Sleeping: Why You Wake Up, And What Not To Do When You Do

Sleeping: Why You Wake Up, And What Not To Do When You Do

If you find yourself staring at the ceiling at 3 a.m. because you can’t go back to sleep, you are not alone. Many people wake up two or three times throughout the night and struggle to get back to sleep. In fact, about 1 in 3 adults in the United States report that they do not get enough rest or sleep every day, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Waking up in the middle of the night usually isn’t a cause for concern, even for people over 60. Due to the aging process, older adults can wake up an average of three or four times a night because they spend less time in deep sleep, according to health experts.

However, some reasons for sleepless nights, like insomnia and stress, might require help from a healthcare professional. For example, people with insomnia may be able to fall asleep initially but find it hard to stay asleep. A variety of factors, such as depression, anxiety, chronic illness, pain, medications, and other factors, can cause insomnia, which has been found in 40 percent of older adults.

Excessive stress due to work or personal problems is another common reason that keeps people awake. According to the Sleep Foundation, excessive stress can affect the musculoskeletal, respiratory, cardiovascular, and gastrointestinal systems. As a result, stress impacts your ability to sleep well, and poor sleep impacts your ability to handle stress. On the other hand, studies have found that high-quality sleep (falling to sleep after getting into bed within 30 minutes or less, sleeping through the night, or waking up no more than once per night), can help you better handle stress in your waking hours.

Other reasons that can cause you to wake up at night include:

  • Noise. Your partner’s snoring or noisy upstairs neighbors are sounds that can disrupt your sleep. “The brain continues to register and process sounds during sleep, and as such, noise can be a major sleep stealer,” Terry Cralle, registered nurse and representative of the Better Sleep Council, told Fortune Well.
  • Eating large meals too close to bedtime. Heartburn and acid reflux caused by eating dinner or other heavy foods can interrupt sleep.
  • Obstructive Sleep Apnea. This happens when you stop breathing for a few seconds while you’re sleeping because something keeps air from moving through your windpipe.
  • Drinking caffeine late in the day. Avoid large doses of caffeine especially after 2 p.m.
  • Drinking alcohol. Blood alcohol levels rise after drinking alcohol but decrease as the body metabolizes it. This metabolism process can lead to tossing and turning and keeping you up at night. “Alcohol consumption is known to reduce the time spent in REM [rapid eye movement] sleep and is also considered a diuretic, which may lead to middle-of-the-night bathroom trips,” Cralle said.

What Not to Do When You Wake Up

Whatever causes you to wake up, sleep experts say there’s one thing that you should not do, which Sarah-Louise Kelly says she is guilty of doing.
Like many people who wake up in the middle of the night and have trouble going back to sleep, Kelly says she grabs her phone and scrolls through it. Although she will not publicly divulge her amount of screen time, the freelance life writer for HuffPost UK confesses that “I am deeply, rightly, ashamed of it…I do myself and my anxiety disorder no favors here.”

When you go for your phone, “you’re telling your brain it’s time to wake up,” Dr. Jeff Rodgers, a sleep expert and dental sleep medicine practitioner in Dunwoody, Ga., explained to Bustle. “The blue light from your phone mimics daylight and suppresses the production of melatonin, the hormone which regulates your sleep-wake cycle.” And once your brain wakes up, it may be difficult to get back to sleep.

Sleep experts also caution against looking at the clock. However, it’s hard to avoid checking the time while scrolling through a phone.

“Just glancing at the time can be enough to wake you up, while checking email, reading news, or engaging in other activities such as playing games or texting can make getting back to sleep difficult or impossible,” Rose MacDowell, sleep expert and chief research officer at Sleepopolis, told Bustle.

Watching time pass and worrying about not being able to get back to sleep or looking at your phone and wondering why someone didn’t text you back only heightens your anxiety and keeps you awake.

“Checking texts, emails, and social media can cause your brain to go into ‘worry mode,'” Dr. Rodgers said. What’s more, if you receive a response to your text message or email, thinking of a response may keep you up even longer.

How to Get Back to Sleep in the Middle of the Night

If you are not able to fall back to sleep within 20 minutes, sleep experts say there are some things that you can do to help you get back to sleep, such as:

• Get out of bed and go into a different room and do something relaxing, like reading a book.

• Eliminate bright lights and loud noises. This means turning off your television, radio, laptops, and electronic devices, closing your windows, or using earplugs to shut out loud noises.

• Listen to white noise via machines, apps, or other devices. White noise masks environmental or outside noises that can disrupt sleep.

• Listen to relaxing music. Certain types of music can act as white noise and block out sounds that can interfere with your sleep.

• Meditate or do deep breathing exercises.

• Focus on something boring, like counting sheep or reading a boring book or article.

While there are plenty of tricks and techniques to use to get back to sleep, you may want to schedule a visit to your doctor’s office if you consistently wake up at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. and have trouble getting back to sleep before sunrise.

“Quality sleep is the foundation on which optimal health is built. Even if nutrition and exercise are at their best, without proper sleep, their benefits are greatly reduced,” Dr. Abhinav Singh, an expert at, medical director at the Indiana Sleep Center, and co-author of Sleep to Heal: 7 Simple Steps to Better Sleep, previously told Fortune. “Sleep is important for metabolic health, immune health, muscle repair, optimal brain function, and mental health. Optimal sleep not only adds years to your life but life to your years.”

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