Whatever the reason is that you woke up, this barrage of unwanted thoughts then keeps you awake even longer. It’s a vicious circle and one which I’ve personally spun around in many times.
Sometimes called ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’ or ‘middle of the night insomnia’, the good news is that it might not actually be as bad for you as you fear.
Why does it happen?
In this article I’ll be looking at some of the common reasons why you may be waking up. Many of these reasons are things which you can then try to tackle.
As with most forms of insomnia, it’s often best seen as a symptom of another problem. And so the best approach is to work out what that first problem is and deal with it.
In addition I’ll look at a fascinating theory which suggests that there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in two phases.
The standard advice for adults has long been that 7-9 hours of solid sleep a night is best for the body and mind. But there’s growing evidence that this may not necessarily be true.
It may well be totally normal and even good for you to wake up in the night. If nothing else, it could be comforting to know that it’s natural and not doing you any great harm.
First let’s have a look at some common reasons why people wake in the night.
1) An underlying sleep disorder
You may have a sleep disorder which is causing the waking, such as a breathing disorder like sleep Apnea. If you or anyone else notices any kind of breathing problems in the night, then it’s essential you get yourself checked out by a doctor.
The sleep disorder Narcolepsy, which causes people to fall asleep uncontrollably during the day can lead to waking randomly too. If this happens to you then again it’s important to get checked out by a doctor.
2) An underlying mental health issue, anxiety or stress
There’s a range of mental health issues which can lead to sleep problems. People who suffer from anxiety or stress for example are often more likely to wake up. And when that flurry of thoughts and worries arrives it can be hard to fall asleep again.
3) Needing the toilet
There are several reasons why you may need to wake up to use the toilet. Some men, particularly middle-aged men, may have an enlarged prostrate leading to the need to urinate. More likely though it arises from drinking too much shortly before bed, with alcohol being a particular offender.
Alcohol can trigger a middle of the night awakening for several reasons:
- Alcohol withdrawal can wake you up, particularly if you drink heavily on a regular basis.
- The excessive liquid can lead to the need to run to the toilet.
- Alcohol can disrupt your normal sleep patterns.
Whether it’s a partner snoring or sleep-talking, the traffic outside rumbling away or sudden noises, sound can wake you up at any hour. You may not even realise you were woken up by a brief noise. One of the best options available to deal with disruptive noise is to get some good earplugs for sleeping.
5) Hunger, thirst and indigestion
Hunger, thirst and indigestion can all cause problems. For that reason it’s a good idea to have a small drink before bed, but only enough to keep you hydrated.
Try to eat your main meal earlier in the day and only have a light snack before bed. And if you have eaten a heavy or rich meal before bed, perhaps eat a yogurt or take a calcium-based tablet to stave off any indigestion problems.
6) Bad dreams or other parasomnias
Children and adults alike can be woken up by nightmares or other disturbing events in their sleep. If this is an issue for you, take a look at the article about stopping nightmares which you may find helpful.
7) Travel and shift work
One of the hardest things to do is to have massive changes to your sleep schedule and adapt quickly. It’s very common for shift workers, airplane staff and travelers to have serious sleep disruption.
If this is the case, then you may find a supplement like melatonin can help regulate your sleep again.
Could it be a normal sleeping pattern?
The psychiatrist Thomas Wehr conducted a study in the 1990s which involved keeping people in darkness for 14 hours a day for one month. This was to follow as closely as possible the natural cycle of day and night, where we experience 14 hours of darkness in an average day.
Once they had managed to establish a sleep pattern, it became evident that they would sleep for 3-5 hours, then wake up for 1-3 hours, and then fall asleep once again for another 3-5 hours. It appears then that their natural sleep cycle was to wake up in the night.
The hours of darkness have greatly reduced in the modern world due to the availability of lighting, as well as an ever-increasing drive towards efficiency.
So in the fast-paced modern world, we’ve compressed how much time we allow for sleep and try to get it all done in one block.
Wehr’s study showed that we may actually prefer to sleep in 2 phases though. So if you have an inability to sleep through the night, all may not be lost.
This theory is further backed up in a book published in 2005 by the historian Roger Ekirch (At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past).
Nighttime wakings throughout history
Ekirch’s book contains hundreds of references to historical descriptions across the globe of sleeping in 2 phases. From the authors Homer, Dickens and Cervantes to medieval medical books and anthropological reports of the Tiv tribe in Nigeria, it’s a fascinating account.
And interestingly, there are descriptions of people doing all sorts of things in the early hours of the morning, such as relaxing, talking, reading and writing. Even getting up and practicing religious beliefs, visiting neighbors or trying to conceive.
Funnily enough, Ekirch also notes that the expression sleep maintenance insomnia first appeared during the industrial revolution at the end of the 19th Century, which is the time when references to segmented sleep all but disappeared.
Normal to be awake in the night
Sleep Psychologist Greg Jacobs has also said that it’s very normal for people to wake up in the night, and that this was how we slept naturally until recently.
He’s joined by a growing number of scientists who believe that it can be harmful for people to believe and be told that they need a solid 8 hours sleep. This can cause anxiety, panic and stress when they wake in the night and can’t get straight back to sleep.
Jacobs suggests that this period of an hour or two of sleeplessness during the night could well have been an important time for people to regulate stress. In the dark hours they were forced into a period of relaxation and meditation.
So what can we learn from this idea of sleeping in two phases? The first thing to take away is the concept of not worrying about sleeping right through the night.
Perhaps ask yourself the question ‘what use can I make of this time?’.
Presumably as long as you have enough sleep either side of this period of waking, it doesn’t matter if you find yourself awake. Especially if the quantity and quality of sleep is not having an adverse effect on your day-to-day life.
What to do when you wake in the night
So what should you do if you stir in the middle of the night? Well, that’s of course up to you to decide. But it may be a good idea to do something which is relaxing and not too stimulating for the brain.
Doing relaxation exercises, reflecting and meditating may be a good way to spend the time for example.
Alternatively, if you find that an hour or two is just too much time to lie awake in bed, then perhaps you could try experimenting with getting up and doing something quiet like reading or writing.
The main thing is not to worry about it so long as it’s not impacting on your quality of life and your well-being. Try not to allow this period of being awake to stress you out.
Often the fear of not being able to fall asleep, of having insomnia or not functioning well the next day makes it harder to sleep.
When to seek medical advice
If you’re genuinely worried that waking up regularly and for long periods of time is impacting on your life and well-being, you could talk to your doctor about it. They might want to check for an underlying sleep disorder or medical condition.
If they decide that you do have sleep maintenance insomnia, then they may prescribe you some medication such as Intermezzo. Or it may be that they discuss good sleep habits with you, often known as sleep hygiene.
Hopefully reading this article will have helped you to try to stay calm the next time it happens. The main thing is to try not to panic, and don’t allow it to become a time for dealing with all your worries and stresses in life.
Do you suffer from sleep maintenance insomnia? Or do you know that something else is waking you up? What do you do to cope with it? Please share your thoughts in the comment below.