Why you keep waking up at 4 (and how to stop it)

Mature woman wakes up through alarm ring on smart phone in bedroom

Experts advise against checking your phone if you wake up in the middle of the night. Getty Images

There was a time earlier in the pandemic when I woke up every morning between 3 and 4. Sometimes I had to go to the bathroom or I had a brilliant idea for a new story. Other times it was seemingly for no reason at all.

Waking up in the middle of the night is typically not a cause for concern. The average person wakes up several times during the night, but often doesn’t notice because they can quickly fall back asleep (and they’re only awake for a few seconds). However, frequent night awakenings could also be a sign of insomnia, which is found in 40% of older adults. But before you self-diagnose, it might be helpful to take a look at why you wake up in the middle of the night.

What wakes you up in the middle of the night

As it turns out, there are several reasons why we randomly wake up in the middle of the night, including but not limited to:

  • Noise: This could be from the sound of traffic outside and birds chirping, or your partner snoring next to you (or, as was often the case for me, a noisy upstairs neighbor). “The brain continues to detect and process sounds during sleep, and as such, noise can be a major sleep stealer,” explains Terry Cralle, nurse practitioner and representative for Better Sleep Council.
  • Alcohol: A glass of wine with dinner might not seem like a bad idea, but as alcohol is metabolized in your system, it can disrupt your sleep, leading to restlessness and frequent awakenings. “Alcohol consumption is known to reduce the time spent in REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and is also considered a diuretic, which can lead to middle-of-the-night bathroom trips,” says Cralle.
  • Dinner time: Eating too close to bedtime can also lead to waking up in the middle of the night due to heartburn and acid reflux.
  • Stress: If waking up earlier than usual is not your norm, consider what happens in the waking hours and whether stress from life or work may be affecting your sleep.
  • Aging: As we age, our sleep quality tends to decline as our sleep cycle changes, and medications can also affect your sleep schedule.

How to fall asleep quickly after waking up in the middle of the night

If you have a few more hours before your alarm is scheduled to go off, you can still save some sleep. Here’s how you do it:

Resist the temptation to watch the clock

Checking the time (or the notifications) can actually make you stay awake longer. “The light is distracting, and you can easily end up checking content and before you know it, you’ve easily lost an hour (or more) of sleep,” says Cralle.

Avoid strong light

If you have to get up and go to the toilet in the middle of the night, try to avoid bright lighting as much as possible. But if you take several trips during the night, you should contact your doctor.

Try to relax (but don’t force yourself to fall asleep)

Anyone who has ever found themselves staring at their ceiling in the middle of the night knows that deliberately trying to fall asleep can often backfire. Instead of forcing sleep, experts recommend trying relaxation techniques instead, such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation, which involves tensing and then releasing every muscle in your body.

Leave the room

If all else fails after 20 minutes, get up and go to another room to read or listen to soft music. Whatever you do, just make sure it’s in a different room. “Doing this causes your brain and body to associate your bed with wakefulness instead of sleep,” Johns Hopkins sleep expert Luis F. Buenaver, Ph.D. said in one blog post.

“It can be hard to leave a warm, comfortable bed after waking up in the middle of the night. But think of this step as an investment in better sleep—if not tonight, then tomorrow night and in the future.” When you are sufficiently sleepy, you can return to your bedroom.

Tips to avoid waking up in the middle of the night

Although occasional awakenings at 3am may be inevitable, there are science-based ways to ensure you set yourself up for success before bed. For adults under 65, it is recommended that you get seven to nine hours of sleep per night, with the goal of going to bed within two to three hours of sunset.

It is important to go to bed before midnight, Dr. Allison Brager, a neurobiologist with expertise in sleep and circadian rhythms, previously. Assets, as this “optimizes time spent in restorative non-REM sleep.” Other tips for getting a good night’s sleep include:

  • Keep a regular bedtime and waking time
  • Get light exposure, ideally sunlight, in the morning
  • Avoid large doses of caffeine during the day, but especially after
  • Avoid large meals, alcohol and exercise close to bedtime
  • Avoid exposure to strong light in the evening
  • Keep your bedroom dark and cool

In addition, you can optimize your bedroom to include sleep masks and earplugs; blackout curtains; a noise machine and/or other sound-absorbing materials, such as carpets, rugs or wall coverings; and a comfortable sleeping surface, such as a mattress, pillows and bedding, to help you fall asleep (and stay asleep) more easily.

But if nothing works and you still find yourself getting up at 04.00 more often than not, you should see your doctor to see if you have a sleep disorder.

“Quality sleep is the foundation on which optimal health is built. Although nutrition and exercise are best, without proper sleep their benefits are greatly reduced,” Dr. Abhinav Singh, medical director, Indiana Sleep Center, expert at SleepFoundation.organd co-author of Sleep to Heal: 7 Simple Steps to Better Sleeppreviously told Assets. “Sleep is important for metabolic health, immune defense, muscle repair, optimal brain function and mental health. Optimal sleep not only adds years to your life, but life to your years.”

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