It is normal to wake up several times at night, often when the brain is going through various cycles of more or less deep sleep. Older people often have to get up to go to the bathroom. All of this is usually harmless. Most people have no trouble getting back to sleep and may not even remember waking up in the middle of the night the next morning.
However, if you often wake up in the middle of the night and find yourself in a fight to get back to sleep, there could be an underlying problem. If this happens to you at least three times a week for at least three months, it could be chronic insomnia, said Kannan Ramar, a sleep doctor at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota and past president of the American Academy of Medicine for Dream Medicine.
Two of the main causes of insomnia are stress and anxiety. If you wake up and look at your watch and then worry about going to work or paying bills and other worries in life the next day rested, it could activate your sympathetic nervous system, which controls the call. Fight or flight response. The levels of adrenaline, known as the stress hormone, will spike and your heart rate will increase, creating a heightened state of excitement that will make it especially difficult for you to get back to sleep.
“You might ask, ‘Is this the same time I woke up last night? Why does this always happen to me? ‘”Said Ramar. “These thoughts are not helpful in getting back to sleep.”
If you find you’ve been awake for 25 minutes or more, experts advise getting out of bed and doing an activity that will calm you down – anything that combats stress-stealing thoughts that are keeping you awake from sleep. Light stretching or breathing exercises can help, as can meditation, which studies have shown can combat chronic insomnia. You can sit on the sofa to knit or read a book or magazine in the soft light. Of course, avoid reading on your cell phone, as the blue light on these devices can stop the production of melatonin, the hormone that causes drowsiness. However, you can turn to your phone to use an app like Calm or Headspace to help you meditate and sleep.
In the end, when you start to feel tired, go back to bed and try to doze off. Then, practice the following sleep hygiene habits the next day to improve your chances of getting a sound sleep through the night.
Limit your alcohol consumption at night. In small amounts, alcohol can act as a sedative and help you fall asleep faster. But it can also cause you to wake up in the middle of the night while your body is metabolizing it. Studies show that consuming alcohol before bed can lead to poor quality sleep.
Avoid caffeine after 2 p.m. as it can stay in your system until late at night. If you have a cup of coffee at 3:30 p.m., a quarter of the caffeine in it can stay in your body for up to 12 hours later.
Avoid taking long naps as this can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. Napping too late reduces what scientists call the homeostatic drive, which is basically the pressure on your body to sleep at night. If you want to take a nap during the day, do it in the morning or early afternoon and keep it short, no more than 30 minutes. “The longer or closer to bedtime, the more likely you are to cause problems,” said Sabra Abbot, assistant professor of neurology in sleep medicine at the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago.
Keep a strict schedule. Waking up and sleeping at inconsistent times can mess up your circadian rhythm, the body’s innate cycle that tells us when to wake up and fall asleep, and make it difficult for you to sleep uninterruptedly. Try to wake up at the same time each morning (try to expose yourself to at least 15 minutes of sunlight in the morning to stop melatonin production) and go to bed at the same time each night. Studies show that people who sleep irregularly are more likely to develop symptoms of insomnia.
If you get up to go to the bathroom frequently, try to limit your fluid intake before bed.
If none of these work, a sleep specialist can examine you and determine if you have a more serious problem, such as sleep apnea or restless legs syndrome, conditions that require medical attention. A sleep clinic can also help you contact a cognitive behavioral therapist to identify and treat specific behaviors that could be causing your chronic insomnia.
Anahad O’Connor is a reporter on health, science, nutrition and other topics. He is also the bestselling author of health books such as Never Shower During a Thunderstorm and The 10 Things You Need to Eat.