Talk about a rude awakening.
One minute you’re snoozing peacefully, the next you’re wide awake in the dead of night. Sound familiar? Unless you’re blessed enough to conk out like the most determined of logs, you may have experienced this form of sleeplessness before. Waking up during the night isn’t uncommon—a study of 8,937 people in Sleep Medicine estimates that about a third of American adults wake up in the night at least three times a week, and over 40 percent of that group might have trouble falling asleep again (this is sometimes referred to as sleep maintenance insomnia).
So, what’s causing you to wake up in the middle of the night, and how can you stop it from happening? Here are eight common reasons, plus what you can do to get a good night’s rest.
Your arousal threshold—meaning how easy it is for something to wake you up—varies depending on what sleep stage you’re in, Rita Aouad, M.D., a sleep medicine physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, tells SELF.
When you sleep, your body cycles through different sleep stages: 1, 2, 3, 4, and rapid-eye movement (REM). (Some schools of thought lump together stages 3 and 4.) The first stage of sleep is the lightest, Dr. Aouad explains. That’s when you’re most likely to startle awake because a door slams, a passing car’s headlights shine into your window, or because of some other environmental factor like your room being too hot or cold.
Ideally, your room should be dark, comfortably cool, and quiet when you sleep. This might not all be under your control, but do what you can, like using earplugs and an eye mask to block out errant noise and light, or buying a fan if your room is stifling.
“Anxiety can absolutely wake you up at night,” Nesochi Okeke-Igbokwe, M.D., a physician in New York, tells SELF. In fact, trouble sleeping is one of the most common symptoms of an anxiety disorder, according to the Mayo Clinic. That’s because you can experience anxiety-induced issues that are severe enough to rouse you, like a galloping heartbeat or nightmares.
“Additionally, there are people who may experience what are called nocturnal panic attacks, meaning they may have transient episodes of intense panic that wake them up from their slumber,” Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe says.
If your anxiety regularly wakes you up, Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe recommends mentioning it to your doctor, who should be able to help you get a handle on any underlying anxiety or panic disorder at play. Doing so may involve cognitive behavioral therapy, anti-anxiety medication, or a combination of the two. “Meditation and deep-breathing exercises can also sometimes alleviate symptoms in some people,” Dr. Okeke-Igbokwe says.
Nocturia—a condition that’s generally viewed as getting up to pee at least once during the night, though some experts say that’s not often enough to qualify—appears to be fairly common. A study in the International Neurourology Journal found that out of the 856 people surveyed, around 23 percent of women and 29 percent of men experienced nocturia.
Causes of nocturia include drinking too much fluid before bedtime, urinary tract infections, and an overactive bladder, per the Cleveland Clinic. Untreated type 1 or type 2 diabetes may also be a factor; having too much sugar in your bloodstream forces your body to extract fluid from your tissues, making you thirsty and possibly prompting you to drink and pee more, according to the Mayo Clinic.
If cutting back on your evening fluid intake doesn’t reduce your number of nightly bathroom trips, consult a doctor for other possible explanations.
Sure, alcohol can make it easy to drift off—even when you’re, say, on a friend’s couch instead of tucked into your bed—but it also has a tendency to cause fitful sleep. This is because alcohol can play around with your sleep stages in various ways. For instance, it seems as though alcohol is associated with more stage 1 sleep than usual in the second half of the night. Remember, stage 1 sleep is the period in which you’re most likely to wake up due to environmental factors. So if you’re looking for quality, sleep-through-the-night rest, it’s worth taking a look at how much alcohol you’re consuming.
Everyone metabolizes alcohol differently depending on factors like genetics, diet, and body size. However, Alexea Gaffney Adams, M.D., a board-certified internist at Stony Brook Medicine, recommends that people stop drinking at least three hours before going to bed to give their bodies time to process the alcohol. Since drinking often happens at night, we realize that can be an optimistic time cushion. Based on your personal factors and how much you drank, you might not need that much. But having some kind of buffer—and drinking plenty of water so you’re more likely to booze in moderation—may prevent alcohol from interfering with your sleep.
Also, Dr. Gaffney Adams notes that drinking alcohol too soon before bed will make you need to pee, increasing the likelihood you’ll wake up in the night to use the bathroom. Double whammy, that one.
If you find yourself jolting awake and feeling like you need to catch your breath, sleep apnea might be the culprit. This disorder slows and/or stops your breathing while you are asleep.
If you have obstructive sleep apnea, the muscles in your throat relax too much, which narrows your airway, causing your oxygen levels to drop, the Mayo Clinic explains. If you have central sleep apnea, your brain doesn’t send the right signals to the muscles controlling your breathing, again causing this potentially harmful drop in oxygen. Complex sleep apnea features characteristics of both conditions.
To diagnose sleep apnea, your doctor may have you do an overnight sleep study that monitors your breathing, according to the Mayo Clinic. The most common treatment for sleep apnea is a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine, which is basically a mask you wear during sleep to help keep your airways open, but your doctor can help you explore the alternatives if necessary.
“This gland controls the function of several other organs,” Dr. Gaffney Adams tells SELF. When it’s overactive (also called hyperthyroidism), it creates too much of the hormone thyroxine, which can have ripple effects on many different systems in your body, according to the Mayo Clinic. Common symptoms of an overactive thyroid include trouble sleeping, an increased heart rate, sweating (including at night), anxiety, tremors, and more.
Your primary care physician or an endocrinologist (a doctor specializing in hormones) can test your blood to evaluate your hormone levels. If you do have an overactive thyroid, your doctor can walk you through the potential ways of treating it, including medications to slow your thyroid’s hormone production and beta blockers to reduce symptoms like a wild heartbeat.
“Eating too heavy of a meal too close to bedtime can make it difficult to fall asleep or stay asleep,” Dr. Aouad says. One potential reason behind this is acid reflux, which is when your stomach acid moves up into your throat and causes painful nighttime heartburn. And if you eat food right before bed that makes you gassy, the resulting abdominal pain could drag you out of dreamland, too.
On the flip side, going too long without eating before you sleep can also cause this type of insomnia, Dr. Aouad says. There’s the simple fact that your growling, crampy stomach can wake you up. Hunger could also mess with your blood sugar while you sleep, especially if you have diabetes. Going too long without eating can provoke hypoglycemia, which is when your blood sugar drops too low. This can lead to restless sleep, per the Cleveland Clinic, along with issues like weakness or shaking, dizziness, and confusion. Although hypoglycemia can happen to anyone, it’s much more likely in people with diabetes. If you have the condition, work with your doctor on a plan for keeping your blood sugar stable, including during sleep.
Restless legs syndrome, or RLS, may make your lower extremities feel like they are throbbing, itching, aching, pulling, or crawling, among other sensations, according to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). If you have RLS, you’ll also feel an uncontrollable urge to move your legs. These symptoms are most common during the evening and night and become more intense during periods of inactivity, like…you guessed it, sleep.
Experts aren’t totally sure what causes RLS, but it seems as though there’s a hereditary factor in the mix, according to the NINDS. Researchers are also investigating how issues with dopamine, a neurotransmitter your muscles need to work correctly, may cause RLS. Sometimes there are other underlying issues bringing about RLS as well, such as iron deficiency.
After diagnosing you with RLS via questions and lab exams, your doctor may prescribe medications to increase your dopamine levels or other drugs, such as muscle relaxants. They may also be able to counsel you on home remedies to soothe your muscles, like warm baths.
If you think all you need to do to fix this is tweak a habit, like falling asleep with the TV on or chugging a liter of water before bed, start there. If you’ve done everything you can think of and still don’t see a change, it’s worth mentioning your nighttime wakeups to an expert who can help you stay put after you drift off.