to arrive. I start eating it around 9pm, which I know is too late for such a stodgy meal. It was delicious though. 

To get rid of the bloated, uncomfortable feeling (and avoid feeling groggy tomorrow), I down a pint of water. Then, after watching a film, I get into bed around 11.30pm with the idea that I’m going to read till midnight. However, I see on my kindle that there is one hour and 45 minutes left in the book I’m reading, so I decide I might as well stay up to finish it. It is the weekend after all!

Sleep Diaries: “I decide I might as well stay up to finish my book. It is the weekend after all.”
Sleep Diaries: “I decide I might as well stay up to finish my book. It is the weekend after all.”

It takes me probably about half an hour to fall asleep, which is actually really good going for me – most nights I can lie awake for an hour or two worrying about whatever is going on in my life, or thinking about the most inane things like a TV show I’ve watched, which is really frustrating. Most likely because of the wine. I wake up a couple of times during the night to go to the loo which is also normal for me.

I wake up at 9.30am, which is when I set my alarm for. I think “right, I’ll get up”, but next thing I know it’s 11.30am and I realise I must have fallen straight back asleep, which is annoying as I hate feeling like I’ve wasted the day. It also astounds me that I can still sleep like a teenager even though I’m in my 30s now.

Day 2

Had three homemade (extra-sugary) margaritas then stayed up till 1am watching the Richard Ramirez documentary on Netflix. I am a prolific consumer of true crime content but this one was particularly grim, and it must have unsettled me as I had vivid dreams and woke up slightly confused so it took a while to go back to sleep again. 

Again, I ate too much too late (steak and mash which was delicious but heavy – I have a rich palette which I doubt helps my sleep). I’ve noticed when I go to bed full it also makes me too hot to sleep. I shuffle around and struggle to settle, trying the duvet on and off but feel somehow vulnerable without the duvet on so end up leaving it mainly over me. I drifted off quite quickly again, like I always do when I don’t have to be up early and don’t have work the next day. Again, I’m sure this is helped by the alcohol. I don’t wake up during the night this time as I recall, which I seem to do less when I am off the next day.

When I get up, I make brunch – I only ever eat breakfast on the weekends. I tend to just snack throughout the morning during the week. 

Sleep Diaries: “I only ever eat breakfast on the weekends.”
Sleep Diaries: “I only ever eat breakfast on the weekends.”

Day 3

Trying to make positive efforts to sleep better during the week. My new rule is to go to bed by 10pm, even if it’s reading or watching something. I also made it one of my (many) more prominent new year’s resolutions to not drink on nights when I have work in the morning, so I won’t wake up groggy. So here goes. I also had a late lunch/early dinner, thinking that won’t keep me up too late.

But then I started reading The Idea Of You (it’s a ridiculously addictive romance novel that reads like a fanfiction about Harry Styles) and physically couldn’t put it down all day. I promised myself I would go to bed early tonight as it always takes me much longer to get to sleep on a school night. Yet I stayed up again till after midnight reading, then it took me probably an hour and a half to drift off. I wonder if it’s watching too much TV/reading before bed that is making me over-stimulated? I feel like I have FOMO when it comes to going to bed, which I believe is called sleep procrastination (thanks Dr. Google for the self-diagnosis), where I always think I could have more time reading or watching something if I stay up later. 

Anyway, I set my phone alarm for 7.30am (along with four other alarms I set) and unsurprisingly really struggled to get up, so I was rushed in the morning, getting my week off to a bad start and putting me in an irritable mood.

Day 4

Feel guilty about breaking my sleep resolutions already, so I’m getting the sleep tech back out. I bought a SAD lamp last year, but found it really fiddly to use and didn’t really see a huge difference, but I’ve resolved to try again as anything is better than my aggressively loud and actually alarming phone alarm.

I also started wearing my Fitbit again after about six months. I am coming late to my new year’s resolutions, but since I started recording this I’m interested to know what it can tell me about my sleep patterns. 

I’m sceptical about the data because I don’t see how it can tell the difference between whether I’m moving around in my sleep or shuffling due to being awake (it tells me I woke twice and was ‘restless’ 20 times the previous night). I also don’t think it helps me mentally as I have the inclination to become obsessed with tracking my progress and I want to spend less time on my phone this year as I resent how addicted I’ve become. 

Sleep Diaries: “I have the inclination to become obsessed with tracking my progress and I want to spend less time on my phone this year as I resent how addicted I’ve become.”
Sleep Diaries: “I have the inclination to become obsessed with tracking my progress and I want to spend less time on my phone this year as I resent how addicted I’ve become.”

I’ve been feeling tired and grumpy all day after a rubbish night’s sleep, so I’m determined to sleep better tonight. I go for a half hour walk after work to get some fresh air, before eating an earlyish light dinner of homemade soup around 6.30pm, followed by a bath while listening to a podcast. I go to bed at 10pm as per my strict (self-imposed) orders and read for an hour. I switch the lights out at 11pm but lie awake for what feels like hours (I don’t check the time on my phone for fear of getting into that pointless cycle of counting the exact amount of time I will sleep if I drift off right now).

My mind is racing but not about anything significant really, which again leaves me feeling frustrated. When I finally fall asleep, I wake up a couple of times during the night to go to the loo. I have never been a big water drinker so it baffles me that I wake up more than sufficiently hydrated people.

I still struggle to wake up when my alarm goes off, but not as badly as the day before. 

Day 5

I feel groggy when I wake up yet again, but resolve to get up straight away rather than snooze for half an hour and end up rushed, which feels like a miracle. It occurs to me I must still be getting more sleep than when I was going to the office everyday, yet I feel even more tired.

Finish work slightly later as I’m finishing a report, then I have a shower and catch up with a friend on FaceTime, which I didn’t really think I had the energy for but it really cheers me up. I really fancy a glass of red and internally battle with myself about this for a while, but I’m determined not to for fear of finding it even harder to get up tomorrow morning. I eat around 8pm which is later than I would like, but I don’t feel too full and I go for my bath and then to bed around 10.30pm this time. I’m watching an old BBC series called Bodies (by the writer of Line of Duty). It’s great but gory and leaves me feeling tense. I read for half an hour, this time about a woman who loses her family in a fire (I probably need to go for some lighter material). Again, it takes me an hour or so to drop off and I wake up twice to go to the loo.

I struggle to wake up in the morning and feel rushed yet again. I have a coffee immediately before I can do anything (like I do everyday) which always makes me feel more awake and alert. 

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

Dr Nerina Ramlakhan, sleep expert and professional physiologist, says: There’s much going on here, and the simplest advice I can offer is that you need to follow my ‘5 NON-NEGOTIABLES’ programme for at least 7-10 days and I can guarantee you will be feeling and sleeping better.

But are you really motivated to do so? At the risk of sounding a bit ‘life coachy’, you need to consider whether you value yourself enough to make some healthier choices.

So here are my five non-negotiable rules:

  1. Eat breakfast within 30 mins of rising, and make sure to include some protein. It doesn’t have to be big; even a piece of toast with nut butter is enough!
  2. Cut back on caffeine and stop using it as a substitute for food, especially for breakfast. No caffeine after 3pm and ideally no more than two coffees a day.
  3. Increase hydration to two litres of water per day.
  4. Get yourself to bed earlier at least four nights a week. You want to be in bed around 9.30-10pm, and aim to be relaxing, reading, meditating. Do not use any electronic devices.
  5. And on that note… keep electronic devices out of the bedroom!
Dr Nerina Ramlakhan Stylist's sleep expert
Sleep expert Dr Nerina Ramlakhan

Dr Nerina continues: I would also advise you to stop measuring your sleep, because it’s not accurate anyway, and to watch /read something life-affirming and uplifting before going to bed. 

You need to tell your mind and body that you’re living in a world where good things happen, too, so keep the horror stories for during the day.

For more information on the five non-negotiable rules for a good night’s sleep, check out Dr Nerina Ramlakhan’s book, Fast Asleep Wide Awake.

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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.

Lead image design: Ami O’Callaghan

Images: Getty/Unsplash

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Kayleigh Dray

Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.

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