Sleep: it’s free. And we all want more of it, so why is it so hard to get? Specifically – that consistent, restorative, uninterrupted, eight-hours-a-night kinda sleep. Which is why we’ve enlisted Sydney-based sleep expert Olivia Arezzolo to solve our myriad of sleep concerns with our Sleep Well Wednesdays series. Check back every fortnight and you’ll be off to the land of nod before you know it.
Of all problems I encounter as a sleep coach and sleep expert, waking through the night is number one.
Whether you wake up once and are unable to return to sleep, or you’re waking up every hour at the drop of a hat, this can leave you irritable, moody and exhausted and experiencing the consequences of sleep deprivation.
As such, it’s my pleasure to shine a light on the top 8 reasons you’re waking through the night and what to do about it.
1. You had a boozy night
Alcohol depresses the central nervous system (CNS) and when this sedation wears off, the CNS experiences ‘the rebound effect,’ an exaggerated spike in arousal hormones like cortisol, as an attempt to rebalance and return to homeostasis.
If this occurs throughout the day, this may be experienced as anxiety, and if this occurs through the night, it may lead to abrupt wakings. If you were wondering, yes, the likelihood of this increases with larger quantities of alcohol.
2. You’re overheating
Even if you’re not a ‘hot sleeper’ in general, during times of stress or summer, overheating may be causing your nighttime wakings.
This is because melatonin, our sleepiness hormone, relies on a cool core body temperature to be produced. Alas, when you overheat, because you have less melatonin, you spend more time in light sleep rather than deep sleep and therefore are more easily roused.
The solutions here can be adjusting your bedding: you need a quality mattress suited to your sleeping profile that keeps you floating atop, rather than sinking in; and a pillow made from a natural fibre that promotes airflow and ventilation, such as the Koala pillow.
3. Your caffeine intake
Our morning coffee or tea feels like a little slice of heaven. And, when that 3 pm slump hits again, we too often reach for another hit to keep us going through the day.
While this seems innocent, if you’re waking through the night, caffeine can be your problem. When lacking quality sleep, caffeine has a more potent effect on the nervous system.
As a result, your normal coffee or tea, physiologically, will trigger the release of more adrenaline than usual; and could be the cause behind that racing mind, or your nighttime wakings.
You can mediate this by having caffeine-free afternoons. As a general rule, I recommend cutting out caffeine after 12pm from all sources, including green tea, black tea and coffee.
4. You’re sleeping on a synthetic fibre
As noted in a 2016 study by the University of Sydney, synthetic fibres can reduce sleep depth, which leaves you with a higher likelihood of waking up.
This is due to a few factors, firstly, they trap heat, which increases the likelihood of overheating (see above). Secondly, they are more likely to irritate the skin and respiratory pathways, leaving you tossing and turning all night. And on the other hand, natural fibres have greater breathability, a higher capacity to absorb excess heat, and are typically hypoallergenic, especially in the case of bamboo.
Ideally, seek out organic cooling bamboo, such as the sheets from Ecoy, as this further reduces the likelihood of irritation and sweating.
5. You’re depressed
Sometimes it can be hard to know, ‘am I depressed, or is my lacklustre energy and low motivation normal?’ Granted, the year is drawing to a close, and all of us, myself included, are feeling a little more flat than usual.
One way to know if your mood is normal or if a deeper mental health issue like depression is present is to assess your sleep, as it is a core symptom of the illness.
As noted in a 2008 study by the University of Bristol, 59 per cent of those with depression wake through the night, and 61 per cent wake too early and can’t return to sleep.
6. You’re anxious
Along similar lines, anxiety is a huge factor when it comes to sleeplessness and can specifically lead to waking at 3 am, as this is when cortisol, your stress hormone, usually rises.
If you are anxious, your cortisol may be higher than normal and lead you to wake. While this may seem like a difficult situation to manage, it doesn’t need to be.
You just need to have tools in your sleep kit that, as backed by science, calm the nervous system, reduce anxiety and improve sleep.
One such tool is CES, a handheld, acupuncture-like stimulation device found to improve sleep by 87 per cent for those with anxiety and insomnia, as noted by a 2012 study.
While pharmacies may have CES devices that clip onto your ears, brands such as CalmPalm offer the non-invasive version of the device. Remember that anxiety doesn’t need to leave you sleepless, you just need the right support.
7. You used your phone just before bed
We know it’s bad for us, but most of us still do it. Myself included… So trust me, I get it! After a busy day, sometimes the only thing you want to do is snuggle up with an Instagram scroll session or funny Tik Tok videos.
While I am all for unwinding, it’s imperative to cut out using your phone at the very minimum of 30 minutes before bed. Why? A 2017 study by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine found that using social media within 30 minutes of bedtime increases your likelihood of disturbed sleep by 62 per cent. And yes, disturbed sleep does mean nighttime wakings.
7. You missed your pre-bed bath
A bath. You’ve probably noticed it helps you fall asleep, but did you know it helps you sleep deeper, wake less and even reset your circadian rhythm?
As noted by a 2019 University of Texas study, your humble bedtime bath does all this and feels heavenly in the process.
However, if waking through the night is your issue, then take it one step further and infuse magnesium chloride and essential oils into the water, helping your mind and body relax even more. One brand offering this is 39 Degrees, in their Sleep Well Bath Tonic.