Frequent nighttime awakenings seem to be one of the most regularly reported sleep challenges that people are facing, most especially since the beginning of the pandemic where stress and sleep-related issues have been on the rise.
Many people report that although they find it easy to fall asleep, it can be difficult to stay asleep throughout the entire night.
Firstly, it’s important to understand that it’s natural to wake up for very brief stints throughout the night. In healthy sleepers, this usually occurs as we cycle between the longer stage REM and NON-REM Stage 1 sleep during the latter part of the night, however, these natural micro-awakenings are often so brief that you’re unlikely to recall them in the morning.
Many people experience nighttime awakenings which are more severe and disrupt their recovery potential because they find it difficult to get back to sleep.
Rightfully so, they would like to understand how to stop them from occurring so that they can achieve fuller, deeper and more restful sleep every night.
In my practice, I see 7 very common trends impacting people’s ability to stay asleep throughout the night.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of all of the factors which could be waking you up - that will be very unique to each individual as no two persons sleep challenges are exactly the same - however, understanding and addressing these 7 common foundational trends should help you to become more aware of the steps you can take to increase the likelihood that you’ll achieve deeper sleep and stay KO’d throughout the night.
1. You’re a mouth breather
This refers to when someone is taking air in exclusively through their mouth instead of their nose. It can occur day or night, however, it’s particularly disruptive at nighttime as mouth breathing can affect your blood carbon dioxide and oxygen levels, causing your blood PH levels to decrease and become more acidic which can have an impact on your brain function.
When you're mouth breathing during sleep, not only are you more like you wake yourself or your partner up by snoring, but you also take shorter breaths through the upper chest region, as opposed to deeper breaths through your nose and into the diaphragm. This stops your nervous system from dropping into a deeper and more relaxed parasympathetic state.
Put simply, nasal breathing is king when it comes to achieving deep sleep.
One subjective way to identify if you’re a mouth breather is to think about whether you often wake up with a dry mouth. For a more objective assessment, you can ask your partner:
- Do I snore at night?
- Do I move my legs or arms while I sleep?
- Do I sleep with my mouth open?
- Do you ever notice me breathing sporadically throughout the night?
- Do I toss and turn throughout the night?
Answering yes to any of these questions suggests you might be breathing through your mouth at night.
If you are, I highly recommend trying some form of gentle mouth taping at night. This will train you to breathe through your nose more regularly and help you to achieve deeper and more restful sleep with less likelihood of nighttime awakenings.
As a chronic mouth breather, this one was of the most powerful changes that I made for my sleep.
2. Your blood sugar levels are unstable throughout the night
Your body aims to maintain very strictly regulated blood sugar levels throughout the day and night. If your blood sugar levels spike rapidly, such as when you eat a carb-rich dinner or sugary after-dinner dessert, it’s likely that this spike will be met with a blood sugar dip or crash during the night whilst you’re sleeping.
If this happens, your body’s natural response is to increase adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones help to increase your blood sugar levels to bring you back up to baseline, however, they’re also responsible for waking you up.
- Am I waking up consistently between 12 and 3 AM?
- Am I waking up to urinate but feel hungry?
- Do I feel hangry upon waking in the morning?
- Do I find myself wanting a midnight snack?
- Am I waking up thirsty in the middle of the night?
Answering yes to any of these questions suggests that blood sugar imbalances might be the culprit of your sleep disturbance.
This means that you likely need to pay far more attention to ensuring that you’re eating a balanced meal of high-quality proteins, healthy fats and whole-food carbohydrates (no sugar or processed carbs) - ideally 3-4 hours before you sleep.
You might also need to do some work on your nutrition to improve your blood sugar levels throughout the day time to ensure that you don’t feel the need to constantly snack on carbs and sugar before bed.
3. Your nighttime environment isn’t dark enough
Darkness is the chief signal for your body to wind down at night. Darkness lowers cortisol (your daytime stress hormone) and helps you to produce high amounts of melatonin (your good-sleep hormone).
Your ability to produce higher amounts of melatonin is directly proportional to your ability to achieve deeper, fuller and more restful sleep.
The bright blue and green artificial light that is found in all of our modern LED lighting and technology devices is highly stimulating to your brain and nervous system.
If you’re exposed to these types of light at night (hint: we all are), your body remains in a greater sympathetic or ‘fight and flight’ drive. This means you’ll retain higher levels of cortisol and produce lower amounts of melatonin.
Even if you find it relatively easy to get to sleep, your brain and nervous system will be in a higher overall state of alertness whilst you’re asleep.
Whilst it’s important that your evening environment is generally dark and free from all blue light, it’s especially important that your bedroom environment is blacked out at night. Your skin is a light-sensitive organ and so any exposure to light whilst you’re sleeping will keep your nervous system somewhat alert and unable to drop into the deepest and most restorative state of sleep.
Here are some crucial steps you should take to prepare your body to achieve deeper sleep (meaning you’re less likely to wake up during the night).
- Turn off/reduce ALL artificial blue LED home lighting after sunset
- Use candles or amber/red sleep-friendly light bulbs
- Wear amber or red lens blue light blocking glasses (purchase a pair from our website)
- Download my guide “How To Hack Your Smartphone, PC and Laptop For Better Sleep” to learn how to filter the artificial light from your technology devices at night
- Get blackout blinds for your bedroom - I use these because they're portable and can be installed easily
4. You’re overly stressed and not dealing with it effectively
I can hear you thinking “tell me something I don’t already know..”
Okay, well how about this…
Stress is ubiquitous. Challenges are everywhere in our daily lives and they aren’t going away soon. In fact, they’re never going to go away - because as soon as you resolve one stress your brain will find something else to worry about - that’s how humans are hardwired.
Plus, if I actually removed all of the stressors from your day you would probably be left with very, if any, actual meaning to your life (because the things you care about bring with them an inherent degree of stress). A life devoid of meaning would in fact become your new daily stress.
Time for a bit of tough love. Stress isn’t going away, but you can learn how to appropriately manage and respond to it. How you respond to stress is your choice, and this choice will dictate your ability to achieve deeper and more restful sleep.
When you experience stress, your nervous system ramps up into a ‘fight-or-flight’ state and your body responds by releasing the hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
When this occurs for extended periods of time (ie. when you have a lot on your plate and aren’t doing anything to deal with it), your adrenal glands can become taxed and you’ll find it more and more difficult to wind down at night, meaning you won’t be able to produce as much melatonin.
Remember that more cortisol (more stress) + less melatonin (less relaxation) = lighter sleep and an increased likelihood that you’ll be awoken during the night because your nervous system is still switched on’ even though you’re asleep.
Actively managing how your body handles stress is key for helping you to wind down and achieve a deeper sleep. The same two methods won’t work for everyone, but here are some ideas to try:
- Meditate in the evening before bedtime (guided body scans on apps such as Calm and Headspace are a great place to start)
- Practice 4-7-8 breathing (inhale for the nose for 3, hold for 7, exhale through the mouth for 8) or coherent breathing (5 seconds in and 5 seconds out through your nose) in the evening or whilst in bed
- Soak in an Epsom or magnesium salt bath
- Create a to-do list for the next day
- Write in a journal to express gratitude or write about challenging emotional experiences
At the centre of any effective stress reduction practice is the ability to consciously control your stress biology through how you breathe. Stress, especially the kind that leads to light sleep, is a biological process.
In a study of 21,563 Japanese participants, it was shown that taking as little as 6 deep breaths over a period of 30 seconds is enough to lower blood pressure and stress levels.
The most effective tool that we humans possess to reduce our stress levels has been hiding right underneath our noses, quite literally.
If you do only ONE thing to help you reduce stress, let it be a simple breathing practice that you can use before bed to help you wind down or during the night to help you get back to sleep.
5. You’re too hot or too cold at night
Body temperature is another huge factor influencing your ability to stay asleep throughout the night.
Being too warm or too cold at night leads us into a physiological state of heightened arousal. This raises cortisol levels and can result in nighttime awakenings.
Sleeping in cooler environments has been shown to support a cooler body temperature and deeper sleep, but it’s also important that you aren't too cold.
Common culprits that raise your body temperature during the night include sleeping with the central heating on, wearing too many layers of clothes or using duvets that are too thick.
The following tips can help you to stay at a cooler (but not too cold) temperature at night:
- Give your body time to cool down before sleep. If you enjoy a hot shower or soak in the bath before bed, make sure to do this about 2-3 hours before bed.
- Invest in bedding that can keep you cool at night. Natural fibres are the best to allow excess heat to escape.
- Keep your bedroom at about 18 degrees Celsius.
- Keep your hands and feet warm. Your extremities pull heat away from the body.
- Keep your bedroom windows open slightly to ventilate your room with fresh cool air whilst you sleep.
- Consider using a temperature control unit for your bed such as the Chilipad from Chili Technology if you really struggle to maintain a consistently cool temperature whilst you sleep.
In the case that you don’t have a way to measure the temperature (most people won’t), just know that it’s far better for it to be a little bit cooler than for it to be too warm.
6. You’re exercising too close to bedtime
Exercise is a potent sleep enhancer, but there are some contraindications associated with exercising too close to bedtime.
Exercise significantly raises our core body temperature and cortisol levels, which can take 3-4 hours (or longer) to come back down. This means that if you carry out exercise too close to bedtime, you run the risk of raising your core body temperature and promoting a state of stress that stops your body from achieving deep sleep.
There’s no need to panic if you enjoy exercising later in the day, but it’s important to schedule your activity to finish at least 3 hours prior to sleep so that this can allow enough time to cool off your stress hormones and body temperature before bed.
This will help you to achieve a deeper state of sleep and result in less likelihood of you waking up during the night.
7. You’re consuming too much caffeine during the day
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant, meaning that it increases levels of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.
It has an average half-life of 6 hours, meaning that up to 50% of the drug will remain in your system for anywhere between 5 - 8 hours after you’ve consumed it.
People simply do not realise how long it can take their body to overcome one single dose of caffeine, and because of this, we often fail to make the link between a poor night of disrupted sleep and the caffeine that we’ve ingested in the mid to late afternoon.
A 2013 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine concluded that “drinking a cup of coffee on the way home from work can lead to negative effects on sleep, just as if someone were to consume caffeine closer to bedtime”.
These researchers gave participants caffeine at different times (immediately before bed, 3 hours before bed and 6 hours before bed) and measured the impact on their sleep.
Every participant experienced significant disruptions in their sleep.
If you’re waking up regularly during the night, the chances are that your poor caffeine habits could be contributing towards this by keeping your nervous system too revved up close to bedtime, meaning that you aren’t able to effectively produce high amounts of melatonin that lead to deep, restful and undisturbed sleep.
I recommend setting an unbreakable caffeine curfew. I encourage all of my clients to always enjoy their caffeine before noon (or earlier), meaning that their body will have time to remove the majority of it from their system before bedtime.
If you’re particularly sensitive to caffeine or you’re experiencing high-stress levels and poor sleep, you may want to make this curfew even earlier or experiment with a few days of avoiding caffeine altogether.
There is a multitude of factors that you may be contributing to your inability to stay asleep throughout the entire night.
The chances are that a combination of these common sleep disruptors may be contributing towards your body being too stimulated in the evening, therefore resulting in you being less likely to achieve deep sleep.
There are, of course, other factors that may be affecting your sleep too, but after working with hundreds of clients over the years I’m confident that making the changes I’ve suggested here will help you cover all of the baselines to ensure that you’re able to effectively wind down and achieve deeper sleep at night.
Wishing you sweet dreams and deep, uninterrupted sleep.