You wake up and it’s still dark, you check your phone and it’s 3am, still several hours before you’re due to wake up.
The last thing you want now is the insufferable torment of spending those hours failing to get back to sleep, resulting in a ruined day of running on empty all because you couldn’t get back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night.
So what do you do?
Well, you need a two-pronged approach where you limit the causes of your waking up which can include too much alcohol or rogue light sources interfering with your sleep, while also giving your body the best chance of getting back to sleep before you’ve fully woken up. It also helps to practice general good sleep hygiene.
The tips for all of those different areas are coming up, including my number one sleeping tip that works super well when trying to get back to sleep. (It’s yogi-approved as well, by the way.) So let’s dive in!
What gets you up in the middle of the night
This problem gets entirely solved when you eliminate what is causing you to wake up. It’s worth mentioning that this can be natural causes you can do nothing about, but in many cases, the problem is staring you in the face and you don’t realize it.
1. Alcohol consumption. It is said that alcohol is “wonderful for sending you to sleep, but terrible for keeping you there.” Alcohol is a depressant, which means it slows the effect of the Central Nervous System, reducing brain activity and awareness.
This causes many people to believe that it’s a helpful sleep aid. While it is true that in many cases falling asleep is easier (but not always, sometimes you get the spins!), but sometimes during the night, your body experiences what is known as the “rebound effect” once it has processed all that alcohol.
The body has to adjust to normal levels and it causes you to find it difficult to reach the important REM (dreaming) sleep stage, which is one reason why you feel so bad when you’re hungover.
It’s not the end of the world to enjoy an evening drinking a nice IPA or two or a couple of glasses of Chinon, and actually, there is evidence that one drink can actually improve sleep quality and duration. The problems really arise from binge drinking and high alcohol consumption. Also, the more you drink, the more you are going to need to use the bathroom, which leads me on to my next point.
2. Drinking too much liquid. If your bladder is filled, your body will not take kindly to trying to sleep through and will often wake you up for a ‘dead of night’ toilet trip. This can often be long enough to drag you out of your sleep inertia and cause you to spend minutes or even hours unable to get back to sleep. A simple fix is to be mindful of the liquids you are consuming in the hours leading up to your bedtime.
3. It’s too hot. While the absolute worst of the heat comes in getting to sleep as your body’s core temperature is too hot to effectively producing its favorite sleep-inducing hormone, Melatonin, it can also be the spark that causes you to wake up in the middle of the night, dripping with sweat.
Putting the AC on a comfortable temperature is obviously best, but more money-conscious solutions involve opening a window or using a fan.
4. Too much light. Your human body evolved on the African savannah where it learned to wake with the sun and sleep with the moon. The point being, when it is nighttime it should be dark.
Small glimpses of light from passing cars, streetlights, phone notifications or anything else can often be the cue to cause an awakening, often without realizing what caused it. If you have the capability of installing it I highly recommend getting some blackout curtains, I’ve never slept better than in my old place where my bedroom would be pitch black from dusk to morning. (Unfortunately, they can’t be installed in the bedroom in my current apartment )
You will also want to get rid of any sources of light within your room. Your phone is a likely culprit, get that thing on airplane mode and turn it over when you sleep. Televisions, alarm clocks, and many other electronic devices can also be a source of small streams of light that can affect your sleep.
You may also want to invest in a sleeping mask, these things can block out all light and are incredibly useful at time.
5. External noise. This one’s a tough one to deal with as it can be difficult to mitigate the noise that comes from other people or from outside your house/apartment. The one thing I can really recommend is to get some earplugs, you can read my review of these ones here that I used literally every time I go to sleep.
They do a great job of making a seal with your ear canal and dampen sounds considerably, if not totally eliminating all sound you will hear. Whatever you do, noise is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to a middle of the night unplanned wakeup so get it sorted.
6. Health issues. I used to get violently forced awake through a heavy bout of acid reflux, 15 minutes of dealing with that and then I was as awake as ever. If it’s health issues that’s waking you up then that’s a tough one to deal with, the only solution is to get to a doctor and get that stuff sorted.
7. Snoring. This isn’t an easy one to deal with, and at times the severity of a snorer can be one of the worst things to wake you up as it’s gonna happen all night long and might stop you getting back to sleep as well. Such an important problem deserves a long answer, which is why you can check out my much more in-depth guide to sleeping with a snorer
(I did it relatively successfully for 6 years).
8. Your pet. Yea, I know, you love sleeping with your pet in the room and feel cold and empty without him or her. The fact is, if your best friend is stopping you getting shuteye then you need to find somewhere else for him to sleep. It’s just not worth it in the long run.
How to get back to sleep when you wake up in the middle of the night
So by not I’m hoping your house is on the way to being LOCKED DOWN in terms of all those annoying things-what-can-wake-you-up. But you’ve done all that and you still are getting woken up. Let’s talk about how you’re going to get back to sleep.
The first point to talk about is sleep inertia. This is the groggy, tired feeling you get just upon wakening where your body is still in a partly asleep state. It lasts for 15-30 minutes and gradually reduces over that time period. The key is that getting back to sleep in this state is much easier, once it passes your body is going to have to start all over again when it comes to drifting off.
1. Aim to get back to sleep quickly. Bearing the above in mind, when you wake up in the middle of the night your first thought should be to get back to sleep as soon as you can. There are plenty of distractions available (the main ones listed below) and anything you do that causes time to pass before your head hits that pillow again is a bad idea.
2. Don’t check your phone. As tempting as it is to check the time when you wake up, don’t do it. You will inevitably look through your notifications and may even be tempted to send a few replies or check the sports scores or god knows what else. This increases the amount of time you stay awake which as we’ve established will make it harder for you to fall asleep again, moreover, your phones are a source of blue light which is a type of light your body receives from the sun and causes it to think it’s daytime and start the ‘daytime’ waking up processes.
3. Make the room cooler. A hot room is a large impediment to falling asleep for reasons I mentioned previously. If you wake up and find yourself uncomfortably warm then look at putting the AC on, getting a fan going or opening a window.
4. Meditate yourself to sleep. I’m a big fan of the ‘meditate’ method of sleeping. This involves clearing your mind of thoughts or concentrating on your breathing in and out until you drift away. This isn’t something you can learn in a few seconds. Proper meditation takes years to master, just ask any seasoned yogi, although you can start to see some benefits in a relatively short time span.
My favorite thing about doing this is you get an idea of whether your brain just isn’t prepared for bed. Sometimes I will try to meditate but will be unable to stop my mind racing so I know that sleep isn’t coming and I can stop wasting my time and get up and do something, which nicely leads onto the next tip.
You can check out my thoughts on doing this in my other article on getting (or at least trying to get) to sleep within one minute.
5. If you can’t fall asleep, get up and do something. Let’s say you’ve given yourself 15 minutes of well-directed attempting to sleep and it just ain’t happening, the best tactic is to give up. Getting out of bed and doing something can start a mini reset process. Give yourself a small amount of time, less than an hour is usually enough, then when you begin to feel tired you can go back to sleep and try again. Aim to avoid blue light when you do this, so if you use your phone or computer make sure you have a blue light filter active. Iphones have this inbuilt and it’s called ‘Night Shift’ and you can download one onto your computer called ‘Flux’ which I use every night before bed.
6. Stop worrying. A common cause of insomnia or just generally being unable to sleep is anxiety or worries. Of course telling someone who’s worrying to ‘stop worrying’ is about as useful as telling someone who’s parachute is broken to just fly. It’s never that easy. If this is a problem for you then I’d look into meditation, this ties in with #4 to some degree but some amount of time meditating, not necessarily at bedtime, can do wonders for breaking those damaging thought cycles that embed in your head and stop yourself gettnig back to sleep.
7. Don’t eat! I swear that refridgerators have an inbuilt magnetism that activates only when it’s the middle of the night, it’s so tempting to have a raid and see what little snacks and treats are available. The fact is, eating inhibits your sleep, particularly high carb foods. Keep the fridge door shut and save those oreos for the morning (yes oreos should be kept cool in my opinion.
Sleep hygiene tips
Aside from anything else, waking up in the middle of the night is the sign of bad sleep hygiene, that means you’re not setting yourself up for a good night’s sleep. I think we’ve all been though the scenario of having a espresso at the end of a great meal only to discover that drinking coffee at 11pm is not the best idea if you’d like to go to sleep an hour later!
Here’s some of the main sleep hygiene tips I would recommend that will help you sleep better and will help you stop waking up in the middle of the night or at least make it easier to get back to sleep when you do.
1. Limit caffeine consumption. The biggest obstacle in sleep hygiene is caffeine for fairly obvious reasons. I strongly recommend you don’t take anything with caffeine in after 1pm and ideally not after 9am. Caffeine has a 6-hour half life so that coffee you drink at 5pm will still only be half processed by 11pm and drinking half a coffee at that point doesn’t sound like too good an idea, agree? It’s also important to note the sneaky caffeine-containing drinks and substances that people don’t even know about. Coca-Cola, Diet Coke, tea, chocolate all have small but noticeable amounts that can affect your ability to sleep throughout the night.
2. Eating before bed. Your body’s energy source comes from food and of that food, it’s preferred energy source is carb. Load up on a big load of pasta and soda before bed and your blood sugar will have spiked and your mind will be racing. Aim to keep the time between your last meal and your bedtime at least 4-5 hours and try to have fewer carbs in the evening as well. This goes especially for snacking as most of these snacks will be high carb foodstuffs like donuts, candy or cakes.
3. Eliminate distractions. This varies from person to person drastically. Some people (like me) are awoken at the drop of the hat from the tiniest noise coming from miles away, on the other hand there are those who can sleep through a chainsaw demonstration in their bedroom. Whether it’s noise or light or other people, reducing the distractions helps your general sleep and particularly can be the catalyst that awakens you in the middle of the night so it’s important to deal with. One tip is to wear earplugs or a sleeping mask, I use both and find they are excellent (if you choose the right ones!) at blocking out noise or light.