7 Things Your Body Is Saying If You Wake Up For Just A Little In The Middle Of The Night

by JR Thorpe
Andrey Popov/Shutterstock

We spend a huge portion of our lives sleeping, and that rest is very important to our health and cognition. However, not all of us are sleep-through-the-night champions. Disturbed sleep, whether it's waking up at 2 a.m. or drifting in and out of unsettled, light slumber, is pretty common. A study by the Sleep Health Foundation found that up to 43 percent of adults experience some kind of sleep issue at night. If you wake up regularly and don't have an easily applicable explanation, like a too-full bladder or a cat that's jumping on your head, your body may be trying to tell you one of these seven things.

The body's sleep model goes through numerous phases throughout the night that influence how deeply we sleep. We pass through just-asleep mode to non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep to the deepest slumber, REM, regularly; VeryWell Health explains that REM sleep happens around every 90 to 120 minutes. For some of us, these cycles involve periods of wakefulness, particularly at the beginning of the night when our sleep is shallower.

Waking up regularly in the night isn't actually a health risk for many of us; researchers have found that "bimodal sleep," or splitting sleep into two segments and waking up in the middle, was common worldwide before the Industrial Revolution. "Your grandfather’s grandfather almost certainly slept like this. If he didn’t, he certainly knew someone who did," Headspace, the meditation app, wrote on its blog. Nowadays, our culture emphasizes sleeping through the night, but natural wakefulness isn't automatically concerning. If you are finding you're experiencing periods of very light sleep or wakefulness, here are some reasons why.


You're On Medication That Causes Night Wakefulness

Several medications have night wakefulness and disturbance as part of their side effects; Everyday Health mentions decongestants, heart drugs, and anti-depressants as potential culprits for disturbed slumber. This is known as medication-induced insomnia, and Healthline explains that the resulting poor sleep "makes it difficult to get through the day. You may find yourself tired, moody, and unable to concentrate." Always check out the side effects of new medications you're taking, even over the counter ones, and talk to your doctor about how it might affect you if you have a history of sleep issues.


You May Have A Heart Issue

A study in 2018 by the European Society Of Cardiology found a link between disturbed, restless sleep with lots of waking in the night and hardened arteries. The condition that particularly affects people with restless sleep is atherosclerosis, which tends not to show any symptoms, but seems to have a connection with poor rest at night. "Failure to get enough sleep and restlessness during the night should be considered risk factors for blocking or narrowing of the arteries," the study's authors said in a press release. History of heart issues in your family? Night waking might be a sign you need to see your GP.


You're Eating Too Early At Night

"I have had quite a few patients tell me that they wake up at 3 a.m., very alert and with their mind going," sleep doctor Michael Breus wrote on his blog. "When I ask them about their last meal they often tell me that they ate by 7 p.m. If you do the math 3 a.m. is eight hours after the past meal." The reason that people wake up at this point is often low blood sugar, as the body believes it needs fuel. Breus recommends a spoonful of honey to convince the body to go back to sleep.


You Have Unresolved Anxiety

Both light sleeping and night waking can be caused by anxiety — and the other way around. "Anxiety causes sleeping problems, and new research suggests sleep deprivation can cause an anxiety disorder," explains the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. "Research also shows that some form of sleep disruption is present in nearly all psychiatric disorders. Studies also show that people with chronic insomnia are at high risk of developing an anxiety disorder." Experiencing a lot of stress or emotional pressure? It's likely affecting your sleep.


Your Brain Produces Small Amounts Of Sleep Spindles

Waking up just barely in the middle of the night appears to be related to brain activity. A study from 2010 found that people who can sleep through the end of the world produce a lot of "sleep spindles," or spikes of electrical brain activity. "The researchers found that people whose brains produced the most of these high-frequency sleep spindles were more likely to sleep through loud noises. But more research is needed to confirm the results," notes Everyday Health.


You're Visually Creative

What does poor sleep say about the state of your brain? According to a study in 2017, it reflects on your level of artistic creativity. People who were verbally creative tended to sleep long hours, according to the research, while those who were in art school and visually focussed reported higher levels of fragmented or light sleeping. "This strengthens the hypothesis that the processing and expression of visual creativity involves different psychobiological mechanisms to those found in verbal creativity," lead author Neta Ram-Vlasov said. Working on a painting or a very visual project for work? Your sleep may be affected.


You're Afraid Of The Dark

Who's afraid of the dark? A surprising amount of adults, according to research from 2012. The small study by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine found that college students who reported poor sleep also tended to experience a fear of the dark. “As treatment providers, we assume that poor sleepers become tense when the lights go out because they associate the bed with being unable to sleep. Now we’re wondering how many people actually have an active and untreated phobia," the scientists said. Phobias are anxiety disorders that can have interesting physical symptoms, and it seems that poor sleep is a signal that your childhood fright hasn't quite abated.


If you're experiencing fragmented sleep without a particular obvious cause, it's a good idea to get yourself checked out at a GP, as it can be prompted by numerous conditions and situations. Also, getting a cute black-out sleep mask won't hurt.