How often do you wake up at in the depths of the night? Do you roll over and fall asleep again, or does your mind spring into action with some late night thinking?
Whatever the reason is that you woke up, a barrage of unwanted thoughts can keep 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, the good news is that it might not actually be so bad for you after all.
Why does it happen?
As with other forms of insomnia, it might be as a result of another condition. So one approach is to work out what that first problem is and address it.
However, later in the article I’ll also discuss 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 to 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 be 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 take a look at some possible explanations:
1. An underlying sleep disorder is causing the broken sleep
Some sleep disorders, such as sleep apnea, can cause nocturnal wakings. If you, or anyone else, notice any irregularity with your breathing in the night, 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, again it’s important to seek medical advice.
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, can have disturbed sleep. 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 with an enlarged prostate, for example, might find they need to urinate more. It can also arise simply from drinking too much liquid before bed.
Alcohol can trigger wakings 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, sleep talking, grinding their teeth, or the traffic outside rumbling away, noise can disrupt many people’s sleep.
If this is an issue for you, have a read of my tips for reducing bedroom noise.
6. 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 if you’re hungry. 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.
7. 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 nightmares.
8. Travel and shift work
One of the hardest things to do is to have big 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. After that, they would sleep again for another 3-5 hours.
It appears then that their natural sleep cycle was to wake up in the night.
One interesting point of view is that before electricity was harnessed we had much more time available for sleeping at night. And the natural reaction to so much darkness was to have segmented sleep.
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.
There are descriptions of people doing varied activities 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. And that’s also 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 to believe you must get a solid 8 hours sleep. This can cause anxiety, panic and stress when it doesn’t happen that way.
Jacobs suggests that the short waking during the night could 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?’.
As long as you have enough sleep either side of this period, it doesn’t matter if you find yourself awake. Especially if the quantity and quality of sleep are 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 with this quiet time? 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 are good ways to spend the time. Perhaps you could try 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 worried that waking up regularly and for long periods of time is impacting on your life and well-being, 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, they might prescribe medication. Or it may be that they discuss good sleep habits with you or suggest cognitive behavioral therapy.
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.
Are you awake in the night more often that you would like to be? What do you do to cope with it? Please share your thoughts in the comment below.