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Waking up in the Middle of the Night? Light May Play a Role

Waking up regularly in the middle of the night can be frustrating, but it doesn’t necessarily mean your sleep is disordered. Start by evaluating your daily routines and sleep environment to see if light could be the culprit.
Published
2021-07-01
Updated
2022-07-08
15 MINS
Frustrated woman waking up in the middle of the night.

For lots of people, falling asleep after a long, busy day isn’t the problem; it’s staying asleep through the night that poses a challenge. Especially when you have another jam-packed day ahead of you, you can start to worry: What if I can’t fall asleep again? How will I have energy to get through the day tomorrow if I don’t get a good night’s sleep? Or, even, what if something’s wrong with me?

Although it’s not uncommon, waking up during the night can still be frustrating, and the effects of regularly disrupted sleep can take a toll on us mentally, emotionally, and physically. The good news? Sleeping through the night might be a more straight-forward fix than you think. 

The key is in constructing a daily schedule and nightly sleep routine that works with — not against — your body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, as much as possible, which starts with taking inventory of your daily routines and sleep habits, and seeing where there might be room for improvement. Here we’ll walk you through the how-tos of basic sleep hygiene, reasons why you may be waking up mid-sleep (hint: it could be light-related!), and some in-the-moment solutions for those times when you just need to make it through the night.

Is Waking Up In the Middle of the Night Normal?

In short, yes! Despite having no awareness or memory of them, most of us experience micro-awakenings — sometimes 10–20 per hour — while we’re asleep at night. And according to some sleep experts and historians, in many parts of the world for much of recorded history, waking completely for an hour or more in the middle of the night was just part of the regular rhythm of human life. Biphasic, or segmented, sleep (i.e. sleeping in two roughly four-hour segments separated by a period of wakefulness) was even quite common in preindustrial times, before the advent of artificial light. So if this is something you experience, know that you’re not alone. 

But while it might be somewhat comforting to learn that the tendency to wake up during the night could be considered normal, it doesn’t alleviate the very real problems associated with not getting enough sleep. And not to mention the pace, timing, and demands of our modern lives can be especially challenging for those of us who are experiencing the effects of sleep deprivation. 

In the short term, sleep loss can cause cognitive impairment, poor mood, and increased susceptibility to accidents and injuries. Over the long term, the effects become even more dire, increasing our risk for high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain/obesity, depression, and even heart attack and stroke.

How Do I Know If I'm Getting Enough Sleep?

Just because you’re waking up during the night doesn’t necessarily mean you’re sleep deprived, though the chances are good. Using the RISE app, you can determine your exact sleep need, which is different for everyone, but typically hovers between 7.5 and 9 hours per night. From there, RISE can also help you keep track of your sleep debt, which is the running tally of the hours of sleep you’ve missed compared to the amount of sleep your body needs, over the last two weeks. The goal is to get enough sleep to keep your sleep debt at or below five hours, which not only assists with improved health outcomes, but also helps you feel and perform at (or close to) your best during the day. 

RISE app screenshot showing how much sleep debt you have.
The RISE app keeps track of your sleep debt for you and shows the progress you make toward reducing it.

What’s Causing Me to Wake Up During the Night?

There are many external factors that could be causing you to wake up in the middle of the night. The first step to figuring out what they might be is to familiarize yourself with the basics of sleep hygiene, or the behaviors that help us get sufficient naturalistic nightly sleep. It may come as a surprise, but training ourselves to get better sleep isn’t only about our bedtime routine — it starts as soon as we wake up in the morning. 

Check In with Your Sleep Hygiene 

While these are habits we should all be implementing every day to optimize our sleep and overall energy levels, they become especially important during times when we’re having trouble sleeping: 

  • Maintain a consistent wake time: Keeping it consistent is key to healthy sleep! When our sleep and wake schedule is all over the place, it can disrupt our brain’s production of sleep and wake hormones (melatonin and cortisol, respectively), making it exceedingly difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. The RISE app can pinpoint your best wake-time window based on your habits and biology. We also explore the best time to wake up and go to sleep for you here. 
  • Get some sun: Expose yourself to light (preferably sunlight) as soon as possible after waking. Sunlight signals to the brain that it’s time to wake up, at which point our circadian rhythm begins its approximately 12-hour countdown to bedtime. (The science recommends 10–15 minutes of sunlight in clear conditions, and 30 minutes if it’s overcast!)
  • Move your body: In addition to providing cardiovascular benefits, regular exercise can also make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep at night. A word to the wise, though: avoid intense exercise too close to bedtime, as it can heighten arousal and disrupt sleep
  • Avoid sleep-disrupting consumption: As the day progresses, you’ll want to become increasingly conscious of your consumption of alcohol, caffeine, and big meals that can cause digestive discomfort. The cut-off time for each of these is different, and varies from person to person from day to day, but the RISE app can tell you the exact time you should start limiting each one.
  • Take time to unwind: Because mental stimulation can make it difficult to fall and stay asleep, instituting a nightly wind-down period can help you disconnect from the stress and busyness of the day. Listen to calming music, read a chapter of a novel, or practice your preferred relaxation technique.
  • Embrace the darkness: Removing most light, especially blue light, 90 minutes before bedtime helps ramp up your body’s production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. If you must use electronic devices in the evening, it’s worth investing in a pair of blue-light blocking glasses.
  • Make your bedroom a sleep sanctuary: The ideal sleep environment is cool (65-68 degrees), dark, and quiet. Blackout curtains, an eye mask, a white noise machine, and earplugs can help if the perfect sleep environment doesn’t come ready-made.
  • Go to bed during your Melatonin Window: Keep a consistent bedtime that falls after your dim light melatonin onset (DLMO). This is the circadian phase marker that signals the start of your Melatonin Window, which is the time of night when your body produces its highest levels of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin. Staying up past this window can make it more difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. 

Do You Have a Healthy Relationship with Light?

While the above factors all contribute to our sleep health, there’s one factor in particular that warrants a deeper dive — if you’re having a hard time sleeping through the night, it’s probably time for a little “light” discussion. 

When you wake up in the morning, do you keep the curtains closed for hours? Are there days when you don’t go outside or feel sunlight on your face until the afternoon? Do you keep the overhead lights on all evening and just switch everything off right before you go to bed? If any of this sounds familiar, what you think is a sleep problem might really be a light problem. 

Ideally, you should expose yourself to light soon after you wake up, maximize exposure to sunlight throughout the day, and then avoid light (as much as possible) 90 minutes before bed. Being strategic about the timing of your light exposure can improve your sleep and next-day energy levels. Why? Because light is the most important external influence on your circadian rhythm.

Stepping outside or, at the very least, opening the curtains to let the daylight in when you wake up in the morning helps calibrate your body’s internal clock by signaling the end of the sleep phase and the beginning of your waking hours (but you should really get outside!). It also sets the stage for restful sleep at the end of the day. When you expose your skin and eyes to sunlight soon after waking, it can help increase your body’s production of serotonin. Approximately 12 hours later, the serotonin gets converted into the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin.

Darkness is a cue for your brain to ramp up production of melatonin, and light will disrupt the process. That’s why avoiding light in the hour or two before bedtime can make it easier to fall and stay asleep. Because it’s not always possible to avoid light altogether, try using fewer and/or dimmer lights, and wearing blue-light blocking glasses, as the blue light that’s emitted from the screens of our electronic devices is especially problematic. 

As touched on above, it’s also of utmost importance to keep the room you’re sleeping in as close to pitch dark as possible. If your room isn’t naturally dark, get in the habit of using an eye mask and blackout curtains. Additionally, it’s a good practice to banish all electronic devices from the bedroom — even insignificant-seeming amounts of light (like from a digital alarm clock or a charging device, for instance) can be significantly disruptive to sleep

RISE can help! The RISE app can take the guess-work out by telling you when to expose yourself to bright light and when to begin avoiding it.

RISE app screenshot showing you when to get and avoid bright light.
You can even set reminders for bright light control using the RISE app.

What If Light Isn’t the Only Thing Keeping Me Awake?

That said, it’s very possible that light isn’t the only thing that’s throwing a wrench in your sleep. Other common sleep disruptors include social jet lag (i.e. when our circadian rhythm is out of step with the clock imposed by our social, work, and/or family obligations), and napping too late in the day, as these can interfere with consistent, healthy sleep patterns. 

We also want to keep tabs on our caffeine intake — did you know it stays in our system for up to 10–12 hours? — and alcohol, which is often mistaken for a sleep aid because it makes us doze off readily, but then results in shallow, fragmented sleep.  

The RISE app can help you determine when to cut off your caffeine and alcohol consumption based on your unique biology and sleep schedule. Go to the “Habits” tab to set up daily reminders of these cut-off times.

RISE app screenshot reminding you when to avoid alcohol.
RISE can tell you when to have your last beer or cocktail to avoid disrupted sleep. 

What If I’m Still Waking Up?

When most people say they have sleep problems, they usually really have a problem with light exposure (and poor sleep hygiene at large). However, for nighttime wakefulness that persists even after you’ve addressed these other factors, consider seeking medical advice to rule out or address underlying health issues or medical conditions. Your specific symptoms and medical history might hold clues. Whether it’s heartburn, acid reflux, chronic pain, frequent nighttime urination (nocturia), or night sweats associated with menopause or other conditions — your doctor may be able to offer treatment options that can help alleviate these sleep-disrupting symptoms.

Sleep disturbances have also been linked to high blood pressure, Alzheimer’s disease, anemia and iron deficiency, mental health disorders, and some antidepressant medications. In addition, some people may experience sleeplessness as a side effect of certain antibiotics, steroids, or over-the-counter cold medicines.

To screen for sleep disorders, your doctor may refer you to a sleep specialist or recommend a sleep medicine clinic that can offer the best testing and treatment. You may be suffering from sleep maintenance insomnia (the scientific term for regularly waking up too early or in the middle of the night) or one of the following sleep disorders:

  • Sleep apnea is a common but potentially serious disorder that causes multiple nighttime awakenings that can result in excessive daytime sleepiness, or hypersomnia. With obstructive sleep apnea, the upper airway becomes blocked repeatedly during sleep, reducing or completely stopping airflow, which can lead to low blood oxygen levels. Certain lifestyle changes (e.g., exercise, weight loss, quitting smoking, etc.) can help, as can wearing a continuous positive air pressure (CPAP) machine while sleeping.
  • Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is another condition that can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. Classified as both a sleep disorder and a movement disorder, RLS is characterized by an uncontrollable urge to move your legs that gets worse when you’re sitting or lying down.
  • Narcolepsy, a neurological disorder that affects the brain’s ability to control sleep-wake cycles and causes excessive daytime sleepiness, can also cause patients to wake up frequently during the night.

What Can I Do in the Moment?

While trouble-shooting your sleep hygiene habits and fine-tuning your daily (and nightly!) light-exposure are crucial for improving and maintaining your long-term sleep health, we understand that sometimes a quick fix is also called for. So what can you do when you’re awake at 3 a.m. with a full day of work and family obligations looming, and are desperate to eke out a few more hours of shut-eye? Here are some tips to help you fall back asleep:

  • Don’t stress: Perhaps easier said than done, but letting ourselves stress about missed sleep and the daunting day ahead will only push sleep further out of grasp, as stress can cause a spike in our cortisol (aka the wake-up hormone), potentially thrusting us into a fully-awake state. 
  • Avoid looking at the clock: There’s no benefit to knowing what time it is when you wake up, or how long you’ve been awake. In fact, it can make matters worse by triggering cortisol-spiking stress (see above). Not only this, but the light from digital devices can disrupt melatonin production, making us feel even more awake. 
  • Try a “sleep reset”: After 20 minutes of wakefulness, get out of bed and engage in a calming activity while sitting up, like reading a book, listening to gentle music, or meditating. Get back into bed only when you start to feel sleepy again. Focusing on relaxation combats the release of cortisol, and leaving bed helps to preserve the bed = sleep brain connection. 
  • Keep it dark: If you need to get out of bed for your sleep reset, to use the bathroom, or anything else, you may be tempted to turn on the light. Don’t do it! Instead, throw on your blue light blocking glasses and use the flashlight on your phone, or even consider investing in a red light device. (Studies show that using a red light at night can promote alertness without sabotaging melatonin production and disrupting our circadian rhythm — what’s more, red light may even help regulate the sleep-wake cycle!)

Get Caught up in the Right Cycle

Aligning with your circadian rhythm and keeping your sleep debt low are the two most important levers not only in regards to your sleep health, but also in optimizing your energy each day. Falling into good habits in these areas will help you feel and function your best during the day, and make it easier to sleep through the night. 

If it sounds complicated, it doesn’t have to be. An easy-to-use tool can simplify things. The RISE app will calculate your sleep need, keep track of your sleep debt, and help you get to know and follow your circadian rhythm. 

Get your best night's sleep:

Summary FAQs

Why did I wake up in the middle of the night for no reason?

Chances are there is a reason, and it’s something you’re doing (or not doing!) during your waking hours that’s interfering with your body’s natural sleep-wake cycle. The good news: this means it’s likely a simple fix. Start by evaluating your sleep hygiene and your daily habits in regards to light exposure. 

Why do I wake up at 3am and can’t go back to sleep?

Most of us experience many micro-awakenings each night that we’re not even aware of — it’s normal! It only becomes a problem when we find ourselves unable to fall back asleep. If this is you, you might actually be unconsciously doing things that make sleep harder to come by — i.e. letting yourself get anxious about missed sleep (stress spikes our cortisol, aka the “wake-up” hormone), or looking at your phone or turning on a light.

How do I stop waking up in the middle of the night?

First, take stock of your sleep hygiene, and make improvements where you can. And keep in mind, good sleep is something we should be prepping for all day long, not just when our head hits the pillow. One thing to note in particular: since light exposure regulates our sleep-wake cycle, make sure you’re exposing yourself to sunlight as soon as you wake up, and then minimize light exposure in the hours leading up to bedtime (this includes screens and devices!) to avoid disrupted sleep patterns. 

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