Everyone knows by this point that a good night’s sleep is vital for our wellbeing. We know this. And so, when we find ourselves waking up inexplicably in the middle of the night, it’s easy to start worrying how our interrupted sleep will impact us.
Unfortunately, though, stressing out about a lack of sleep is unlikely to make the situation better. In fact, we have a tendency to over-monitor how much rest we’re getting; and this vigilance gets in the way of the kind of relaxation that is central to winding down.
Essentially, it’s a vicious circle. Go figure.
By all accounts, then, trying not to get anxious about not sleeping is almost as important – and as potentially difficult as – the issues caused by lack of sleep itself. So how can we go about doing this?
Well, maybe it’s worth taking a step back and assessing your sleep habits, including if (and when) you wake up during the night.
Now, first things first, some reassurance: it’s not at all unusual to wake up in the night. In fact, Dr Jose Colon, author of The Sleep Diet, says that waking up four to six times per night is typical.
“Nobody sleeps through the night,” he says. “This goes back to our caveman days where one would wake up, scan the environment, make sure there are no tigers, and then go back to sleep.”
But while waking up in the night is common enough, you should be able to get to sleep again within a few minutes. Often, people don’t even remember it happening.
If you don’t nod back off, there could be a larger underlying issue at play. And it’s here that you should pay attention to the time you wake up each night – if it remains consistent, it can reveal a lot about you, and your body.
Waking up between 9pm and 11pm
As this is typically most people’s bedtime, this would presumably occur shortly after falling asleep. If you find yourself affected, it could be a sign that you are stressed, worried, or anxious. As a result, your body has subconsciously entered flight or fight mode.
Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania, tells Time.com: “A general rule of thumb is that if you’re struggling to fall asleep at the start of the night, that’s due to anxiety or stressful life events.”
He adds that environmental issues – such as screen devices, a too-bright room, or noisy surroundings – can also trigger sleeplessness early in the night.
The solution: Try meditation, a relaxing yoga routine, or adopt a regular night time ritual to help calm and soothe you before bed. And ditch the screens for an hour before bed; try reading a book instead.
Waking up between 11pm and 1am
According to the Chinese Body Clock, the energy meridian that services your gall bladder is activated during these hours. As your gall bladder works to break down all the fats you’ve consumed during the day, waking up between these hours could suggest that you need to review what you’re eating before bed – or that you need to have your dinner earlier in the evening.
“Try to eat your last big meal of the day at least two to three hours before going to sleep,” says Dr Nerina Ramlakhan. “And, if you are awake until late in the night and four or five hours have passed since you ate your last big meal, then you can have a little snack of something easily digestible – I suggest fruit – before bedtime.”
Waking up in this time frame is also associated with emotional disappointment, bitterness, and resentment; some suggest that you practice self-acceptance, let go of the mistakes that you or others have made, and focus on feelings of forgiveness before trying to get back to sleep.
The solution: Try having your dinner earlier in the evening, and avoid late-night snacking wherever possible.
Waking up between 1am and 3am
Your liver is being refreshed during these hours, according to the Chinese Body Clock, which means that, if you wake up during this time, your liver could have too much to do. Tweaking your diet and reducing late-night alcohol consumption could be the key to solving this issue.
Dr. Damien Stevens, a doctor of sleep and pulmonary medicine at the University of Kansas Hospital, backs the idea that drinking late at night is bad for your sleep cycle.
Speaking to Time.com, he says: “Depending on your metabolism, alcohol going to leave your system after a few hours.
“When that happens, you wake up.”
Timothy Roehrs, director of sleep disorders research at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, adds that many people do feel sleepy after a glass of wine or bourbon – but that the effects never last for long.
“The sleep alcohol induces is associated with intense slow-wave brain activity, which is considered to be the deepest, most restorative kind of sleep,” he says.
Once your body has broken down and metabolised the alcohol, the deep sleep phase of your cycle is over; instead, your sleep becomes fitful, as your brain waves are stimulated.
The solution: Say no to that night-cap.
Waking up between 3 and 5am
According to the Chinese Body Clock, this is when the meridian that services your lungs is strongest, replenishing them and giving them a boost of energy for the day ahead.
Waking up and coughing during this time could be a sign that you need to consume healthier food or breathe cleaner air.
The solution: Try to engage in some outdoor exercise at some point in the day. However, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan advises that we try to avoid any vigorous activity in the three hours before bed, as it releases the stress hormones in the body.
Waking up between 5am and 7am
This time is for the renewal and cleansing of your large intestine, according to the Chinese Body Clock. As this organ is responsible for clearing the body of toxic waste from our digestive system, waking up during this time could indicate a weakness in this area.
To help with the process, it’s recommended that you make sure you’re drinking enough water throughout the day. In fact, Dr Nerina Ramlakhan says we should all increase hydration to two litres of water per day if we want to sleep better each night.
You may also wake at this time if you are feeling emotionally blocked or restricted in your life in some way. It may also be a sign that you need to release and let go of guilt or burdening emotions.
The solution: Drink more water throughout the day, and spend some time addressing your emotions.
5 other factors that could be causing you to wake up in the night:
You need to use the toilet
Waking up in the night to go to toilet is a common issue – but that doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. To help combat it, many doctors suggest cutting out diuretics, such as caffeine and alcohol, in the afternoon and evening, as they can trigger overactive bladders into needing to pee during the day and night.
They also suggest cutting back on your fluid intake after 6pm, and working on strengthening your pelvic floor muscles with kegel exercises.
However, if you still find yourself waking up in the night to go to the loo, it’s worth keeping a ‘voiding diary’ for 48 hours, and booking an appointment with your GP.
They may be able to determine what the matter is with a simple exam and blood test – and, if not, they can always refer you to an urologist.
According to the National Sleep Foundation (NSF), many people have trouble sleeping because they are too hot.
“Research has shown that there seems to be an ideal temperature for sleep and when this temperature is very high, it takes longer to fall asleep, and once sleep is achieved, it is broken up or fragmented and there is less dreaming,” they explain.
The ideal bedroom temperature sits between 15.5 and 18 degrees, so try to make sure your boudoir doesn’t get much hotter than this.
Marc Leavey, MD, a primary care specialist with Mercy Medical Centre in Baltimore, also suggests having a bath or shower before bed to help regulate your temperature.
"Taking a warm bath raises your temperature in the tub slightly, while exiting the tub triggers a slight drop in temperature—a signal that your brain associates with sleep," he explains to Prevention.com.
You’re drinking alcohol shortly before bed
As previously mentioned, late-night food and alcohol wreaks havoc with our sleep cycles, so it’s best to avoid that nightcap and quit drinking a few hours before you go to bed.
This should give your body time to metabolise the alcohol before you fall asleep.
You’re stressed or anxious
Stress and anxiety are often linked to sleeplessness; it’s a good idea to take stock of your feelings and emotions, and to engage in stress-reduction activities, such as meditation, yoga, or progressive relaxation.
Focusing on your breathing can also help to soothe you and lull you to sleep – and the 4-7-8 breathing trick, devised by Dr Andrew Weill, is said to help people fall asleep in 60 seconds by acting as a “natural tranquilliser for the nervous system”.
So how do you do it?
- Place the tip of your tongue against the ridge of tissue just behind your front teeth
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound.
- Close your mouth and inhale quietly through your nose to a mental count of four.
- Hold your breath for a count of seven.
- Exhale completely through your mouth, making a whoosh sound to a count of eight.
- This is one breath. Now inhale again and repeat the cycle three more times for a total of four breaths.
Dr Andrew Weil insists that you should “always inhale quietly through your nose and exhale audibly through your mouth” - and, most importantly, make sure that your “exhalation takes twice as long as inhalation”.
You spend too much time on your phone
From your smartphone to your television screen, electronic devices are light sources that people tend to hold close to their faces.
Exposing your eyes to backlighting during the evening stops the body from making melatonin, the sleep hormone, and robs you of a sweet night’s slumber.
As Dr Nerina Ramlakhan explains: “Using electronics late at night means you are soaking in blue light, which can mess with the quality of your sleep by suppressing production of melatonin (the hormone that keeps your sleep/wake cycle in check), and it can delay sleep onset (the amount of time it takes you to fall asleep).”
She advises that you dim your room lights, make your last hour before bed a screen-less one, and make sure that your bedroom is a screen-free zone all together – yes, this includes the television.
For more advice on how to get a good night’s sleep, visit the NHS’ Guide To Sleeping Well here. And don’t forget to check out Stylist’s Sleep Diaries for more brilliant sleep tips, too.
Please note that this article was originally published in 2018.