After getting less than stellar sleep all damn week, tonight is finally your night. You have eight glorious hours to devote to slumber, and you can’t wait to snuggle under your organic cotton comforter. And then, you suddenly jolt awake. It’s 3 in the morning according to your phone, and even though you’re exhausted, you just can’t seem to settle back down. The later it gets, the more you start to worry that you’re never going to get back to sleep. Soon, your alarm will ring, and instead of getting the great night of z’s you desperately needed, you’re cranky, sleep deprived and completely confused. What gives? We asked three sleep experts to solve the mystery of why you’re waking up at 3 a.m. every dang night.
Is waking up in the middle of the night…normal?
Unequivocally, yes. Everyone wakes up in the middle of the night at one time or another, and it’s totally normal, even if it happens a few times a week. In a 2008 study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research, 23 percent of the people interviewed described waking up at least one time every single night—over 35 percent woke up at least three times a week. But if you’re starting to wonder if you’re doing something to cause your middle-of-the-night wakings, it’s time to troubleshoot.
Why am I waking up at 3 a.m.?
1. You might be O.D.’ing on blue light
Chances are, you’ve already heard of blue light, a.k.a. the melatonin-suppressing rays released by the sun and most electronics. (You know those cute glasses your work wife wears? Those are designed to help block blue light, although the jury is still out on whether or not they’re actually effective.) “The cells in our eyes that detect light levels in the environment around us are particularly sensitive to blue light,” Dr. Karen Dawe, Dyson neuroscientist, told us. “There’s evidence that light with a heavy blue content has a more alerting effect in the evening. This could be because light with a heavy blue content is interpreted by our brain as the type of daylight you might get in the middle of the day, and so clearly this is at odds with our body clock and our internal sense of time.” A better fix than those blue light glasses, which, when worn in the afternoon, won’t make much of a difference? Expose yourself to sunlight first thing in the morning by going for a 15-minute walk, suggests behavioral sleep medicine specialist Dr. Lisa Medalie, PsyD, CBSM. “It improves circadian rhythm and morning alertness, thereby reducing insomnia.”
2. It could be jet lag or daylight savings
Traveled recently? This could be the culprit of your sleep disruptions, especially if you changed time zones. Similarly, your body might need at least a few days to adjust when you set your clocks forward or back to account for daylight savings time. This is because your circadian rhythm, your body’s natural 24-hour cycle, is thrown off when you are suddenly trying to sleep on a different schedule, Medalie and Dawe explain—and just because the clock says one thing doesn’t mean your internal clock will necessarily agree. It might take a few days (or even a week) to get back on track.
3. Your sleep hygiene may be crappy
Even if you have no problem initially falling asleep, the way you set up your bedroom is extremely important and can affect your quality of sleep throughout the night, Medalie explains. If you watched TV, checked email or played video games within an hour of bedtime, this is likely what caused your sleep disturbances. Other things to consider: Is your room too hot or too cold? Do you have heavy shades on the windows? Is there street noise coming through the window that could be waking you up? Do the pajamas and sheets you use allow you to stay cool and comfortable throughout the night? Lots to ponder, people.
4. You might just be getting older
We hate to break it to you, but you’re not as young as you used to be. And according to Matthew Walker, the director of the Center for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Why We Sleep, both the quantity and quality of our sleep changes as we age. “It seems to be particularly the deepest stage of sleep, something that we call non-rapid movement sleep or non-REM sleep and the very deepest stages of non-REM sleep,” he said on NPR’s Fresh Air. “Those are selectively eroded by the aging process. By the time you're in your 50s, you've perhaps lost almost 40 to 50 percent of that deep sleep that you were having, for example, when you were a teenager. By age 70, you may have lost almost 90 percent of that deep sleep.” Oh, to be 18 again…
5. You could be feeling anxious
For the last three nights, you’ve spent hours tossing and turning. Now, you’re terrified it’s going to happen again tonight. It can be easy to spiral into what Walker calls “the fearful rolodex of anxiety,” especially when you’re the only one awake in the house. “You start thinking, oh my goodness, I’ve only got an hour and a half left on the clock, and then I’ve got to be up,” he says. And if something was bugging you earlier in the day (argh, I can’t believe I hit “reply all”) and your mind won’t stop racing, that could be another reason for random middle-of-the-night wakeups.
6. It could be something you ate (or, more likely, drank)
We know you don’t want to hear this, but remember that latte you drank at 4 p.m.? The one with the chocolate powder sprinkled on top? Yeah, that could be why you’re up. Caffeine masks the adenosine receptors in the brain, which is why you feel so alert and awake after drinking a cup of coffee. “All of a sudden, your brain goes from thinking, ‘I’ve been awake for 16 hours; I’m tired and sleepy, to then thinking, ‘Oh, no. Hang on a second. I haven’t been awake for 16 hours at all. I’ve only been awake for maybe six or seven hours because the caffeine is blocking that signal of adenosine.” And while alcohol can be a sedative, it causes fragmented sleep with lots of awakenings, whether or not you remember them all, Walker says.
So, you’re up reading this at 3 a.m.? Here’s what to do:
1. Get out of bed and sit in a chair (ideally one that's next to your bed or nearby) and read a book or magazine for five minutes, Medalie suggests. This is a technique called "stimulus control,” and it’s an effective strategy for insomnia.
2. Normalize the idea of waking up in the middle of the night. Instead of panicking that you're up and can't fall back asleep (ahh, the rolodex of anxiety!!), take a second and tell yourself that this is totally normal. On average, a sleep cycle is 90 to 120 minutes long, so waking up a couple times isn’t anything to stress out about, Medalie assures us.
3. While you might be tempted to pop an Ambien on a tricky night, sleeping pills will only mask the problem. “Sedation is not sleep,” Walker explains. “It's very different. It doesn't give you the restorative natural benefits of sleep.” He does, however, suggest taking melatonin supplements in some cases—especially if you’re trying to get back to your normal circadian rhythm after an overseas trip, or if you’re a senior who has a lower release of melatonin.
4. Lower the temperature in your room. Walker suggests keeping things cooler than you’d think—between 65 and 68 degrees. This is because your body needs to drop its temperature to initiate sleep. So grab those flannel pajamas and turn the heat down.
5. Listen to a sleep story. Think of them as mini audio books, but with soothing voices coaching you into rest mode. We’re fans of the Calm bedtime story app—stories are narrated by different readers, and you can choose whose voice is most relaxing. We personally like British actor Stephen Fry, but maybe you’d prefer NPR’s Laura Sydell or Matthew McConaughey's sweet southern drawl.
6. Imagine your childhood bedroom. (Yep, really.) Try to recall every single detail—from the jacquard wallpaper in your living room to the family photo hanging over your fireplace. When you’re not thinking about the stresses of the day, you’ll get drowsy faster.