Popular opinion states that the human body thrives best on eight hours of sleep a night. However, the importance of uninterrupted sleep is often neglected. Many of us are plagued by unwelcome intermissions in our sleep, leaving us feeling tired and sluggish in the morning.
Constant waking up in the middle of the night is known as broken sleep. Common explanations for fitful sleep include an unbalanced sleep-waking routine, sharing a bed with a noisy/active partner or pet, an uncomfortable room temperature, or feeling stressed and anxious.
If you wake up at night and can’t go back to sleep, you’ll feel bad in the morning. Broken sleep often leads to irritability, difficulty concentrating, and a compromised immune system.
Is it Normal to Wake Up in the Middle of the Night?
Waking up in the night can be frustrating, but it’s normal to an extent. As the human body undergoes a range of sleep cycles, we find ourselves waking and immediately falling asleep again.
This becomes problematic if only half the process is completed, though. If we wake up and fail to fall asleep again, we experience broken sleep. The journal Sleep explains that disrupted rest is detrimental to well-being and is commonly linked to depression.
If you find yourself regularly waking up at night, don’t resign yourself to yet another evening of tossing and turning before a groggy morning wake-up call.
What Does it Mean When You Wake Up Around the Same Time Every Night?
Some people find that waking up at night can be as regular as clockwork. Whether it’s 2 am, 3 am, 4 am, or any other time, the body may seem to rouse itself from sleep at the same point.
This could be due to an external factor beyond your control. For example, you may have a neighbor that works shifts and slams their door upon leaving or arriving home at 3 am each day. Consider leaving a recording device in your home to identify external stimuli.
If this isn’t relevant to your waking, it seems that your body has entered a habit. If you keep waking at 3 am, you’ll need to learn why you wake up in the night.
Why Do I Fall Asleep and Suddenly Wake Up?
Even in high-quality, uninterrupted sleep, the body shifts through three disparate cycles. Initially, you’ll start to doze. This transition from waking to sleep is known as light sleep.
During this time, your heart rate will slow, your mind will begin to calm itself, and your muscles will relax – but equally, you can wake with a start if touched or exposed to loud noise. Around 50% of all sleep is light sleep.
After a while, the body starts to move toward deep sleep. This is when you’re fast asleep, possibly snoring, and it takes some effort to rouse or wake up. Deep sleep makes up around 15-20% of your sleeping time, during which your body repairs itself.
The remainder of your time in bed will be made up of REM sleep – the period in which you dream. Your body will typically follow a cycle of light sleep, deep sleep, REM sleep, repeat.
As you’ll see, your body is only in a deep sleep state for around 90 minutes of an intended eight-hour slumber. This means that you’ll be easy to disturb and rouse for much of your time in bed. You’ll need to structure your sleep around any potential disruptions.
Why Can’t I Fall Asleep After Waking Up in the Night?
One of the most frustrating aspects of broken sleep is struggling to fall asleep after waking up. This issue, known as sleep maintenance insomnia, is at the heart of fitful sleep patterns.
The Journal of Psychiatric Research links this problem with a range of additional health concerns. It’s vital that understanding is gained as to why you’re struggling to enjoy a whole night of superior sleep.
What Causes Broken Sleep?
There are many possible explanations for waking up at night. Review these common reasons for broken sleep and determine why you do not enjoy uninterrupted slumber:
Unbalanced Circadian Rhythm
Our circadian rhythms govern sleep cycles. This is an organic body clock influenced by our surroundings. The human body is conditioned to wake when the sun rises and grow tired and sleepy when darkness begins to descend.
Circadian rhythms don’t always match the clock, though. If you work shifts, you may find that your schedule and instincts are at odds regarding sleep. Jetlag from changing time zones is another example of an unbalanced circadian rhythm.
We can train our bodies to accept changes to circadian rhythms, but it takes time and patience. If you’re not keeping conventional sleeping hours, you must establish a set routine of sleeping and waking hours – and stick to it.
Do you wake up waking up sweating at night? If so, you may be attempting to sleep in a room that’s too hot. 65 degrees Fahrenheit is widely considered the optimum ambient temperature when sleeping.
This may sound a little cool, but that is a positive. Our body temperature drops while we are asleep. As a result, a colder room assures the body that it is bedtime and it should be resting and repairing.
You may initially feel more comfortable in a hotter room, but you’re likely to wake up as your temperature remains high. Keep the temperature appropriate and consider your nightwear. For example, thick flannel pajamas in the summer will interrupt your sleep.
Sharing a Bed
There are undeniable advantages to sharing a bed with a partner, child, or pet. Proximity strengthens the bond between humans (and animals) and provides additional body heat and security.
Alas, there are also many instances where sharing a bed can lead to lower quality, broken sleep. For example, a partner that snores will likely wake you up. If you, in turn, wake your partner to cease the noise, they too will experience broken sleep.
It’s not just noise that can arise from sharing a bed. Some people or pets are active while they sleep, prone to kicking and flailing. If sharing your bed interrupts your ability to enjoy uninterrupted slumber, it could be time to rethink your arrangements.
Stress and Anxiety
Are you prone to waking up with anxiety in the middle of the night, questioning if you turned off the stove or locked the door before heading to bed? This points to an existing stress concern preventing you from sleeping appropriately.
Nightmares are a common symptom of nocturnal anxiety. If you find yourself waking with a jolt, coated in sweat and feeling uncomfortable, there is every chance a nightmare was to blame. Just because you don’t remember a dream doesn’t mean that it didn’t occur.
As per the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, there is a difference between nightmares and bad dreams. In adults, nightmares are often linked to stress – whether conscious or subconscious.
Until stress and anxiety are under control, you’re unlikely to enjoy smooth, uninterrupted sleep. Work on keeping calm, especially before bed, seeking professional help if necessary. Your mind needs to relax to sleep, and it cannot do so if still churning through concerns.
Physical Health Complaints and Prescription Medications
Are you seemingly constantly waking up to pee at night? Do you find yourself experiencing pain in your joints at night? Do you struggle for breath or otherwise feel unwell during the night? Any of these scenarios merits a conversation with a healthcare professional.
You may find that you have a health concern interrupting your sleep. You may not be noticing these symptoms amid a busy day of work and family commitments. At night, there is no ignoring them.
Consider any medications you may be taking, too. Almost all prescription drugs have side effects, ranging from major to minor. You may be too busy to notice these by day, but they are still unfolding after dark while you sleep.
Review the literature that came with your medication carefully, looking for a possible explanation. Do the side effects include insomnia, or warn that you may experience temperature variations, shortness of breath, or feel nauseous?
If the answer to these questions is yes, the medication could be at the root of your broken sleep. Your body is waking you up as a precautionary reaction. If your medication is a long-term prescription, speak to your doctor and discuss a potential change.
If none of the explanations we have discussed carry weight for you, consider your lifestyle. Are you drinking excessive caffeine or alcohol across the day and night? Are you using electrical appliances immediately before bed? Are you eating late at night?
The body and brain need time to relax and unwind before you can enjoy uninterrupted sleep. If you’re flooding your system with stimulation, it will not have the opportunity to shut down fully. Devise and enter a healthy routine before heading to bed.
How to Break the Cycle of Waking Up in the Middle of the Night
If you’re keen to avoid broken sleep in the future, you will need to enter a positive routine. There are a range of steps that you can take to enjoy this.
Consider any, or indeed all, of the following approaches:
- As caffeine has a half-life of six hours, so avoid caffeinated beverages in the afternoon or evening
- Be mindful of your diet, especially in the evening. As per the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, sugar and saturated fats can be linked to broken sleep
- Spend at least 30 minutes, ideally longer, decompressing from your day before bed. Avoid any screen time.
- Set the temperature in your sleeping room between 60-67 degrees Fahrenheit
- Get blackout curtains or blinds to eliminate light pollution, and earplugs or a white noise generator to mask any noise
- Stick to a sleep schedule. If you have a poor night of broken sleep, do not attempt to make up for this the next day with naps or a lie-in – power through and seek an interrupted sleep at night
If none of this works, you may need to accept that your body is not equipped for uninterrupted sleep. In this instance, consider biphasic sleep, which involves dozing in two four-hour blocks rather than one single sleep shift.
As per Progress in Brain Research, this can be beneficial, although you’ll still need to ensure your body has sufficient time to adapt and repair. Biphasic sleep can also be a warning sign of cognitive decline. All the same, it’s preferable to wholesale sleep deprivation.
While we all experience broken sleep occasionally, don’t allow it to become an accepted routine—practice superior sleep hygiene to ensure that you enjoy enough rest each day. You should quickly see an improvement in your physical and mental health.