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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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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