You go to sleep on time expecting to sleep through the night only to wake up in the wee hours unable to fall back to sleep again. We’ve all been there and it’s frustrating to say the least. Worst of all, it robs you of the essential rest you need to be at your best the following day.
In this post, we reveal effective ways to help overcome this problem so you can start sleeping soundly through the night again.
Why Are You Waking Up in the Middle of the Night?
Waking up in the middle of the night is a type of insomnia that has several names, including middle-of-the-night (MOTN) insomnia and nocturnal awakenings. It tends to result in excessive daytime sleepiness and is common in Americans 18 years and older at least three or more times per week.
While it’s normal to wake up, roll over and go back to sleep, there may be a deeper problem if you find yourself wide awake for more than half an hour several times a week. Health issues that may cause MOTN insomnia include:
- Sleep apnea, which causes you to stop breathing intermittently during the night and wake up
- Narcolepsy, which can cause you to sleep too much during the day, leading to wakefulness at night
- Chronic indigestion, which can cause you to wake up in pain from acid reflux
- Enlarged prostate and certain medications, which can cause you to use the bathroom several times a night
Whether the cause is physically-related or due to excess stress or a bad sleeping environment, there are steps you can take to reduce the number of times you reach full wakefulness in the middle of the night. Here are 10 tips that may help you get the restful sleep you deserve…
Tips Before Bedtime
1. Skip the Caffeine After Noon
What may look like a harmless cup of coffee or tea is anything but. These substances and other sources of caffeine like chocolate, energy drinks and sodas can stay in your body for hours after drinking or eating.
In some cases, it may take up to eight hours before the stimulant passes through your body, which is why we recommend avoiding caffeine-containing foods or drinks after lunch. You might otherwise run the risk of the caffeine disrupting your sleep pattern during the night.
2. Steer Clear of Alcohol Before Bedtime
While a nightcap or glass of wine before bed may seem like a good idea, alcohol only gives a false sense of sleepiness as it interferes with rapid eye movement (REM) sleep during the night — the sleep phase crucial to the restoration of the brain and body.
If you enjoy sipping a beverage before bedtime and it doesn’t cause you to run to the bathroom several times per night, stick with water or herbal tea. Both will keep you hydrated and make you feel better in the morning. Otherwise…
3. Avoid Drinking All Fluids Before Bedtime
If getting up to use the bathroom is the main reason you wake up and have trouble falling back to sleep, the obvious solution is to stop drinking any fluid, preferably two hours before going to bed. Using the bathroom right before bed will also help prevent late-night excursions.
Men who frequently have to urinate during the course of the night may want to consider having a prostate exam as an enlarged prostate may be the cause.
4. Make Your Bedroom More Sleep-Friendly
Your bedroom should support sleep, which sounds like a no-brainer but isn’t to many! The color of your walls, the cleanliness of the floor, and even pets sleeping beside you can all affect the quality of your sleep. But three factors, in particular, are key:
- Reserve your bed for sleep and intimacy only – If you watch TV, talk on the phone or check email while lying in bed, you may be subconsciously telling yourself that it’s okay to use your bed for any kind of activity, which can disrupt sleep.
- Limit your exposure to light – A bedroom with too much light during the night or just passing headlights reflecting on walls can trigger wakefulness at odd hours and make it harder to get back to sleep. Putting up blackout curtains and covering any light-emitting electronic connections with a piece of paper or tape can help.
- Keep your bedroom cool – The optimal temperature for sleep is between 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. Sleep generally comes easier when snuggling down in covers than while sweating on top. Even something as simple as turning over your pillow to the cool side can help.
Tips While Lying Wide Awake in Bed
5. Engage in Dull, Repetitive Tasks
Have you ever wondered why most children’s books are mind-numbingly repetitive? One main reason is that its soothing prose makes the brain relax and — surprise, surprise — induces sleep. Adults aren’t much different in this regard. Engaging in dull, repetitive tasks like reciting multiplication tables or working your way through the alphabet by coming up with a four-letter word for each letter may help aid sleep when your mind doesn’t want to shut off.
6. Try Breathing and Relaxing Exercises
One good technique to overcome the brain’s stubbornness when you can’t get back to sleep at 3 a.m. is to practice deep and slow breathing.
While in bed, count up to 10 deep breaths relaxing a bit more with each breath (you may not even make it to 10!)
Another approach is Dr. Andrew Weil’s 4-7-8 method. While lying comfortably, inhale through your nose for a count of four. Next, hold your breath for a count of seven. Finally, exhale slowly for a count of eight and repeat.
Relaxing exercises are another possibility. One effective technique is to tense a part of your body such as your feet for a few moments and then release it.
7. Get Out of Bed if You Can’t Sleep
Staying in bed while waiting for sleep to come isn’t the best strategy if you still find yourself wide awake after 20 minutes. In these instances, you’re better off getting up and leaving the room for awhile.
Sit in a comfortable chair and use the opportunity to catch up on your reading but make sure to limit yourself to one reading light only (anything more than that can keep you in an alert state). TVs, computers, and smartphones should be avoided at all costs. Aside from winding you up, these devices emit a blue-spectrum light, which is known to inhibit sleep.
Tips When Lifestyle Changes Don’t Work
8. Consider OTC Remedies or Prescription Medication
If none of the tips and tricks above help you get back to sleep, it may be time to consult a doctor and get medical help as your lifestyle may not be the culprit. Medication may be one of the first treatments a doctor will try as it can offer quick relief while you and your doctor work on identifying the root cause.
Over-the-counter medications to reduce pain such as Ibuprofen or sedating antihistamines like Benadryl are also possibilities. Note, however, that OTC remedies like these should only be taken temporarily as they can cause lingering side effects such as daytime drowsiness and poor short-term memory.
9. Get a Sleep Study Done
Depending on your situation, a sleep study at a local sleep clinic or home may be useful to help rule out certain physical health disorders such as sleep apnea, narcolepsy, or restless leg syndrome. If none are found, you may be referred to a psychologist, psychiatrist or another therapist for relaxation techniques and other methods to help stop your midnight awakenings.
10. Seek Out Therapy
If you’ve determined that physical conditions aren’t the problem, mental health conditions such as depression and chronic anxiety may be contributing factors. One of the main treatments to help overcome mentally-induced MOTN insomnia is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which addresses certain recurring, intrusive thoughts that make it difficult to get back to sleep.
Some other successful therapies for MOTN include:
- Adjusting the circadian rhythm to regularize time spent in bed for sleep only as well as wake-up time.
- Stimulus control to condition the reflexes to respond to the bed for sleep and intimacy only.
- Relaxation training to help reduce mental and emotional tension and prepare your muscles, breathing and mental focus for sleep.
- Imagery training to reduce focusing on hopeless thoughts and redirecting them to peaceful or neutral images, which also reduces wakefulness.
- Paradoxical intention to help you focus on staying awake instead of going to sleep. This technique reduces the anxiety of being awake, which, ironically, helps you fall asleep more quickly!
Other treatments that may also help certain individuals include:
- Techniques for relieving stress
- Psychotherapy for personal insights
- Bright light therapy to reset circadian rhythms
- Correcting sleep phase delay
The success of any given treatment is measured by the amount of time that gets reduced before you fall asleep or an increase in the amount time slept by at least a half an hour.
If you wake up in the middle of the night at least three nights a week and have trouble falling back to sleep quickly, the first seven tips mentioned above may benefit you. If after a month or more you still have difficulty, you may want to consult a medical practitioner as outlined in the last three tips.
Ongoing MOTN insomnia shouldn’t be overlooked as it can seriously debilitate your life. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to enable you to sleep through the night peacefully and without interruption.
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