What Waking Up In The Middle Of The Night Could Indicate About Your Health

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Waking up in the middle of the night can be frustrating, especially if it takes a while to drift back into dreamland. If these mid-sleep disturbances are a frequent occurrence you may be wondering what waking up in the middle of the night could mean for your health. You might assume something is seriously wrong if your sleep is continuously interrupted, but for many, the answer might be simpler than you think.

"Waking in the night typically means that a person is overtired, and they are not getting enough sleep," Julia Walsh, a registered sleep consultant at Good Night Sleep, tells Bustle over email.

That said, waking up in the middle of the night is not uncommon. Sleep is not a straight line — instead it happens in cycles. Throughout the night we moving through five stages of sleep, according to the Mayo Clinic, falling deeper and deeper until we reach the final stage of REM sleep. Each sleep cycle lasts between 60 and 120 minutes (90 on average), and if something disturbs you as you are coming to the end of the cycle or "surfacing" — especially during one of the lighter stages of sleep — you are more likely to awaken.

While most of us will experience waking up in the middle of the night every now and then, if it persists, there may be other issues at play — and the potential consequences make it worth trying to correct.

"Waking up in the night disrupts your sleep, and can lead to health challenges including decreased memory and attention span, and challenges making decisions," Walsh tells Bustle. "Hand-eye coordination, as well as gross motor skills become impaired, affecting the ability to do simple tasks such as walking, running, or even driving. Lack of sleep can be attributed to poor mood, and people often become more irritable with a lack of sleep ... Finally, you are much more likely to become sick when your body is tired. Sleep is important for allowing the body to rest and gives the body the ability to fight off infections better. Your immune system functions much better with enough sleep."

The first step to correcting the problem of waking up in the middle of the night is finding the root cause of it. If you find yourself waking up multiple times during the night and have trouble falling back asleep, you may be suffering from one of these issues.

1. You’re Overheating

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Your bodily temperature helps regulate your circadian rhythm and changes throughout the night. When dozing off your body's temperature drops to initiate the sleep cycle, and if your bedroom is too hot, it can take you longer to fall asleep and your rest will be fragmented (as will the quality of REM sleep). The ideal bedroom temperature for a good night's rest is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit, so if you are continually find yourself waking up during the night this summer the National Sleep Foundation advises that you keep the AC or fan on high. A hot shower or bath before bed can help signal your brain that sleep is on the horizon, and if you are feeling hot, kick off those sheets and wear lightweight (or no) pajamas.

Still sweating through the night? Be sure to drink plenty of water and replenish your electrolytes, as dehydration can disturb your sleep as well.

2. You’re Stressed Out

Are you filled with worry before bed? Does your brain keep fixating on issues that can’t be solved at 3 AM? Stress can make it harder to fall and stay asleep and can even cause bouts of insomnia in normally sound sleepers. “Stress causes hyperarousal,” notes the NSF. “Which can upset the balance between sleep and wakefulness.” Try to pinpoint the source of anxiety or depression, and sooth the symptoms with mindfulness meditation or yoga, which can improve your mood and decrease your anxiety. Set up a period of winding down before bed, and good bedtime rituals that help with relaxation. If peaceful sleep is still beyond your grasp, it might be time to talk to a therapist or counselor.

3. You Had Too Much To Drink

While a few glasses of wine can make your doze off quickly, staying asleep is another matter. Though you may fall into a deep sleep at first, alcohol has been shown to disrupt sleep quality overall by reducing restorative REM sleep, especially in the second half of the night. Going to sleep drunk you are more likely to snore, wake up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom, and sweat through your sheets. Anything over two standard drinks can produce fragmented sleep and leave you feeling tired in the morning.

4. You’re Taking In Too Much Blue Light

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According to Harvard Health, blue light — the light we take in when we look at our phone and computer screens — can have a serious impact on our circadian rhythms. In fact, the wavelengths of blue light have more of an impact on melatonin, a hormone in the body that is responsible for regulating sleep, than others, researchers at Harvard found: "The blue light suppressed melatonin for about twice as long as the green light and shifted circadian rhythms by twice as much (3 hours vs. 1.5 hours)." This disruption to your internal rhythm may be the reason why you find it not just more difficult to fall asleep, but to stay asleep.

Researchers advise combatting this effect by getting bright light exposure during the day, and avoiding blue light two to three hours before bed, to give your body the cues it needs to effectively fall and stay asleep.

5. You’re Getting Older

If you miss those bouts of blissful oblivion you enjoyed as a teenager, I hate to break it to you, but sometimes waking up at night is just part of life and the aging process. Past our childhood and teen years we tend to sleep lighter, with less time spent in deep sleep, and more abrupt transitions between sleep and wakefulness. The older we get, the more likely we are to be awake throughout the night and in the early morning (women over the age of 50 average three to four periods of wakefulness each night). Aches and pains, and needing to use the bathroom, known as nocturia, can also to blame for disturbances in the sleep-wake cycle.

If you are waking up frequently in the middle of the night, there are some measures you can take to resolve it. "[L]ook at your bedtime routine and sleep habits," Walsh tells Bustle. "On average, adults need 7-9 hours of sleep at night, but if you are overtired, you likely need more until your body catches up on sleep. Make sure you are going to bed early enough to allow your body enough sleep, and make bedtime earlier (even 15-30 minutes) until the night wakings stop. Ensure that you have a healthy bedtime routine where your body can relax and prepare for sleep. Turn off screens at least 30 minutes prior to bedtime, as the blue light in the screens, will trick your brain into thinking it is daytime."

This post was first published on June 14, 2017. It was updated on June 9, 2019.