How To Fall Back Asleep If You Wake Up In The Middle Of The Night, According To Experts
There’s nothing more frustrating than falling asleep only to wake up a few hours later. Whether it’s from a blaring car alarm, a snoring partner, or stress dreams, having your sweet slumber disturbed is nothing short of a nightmare. Of course, there are ways to get back to sleep if you wake up in the middle of the night, but you may want to first determine what's waking you up in the first place.
For instance, even though that glass of wine might make you drop off in front of a Veep rerun, alcohol can mess with your ability to stay asleep. “Alcohol is notorious for disrupting sleep,” Dr. Jennifer Caudle, M.D., a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine, tells Bustle. “Even though alcohol may make us feel sleepy and ready to ‘hit the sack,’ sleep is often interrupted and of poor quality when alcohol has been involved — so an immediate benefit of not drinking might be feeling more rested and getting better sleep at night.”
Alcohol isn't the only reason you may be hitting pause on your dreams — stress or anxiety, disorders like sleep apnea, or other issues can keep you from staying asleep, according to the Mayo Clinic. And if your inability to keep snoozing is more than an occasional thing, you'll want to talk to your doctor to figure out if there are other factors at play. But if you're just up at 4 a.m. on occasion, we asked experts to weigh in on how to get back to sleep.
1. Drink Warm Milk With Honey Or Herbal Tea
You may have been raised hearing that warm milk can help you fall back asleep, and it’s not just an old wives’ tale. Dr. Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley and Reverie sleep advisory board member, agrees, saying to add honey, too. “The warmed sugar and fat really do combine to promote sleep,” he tells Bustle.
If you’re lactose-intolerant or not a fan of milk, you can try a soothing tea. “Chamomile tea is a classic sleep aid, but lemon balm tea is a great option to keep in the cupboard, too,” Gabrielle Gray, holistic health coach and the manager of Maha Rose Center for Healing in Brooklyn, tells Bustle. “Though you might think of lemon as stimulating, this tea is far from it: it soothes nerves and has been found to be effective in easing insomnia.”
2. Drop The Temperature In Your Bedroom
Natalie Dautovich, PhD, Serta’s sleep health expert and environmental fellow at National Sleep Foundation, says that dropping the temperature in your bedroom can help you fall back asleep. “A cool bedroom is conducive to better sleep — room temperatures between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit are optimal,” she tells Bustle. “A drop in core body temperature is associated with feeling sleepy, so cooler temperatures can help with sleep onset.”
3. Don’t Use Your Phone Or Light Sources
You’ve probably heard that using your phone, Kindle, or other electronic devices that emit light are not good right before bed, so the same goes for middle-of-the-night insomnia.
Dr. Smarr agrees about not using light sources if you want to get back to sleep. “Light and attention-grabbers (Netflix, news, or games on your phone, etc.) inhibit the brain’s sleep centers,” he says. “Sleep is supposed to happen when it’s dark and you feel calm and safe. As tempting as it may be to grab your phone when you wake up in the middle of the night, don’t!” He adds that switching on bright lights sends your melatonin levels racing, and can make it much harder to get back to sleep.
4. Create A To-Do List
Instead of reaching for your phone, try something a little lower-tech. Dr. Sujay Kansagra, Mattress Firm’s sleep health expert and the director of Duke University’s Pediatric Neurology Sleep Medicine Program, suggests creating a to-do list. “In our fast-paced world, sometimes lying in bed is the first time you have to actually think about what’s on this list,” he tells Bustle. “By creating a list of tasks (and even writing down your worries), you can prevent yourself from thinking about them excessively while trying to fall asleep.” He says a to-do list can help clear your mind and calm you back down for a night of restful sleeping.
Gray agrees. “If you’re waking up with a restless mind, keep some paper and a pen beside your bed and write what is coming up for you,” she tells Bustle. “Writing can help process some of those swirling thoughts, and making a to-do list is effective for when your busy, taskmaster brain is waking you up.” She also says to allow yourself permission to put anything looming over you on the list, and then leave it there. “It will still be there when you wake up, and you’ll take care of it then. There’s not much you can do about it at 3 a.m. anyway, especially if it’s a work-related issue.”
5. Have A Snack
Harrison Doan, director of analytics at Loom & Leaf, an online mattress retailer, says hunger can be a reason you woke up in the middle of the night. “Blood sugar drops during the night, and if it gets too low, the sensation can be so strong it wakes you up,” he says. “Getting up and grabbing a snack is sometimes all you need. Better yet, try eating protein-rich snacks before bed to prevent the issue in the first place.”
If you're already done with your to-do list (lucky!), try journaling when you can't sleep. “If you’re going through emotional challenges that you’re literally losing sleep over, journal about them — release them onto the page,” Gray says. “You can even try journaling some things you are grateful for; experiencing and noting our gratitude on a regular basis helps train the brain to recognize it more in our daily life.” She says that this is especially useful when you’re in an anxious state in the middle of the night.
Dr. David Edelson, owner and medical director of HealthBridge in Great Neck, NY, who specializes in sleep medicine, agrees about journaling. “If you find your mind racing, give yourself permission to put your concerns aside in order to bring your focus back to rest,” he tells Bustle. “Writing things down helps to acknowledge what you are thinking and feeling. You don’t have to worry about forgetting if you jot it down and, often, many things are more easily and clearly addressed after a good night of sleep.”
7. Learn To Listen To Your Body
You may hear that eight hours is the ideal amount of time to sleep each night, this may vary from person to person, says Dr. Smarr. “Eight hours is a broad population average, but maybe you do fine on six or seven hours,” he says. “Every person has a ‘chronotype,’ which is defined by comparing the timing of their ideal day to the solar day. Our society is built for early chronotypes, but vast numbers of people are later chronotypes, which means they naturally sleep later.” He adds that if you don’t have to get up early, don’t; instead, sleep on your time, and your brain will work better than if you force it to work at the wrong time.
8. Try A Light Activity Like Stretching
While Drs. Smarr and Edelson say that getting active during the day can help you stay asleep at night, if you are currently awake when you'd rather be asleep, it's probably a little too late for that.
Instead, Doan suggests getting out of bed and doing a quiet, soothing activity. “Try getting out of bed and doing a quiet activity without light, like meditation, an audiobook, or yoga,” he says. “Often, the act of trying to fall asleep engages our minds so much that it becomes counterproductive. Low-energy activities like these help to relax your mind, making you sleepy and ready to hop back into bed.”
"Breathing and stretching is a great way to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and decrease general anxiety — something all human beings struggle with in some way," Nina Endrst, a yoga instructor and holistic health coach, previously told Bustle for an article on stretches to help you fall asleep.
9. Think About Staying Awake
Dr. Smarr says that both anxiety and stress and anxiety impair sleep, and that includes anxiety about sleep. “If it’s an off-night (we all have them), then do watch Netflix (something light and funny, not scary),” he says.
“Distract yourself so you’re not an anxiety ball and then, when the adrenaline runs its course while you’re too distracted to care, sleeping will suddenly be much easier.”
Dr. Katie Davis, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins University, agrees. “The biggest tip I give to patients with sleep problems is to not worry too much if they can’t sleep,” she tells Bustle.
Dr. Davis suggests not trying to force yourself back to sleep. “Just get out of bed, do something quiet and relaxing, and go back to bed when you’re tired again,” she says.
Dr. Kansagra says, “It sounds counterintuitive, but if you’re having trouble falling asleep, think about doing the opposite — this often lessens anxiety and gives your mind a chance to relax enough to fall asleep,” he says.
10. Try Meditating
Dr. Dautovich recommends meditating when you cannot fall back asleep. “Practice meditation and manage stressful thoughts with relaxation exercises, such as deep breathing or progressive relaxation,” she says. “Checking the clock, calculating how much time you have until you have to wake, thinking about the upcoming day, etc,. will increase your cognitive arousal and make it that much more difficult to fall asleep.”
Similarly, Dr. Kansagra suggests trying progressive relaxation. “This involves taking slow, deep breaths, and slowly tensing the muscles in your body for a few seconds and then relaxing them,” he says. “Start at your feet, and work your way up the body. This can help you relax and get back in the mood for sleep.”
11. Take Notes About Your Sleep Habits
Instead of writing a to-do list or journaling, take notes on your patterns of sleeping and waking; if you consistently wake up in the middle of the night, these notes will be valuable information for your doctor to help figure out what's going on.
“If waking during the night is a recurring issue, this may be a sign of something else going on,” Dr. Edelson says. “Sleep disorders are very common, and correcting the rhythm is essential. Your doctor may have some simple advice to further improve your sleep hygiene practices and can also help you identify other flags for sleep disorders, such as insomnia and sleep apnea.”
Dr. Edelson adds that poor sleep quality or inadequate hours of sleep can have adverse effects on your health beyond just fatigue. “[E]levated blood pressure, and a weakened immune system are just a few ways a lack of quality [sleep] can take a toll,” he says.
Dr. Jennifer Caudle, M.D., a family physician and associate professor at Rowan University School of Osteopathic Medicine
Dr. Benjamin Smarr, National Institutes of Health postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley and Reverie sleep advisory board member
Gabrielle Gray, holistic health coach and the manager of Maha Rose Center for Healing in Brooklyn
Natalie Dautovich, PhD, Serta’s sleep health expert and environmental fellow at National Sleep Foundation
Harrison Doan, director of analytics at Loom & Leaf, an online mattress retailer
Dr. David Edelson, owner and medical director of HealthBridge
Nina Endrst, a yoga instructor and holistic health coach
Dr. Katie Davis, PsyD, a clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscience researcher at Johns Hopkins University
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