It’s frustrating when you collapse into bed at night, only to conk out for a few hours before suddenly finding yourself wide awake and staring at your ceiling. (Or, even worse, listening to your partner snooze away on the other side of the bed.)
The phenomenon is hardly uncommon. A study published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that 35 percent of the general population deals with middle-of-the-night insomnia at least three nights a week, and 23 percent wake up at least once every night.
Curious how to halt the issue and get the zzzs you deserve? Below, sleep experts share why you might be waking up at night and some ways to stop it:
The problem: You bring stress into the sheets.
Even if you don’t actively feel stressed when it’s time to sleep, underlying stress may be the reason you’re waking up unprompted in the middle of the night.
To help with this, work on making your bedroom into a sleep sanctuary, said Rebecca Robbins, a postdoctoral fellow at the NYU School of Medicine and a consultant for mattress maker Beautyrest. This doesn’t mean you have to shell out a ton of cash on pricey décor, but you should make sure your bedroom is a place that promotes quiet, calm and darkness.
This might mean swapping shades for room-darkening blinds, or investing in a weighted blanket if you think it would be helpful to decompress at night (there’s little scientific evidence on the effectiveness of these, but many find them comforting regardless).
One thing to investigate is your mattress. A 2009 study published in the Journal of Chiropractic Medicine found that an old mattress can increase stress levels, as back pain and the poor sleep associated with it is linked to increased levels of cortisol (the hormone responsible for stress) in the body.
The Better Sleep Council, an advertising collaborative of mattress manufacturers, recommends replacing your mattress every seven years. An easy test for your pillow is to fold it in half, says the National Sleep Foundation, a sleep research and education nonprofit partly funded by sleep-industry companies. If it stays that way, it’s time for new ones.
As for a racing mind that’s keeping you awake? If it’s been more than 20 or 30 minutes, get out of bed and go to a different room. Otherwise, your brain will start to associate your mattress with being awake, according to Steve Orma, a clinical psychologist and author of Stop Worrying and Go to Sleep: How to Put Insomnia to Bed for Good. You can also try writing down what’s worrying you as a way to dump out what’s floating around in your brain.
The problem: There’s too much noise or movement.
The stage of sleep you’re in ― whether it’s the rapid eye movement phase (a deep level of sleep) or one of the non-rapid eye movement periods (which can be a lighter stage of sleep) ― will determine how easily you wake up to sound in your bedroom.
Noises like snoring, a loud radiator, or traffic are all sounds that likely won’t affect you during REM sleep, but they can wake you up as you transition through the lighter NREM sleep stages, said Nate Watson, a scientific advisory board member at SleepScore Labs, which sells an array of sleep-related apps and products. Watson also is a former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, a professional group.
When noise awakens you, there are a few things you can do to get back to sleep. Watson recommended a white noise machine, as consistent ambient noise will prevent spontaneous sounds such as snoring, coughing or old creaky pipes from stirring you awake. (A 2005 study published in Sleep Medicine corroborates this suggestion. It found when patients in an intensive care unit used a white noise machine, sleep disruptions caused by high-peak noises where reduced.)
If you sleep with a partner who tends to toss and turn, Watson said having separate mattresses side-by-side instead of one mattress can help prevent disturbances from too much movement. If you go this route, you can buy a foam mattress connector that will keep the bed together, still looking and essentially functioning as one bed.
The problem: You’re drinking too much before bed.
This includes both alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks. A study published in Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research found that while drinking booze before bed may cause some to fall asleep easier, it can lead to sleep disruptions later in the night, causing you to wake up and have difficulty getting back to sleep.
If you enjoy a glass of wine before bed, keep it to just that, Robbins said. And keep in mind that a standard serving of wine is four ounces, which may be much less than you typically pour yourself. As for fluids in general, try to cut them off 90 minutes before bed. It’ll help minimize your chances of waking up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom, Robbins added.
The problem: You may have an underlying health issue.
Generally, it’s OK if you have occasional sleep disruption. “Everybody has a bad night’s sleep every now and then,” Watson said. “This is normal and doesn’t require treatment.”
Watson said over-the-counter remedies are fine for these instances, such as products with the ingredient diphenhydramine HCL, like ZzzQuil, or melatonin. Just make sure to monitor how frequently you’re using these. If you lean on them too often, you might have an underlying issue you need to get checked.
“When use of sleep aids becomes regular, it suggests a sleep disorder is present and you should see a health care provider to get to the root cause of the problem,” Watson said.
Talk to your doctor to rule out a condition like obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome or even something as simple as nighttime heartburn, Watson said.