It’s beyond frustrating when you can’t fall asleep, but just as exasperating is when you can’t stay asleep. You may find yourself waking up in the wee hours of the morning unable to drift back into slumber. When you have insomnia characterized by frequent nighttime awakenings, you have issues with sleep maintenance, the ability to stay asleep.
Sleep maintenance issues are often the most frustrating and difficult to treat. If you wake up several times during the night, you might wonder why this is happening, especially if it’s a persistent problem. Here are some possible reasons why you can’t stay asleep and what to do about it.
You Have Sleep Apnea
Sleep apnea is a condition where you stop breathing for short periods of time during sleep. You may have it without being aware of it, but it’s more common in people who snore at night. In fact, snoring can be a sign of undiagnosed sleep apnea. However, not everyone who snores has it. According to MayoClinic.org, other symptoms of sleep apnea include morning headaches, waking up frequently during the night, brain fog, irritability, and dry mouth in the morning.
The most common cause of sleep apnea is obstructive sleep apnea where the muscles in the back of the throat relax too much, and your airways narrow or constrict when you breathe in and out. When this happens during sleep, it reduces the amount of oxygen that reaches your brain and other organs. Over time, this can lead to heart problems, as your heart must work harder to deliver blood and oxygen due to constricted airways and blood vessels. That’s why it’s so important to see your physician if you have these symptoms.
Your Circadian Rhythms Are Disrupted
Did you know you have an internal biological clock that determines factors like when your body releases hormones and even the function of your immune system? If you have irregular sleep habits or work the night shift, it can shift your biological clock and your sleep-wake cycle. Rather than sleeping soundly throughout the night, you abruptly wake up at 2:00 A.M. without knowing why.
What can you do about chaotic circadian rhythms? If you expose your eyes to natural sunlight before noon every day, it will set your internal biological clock and circadian rhythms in a healthy manner, so you’re more likely to sleep through the night. Also, remove all sources of light from your sleeping area since light at night throws off your natural sleep cycle. Avoid using electronics within 2 hours of sleep too.
You Have Mild Depression
Insomnia and waking up frequently during the night are common in people who have mild, undiagnosed depression. In fact, studies show that people who have insomnia are at higher risk of developing depression. One study found problems falling asleep or staying asleep in 75% of people with depressive symptoms.
Treating depression helps restore healthier sleep habits too. Stress can also be a factor if you have frequent nighttime awakenings. Stress relief strategies like meditation, controlled breathing, self-hypnosis, spending time in nature, and exercise may be beneficial for reducing stress and restoring healthier sleep patterns.
You’re Eating or Drinking the Wrong Things
What you eat affects how easily you fall asleep and whether you wake up during the night. Obviously, you want to avoid caffeine but also alcohol. You might think a glass of wine relaxes you, but when the sedating effects of alcohol wear off, you awaken more easily during the night. Also, eating a diet high in processed carbohydrates and foods high in sugar, especially close to bedtime, can cause a rise and rapid drop in blood sugar that awakens you during the night. So, skip the chips, soft drinks, and sugary stuff and replace them with whole foods that don’t cause rapid changes in blood sugar.
You’re Taking Medications that Cause Sleep Disturbances
A number of medications make it harder to fall asleep and stay asleep. Some common prescription and non-prescription drugs that make it challenging to fall asleep include anti-depressants, thyroid supplement, medications used for asthma, decongestants, medications that contain caffeine, stimulants, and medications used to kick the smoking habit.
Some cough medications cause frequent nighttime awakening, as do beta-blockers, a type of medication used to treat high blood pressure and certain heart problems. If you’re having problems falling or staying asleep, check with your physicians and see if your medications could be playing a role.
The Bottom Line
Now you know some of the reasons you might awaken often during the night. First, get a medical evaluation and make sure sleep apnea, a health problem, or medication isn’t causing the problem. Then look at your medications and stressful issues that you might be dealing with. Also, scrutinize your diet and make sure you’re not consuming too much caffeine, alcohol, sugar, or refined carbohydrates.
Make sure you’re creating a relaxing sleep environment too. People sleep better at a bedroom temperature of around 65 degrees F. and with no sources of light. Most people doze in a bedroom temperature that’s too high. Don’t forget to remove the clutter from your bedroom too. Make it as calm and inviting as possible. Switch off the electronics too. Checking your news feed on your smartphone can wait until morning. Exposing your eyes to blue light shuts down melatonin, an antioxidant produced by your brain that helps regular sleep.
If you wake up during the night, don’t look at the clock. Instead, focus on relaxing your muscles and breathing in and out in a slow, controlled manner. If you can’t drift back to sleep within 15 minutes, get up and do something else, like read a book. Don’t force yourself to stay in bed.
Be sure to see your healthcare provider if you have persistent awakenings during the night.
Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2008 Sep; 10(3): 329-336.
SleepFoundation.org. “How Medications Can Affect Sleep”
MayoClinic.org. “Sleep Apnea”
“How to Remedy Sleep-Maintenance Insomnia – Harvard Health.” 01 Jul. 2010, https://www.health.harvard.edu/press_releases/difficulty-staying-asleep-follow-these-tips-to-remedy-sleep-maintenance-insomnia.
“Insomnia: How do I stay asleep? – Mayo Clinic.” 23 Aug. 2019, https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/insomnia/expert-answers/insomnia/faq-20057824.