Healthy Sleeping Habits

The Top 5 Reasons You Wake up in the Middle of the Night, According to a Sleep Doctor

Mary Grace Garis

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Photo: Getty Images/Karl Tapales
Name me something more annoying than waking up in the middle of the night and then having trouble heading back into slumber. I'll wait. Well, big plot twist ahead, because the top reason for waking up in the middle of the night is that doing so is simply part of your normal sleep cycle. But how many times is too many times? And if that number does err on excessive, what could be causing the wake-ups?

"Everyone wakes up five to seven times per night between finishing complete sleep cycles," says sleep expert Shelby Harris, PsyD, author of The Women's Guide to Overcoming Insomnia. "Each awakening is extremely brief in nature, and we fall right back asleep with amnesia for it."

Furthermore, having two or three wake-ups that you actually remember is common, and NBD for your snooze time, so long as you're able to return to sleep relatively quickly. Age plays a factor here, Dr. Harris says, given that younger people tend to awaken once or twice a night briefly, whereas older people tend to have more "broken, shallow sleep."

No matter your age, what matters more than the number of times you wake up (and remember it) is the the duration—and if your mornings feel messed up as a result. "You could awaken only twice at night, but if one awakening is for an hour many times a week, that’s likely a problem," Dr. Harris says.

So, if you're feeling exhausted from your broken sleep and haven't been able to pinpoint a culprit, check out the top five Dr. Harris sees with her clients.

Below, find 5 reasons you're waking up in the middle of the night (and what to do about each).

1. Snoring

It could be your own snores that are the problem, but more likely, it's your significant other snoozing loudly beside you. This provides a compelling reason for sleeping alone, regardless of your relationship status. But, at the very least, consider ways to lower the nose-borne volume.

2. Nature calling…a lot

Ah yes, hell hath no bleary-eyed fury like having to drag your feet to the bathroom at 3 a.m. If you see yourself making that crawl nightly and then find it hard to get back to sleep, try to hydrate mindfully. While good hydration can lead to a better night's sleep overall, Dr. Harris says to steer clear of fluids three hours before bedtime. Or, perhaps try to keep your anxiety in check, because it could be anxiety at play, not your beverage intake.

3. Discomfort that leads to tossing and turning

I feel this on every level—particularly physically. I assume it's why I always sleep better in the comfy queen bed of my childhood versus the rush-order budget mattress in my apartment. While I understand (firsthand) that investing in a new mattress isn't the easiest of quick fixes to make, now might be the time to switch your blanket or streamline your pillow situation.

4. Temperature

News flash: The National Sleep Foundation recommends a temp between 60 and 67 degrees for optimal snoozing. "Your bedroom should be cool and comfortable," says Dr. Harris. "We often—women especially—go to bed cold and have the room warmer than ideal, only to wake up middle of the night due to sweating."

If you still need to cocoon yourself at bedtime, cooling blankets are available to you, as are cooling pillows, sheets, and mattress inserts. And for an option that doesn't involve cash? Strip down and sleep naked!

5. Anxiety or an active brain

It's super possible that while your body might be snug as a bug, your mind is running running a marathon of sorts. That, too, can keep you awake. It's also possible that you may be able to drift off, "but once you’ve been asleep for a few hours, you might awaken between sleep cycles, and whatever was on your brain before bed is likely going to be there—and stronger—middle of the night," Dr. Harris says.

There's no one-size-fits-all solution for this, of course, but one recommendation sleep specialist Nate Watson, MD, previously told Well+Good was to keep a worry journal before bed. Try jotting down what's nagging at you for a few nights in a row if you find yourself sick with worry. And no matter what may be the cause, armed with new and specific knowledge, the hope is that pleasant (uninterrupted!) dreams can be in your near future.

By the way, social jet lag might be the reason you sleep terribly on Sundays. And if you have trouble falling asleep on the plane, meet the chiropractor-approved neck pillow of your dreams!

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