Why Am I Awake At Night?
Are your nights more restless than restful? Sleep – as we all know by now – is fundamental for immunity, mental health, stress recovery, cell growth and repair… the list goes on. With the world of wellness spelling out the importance of getting a good night’s sleep, why does it seem utterly impossible sometimes?
Some nights, despite all our efforts to unwind, we find ourselves wide awake and staring up at the ceiling, even after a long and tiring day. If you’ve asked yourself “Why can’t I sleep?”, you’re not alone. If counting sheep doesn’t do the trick and you’ve tried every bedtime tea off the shelf without luck, then read on. Here are some of the reasons you might be lying awake at night:
You’re Alert Before Bedtime
Okay, so this first point is more about why you feel so awake before bedtime. You know that it’s time to unwind, and the clock tells you that in a couple of hours you should be sleeping soundly, so why do you feel so wide awake? This completely normal phenomenon is known as the “wake maintenance zone” or the “forbidden zone”. Sleep researchers have observed a natural spike in our wakefulness just before the onset of our usual nocturnal sleep period (1). In this zone, our circadian rhythms (the internal process that controls our sleep-wake cycle) promote a session of wakefulness. This wakefulness outweighs the pressure to sleep that has built up throughout the day.
So don’t worry, this peak in energy before bed is entirely normal and will pass, allowing you to catch those zzz’s in no time.
You’ve Not Seen Sunlight
The sun’s cycle has a powerful impact on our circadian rhythms. Exposure to daylight not only signals us to be more awake but also improves our sleep in the night. Soaking up sunlight during the day means that we fall asleep earlier and therefore sleep even longer; scientists have found that each additional hour spent outside increases sleep by 30 minutes (2). It’s not only quantity that sunlight assists with, as research also suggests that sleep quality is improved by having a higher exposure to light during the day (3).
So, if you’ve been a bit of a vampire and spent lots of the day inside basking in artificial as opposed to natural light, this could be the reason that you’re staring at the ceiling at night.
You’ve Been on Your Phone
Blue light-emitting devices, such as your phone, TV or computer might also be contributing to your sleepless nights. The short-wavelength blue light is very similar to sunlight, which if we’re exposed to at night confuses our circadian rhythm, making us more awake. Our bodies are tricked into thinking its daytime and so produce less melatonin, a hormone that induces sleepiness that’s vital for falling asleep. While it might seem like scrolling through Instagram in bed is helping you unwind, it’s best to keep tech completely out of the bedroom
You’ve Been Napping Too Long and Too Late
It has been repeatedly reported that napping improves mood, levels of sleepiness and fatigue, and even some aspects of cognitive performance. However, long, and late naps interfere with your natural sleep cycle. This is because longer and later naps are more likely to enter the deep sleep stage of sleep, making it harder to fall asleep at your usual bedtime. To avoid consequences for your ability to sleep at night, naps should be shorter than a full 90-minute sleep cycle and before 2 pm.
You’re Too Hot
Our body works to maintain its optimum core temperature of 37 °C in a process called thermoregulation. Thermoregulation, as well as our circadian rhythm, influences sleep. The onset of sleepiness is associated with a decrease in core temperature by about 1 – 2 °C and so sleeping in a cooler room may facilitate this decrease in temperature. The reason you are lying awake at night could be that your bedroom is too hot; research shows that hot sleep environments significantly disturb sleep through increased wakefulness.
Thermoregulation is also greatly reduced in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) sleep, the sleep where we dream. This means that if we are trying to sleep in a room that is too hot, we can’t adjust our body temperature as effectively, through sweating for example, in this stage. This reduces the quality of our sleep even if we do finally manage to get it, so experts recommend an optimal sleeping temperature of 18.3 °C (4)
You’re in Perimenopause or Menopause
Menopause, the end of a woman’s menstrual cycles, and perimenopause, the transition time before menopause, cause a range of different symptoms in women. Among these varying symptoms lies sleep problems which affects 39-47% of perimenopausal and 35-60% of postmenopausal women (5). But why? Hot flushes experienced at night, otherwise known as night sweats, can occur due to a decrease in oestrogen. These sudden senses of body heat often accompanied by sweating can wake women up and make it harder for them to fall asleep again due to the energising nature of the increase in heat and adrenaline. A cooler bedroom again will help with this, or hormone therapy if the case is severe.
You’ve Had Alcohol
It’s tempting to believe that having a drink before bed helps you to sleep, after all, the sedative effects of alcohol cause us to feel relaxed and drowsy. Alcohol might help you to fall asleep faster than usual and skip almost straight to deep sleep. However, this disruption of the natural stages of sleep causes problems later in the second half of the night when these effects are reversed. As the alcohol is metabolized and eliminated from the body during the second half of the night, researchers have found there to be an increase in sleep disturbance characterised by wakefulness and light sleep (6). We might also wake up more frequently to use the toilet as alcohol is a diuretic, meaning it promotes water loss in our bodies.
To avoid a restless night, it’s best to drink alcohol in moderation and avoid doing so too close to bedtime.
In the UK, we drink approximately 98 million cups of coffee per day; we can’t get enough of the stuff. Coffee is packed with caffeine which blocks certain chemical receptors in our brain, keeping us alert and feeling energised. Grabbing a coffee in the morning might seem like a great start to the day but drinking caffeinated drinks such as coffee, later on, might be doing us more harm than good. One study has found that consumption of caffeine six hours before bed has disruptive effects on sleep, reducing sleep time by a whole hour (7). Avoid drinking coffee less than seven hours before you head to bed if you want a peaceful and uninterrupted sleep.
MEET: Leapfrog SNOOZE
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Note: If you have tried these tips and continue to have problems with falling asleep, it might be a good idea to speak to your GP who may be able to help you if you are suffering from a sleep disorder.
1. Lavie, P. (1986). Ultrashort sleep-waking schedule. III. “Gates” and “Forbidden zones” for sleep. Electroencephalography and Clinical Neurophysiology, 63(5), 414–425. https://doi.org/10.1016/0013-4694(86)90123-9
2. Roenneberg T, Wirz-Justice A, Merrow M. Life between clocks: daily temporal patterns of human Chronotypes. J Biol Rhythms. 2003;18:80–90. doi: 10.1177/0748730402239679.
3. Blume, C., Garbazza, C., & Spitschan, M. (2019). Effects of light on human circadian rhythms, sleep and mood. Somnologie : Schlafforschung und Schlafmedizin = Somnology : sleep research and sleep medicine, 23(3), 147–156. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11818-019-00215-x
4. Troynikov, 0., Watson, C. G., & Nawaz, N. (2018). Sleep environments and sleep physiology: A review. Journal of Thermal Biology, 78, 192–203. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jtherbio.2018.09.012
5. Kravitz, H. M. & Joffe, H. (2011). Sleep During the Perimenopause: A SWAN Story. Obstetrics and Gynecology Clinics of North America, 38(3), 567–586. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ogc.2011.06.00
6. Roehrs, T. & Roth, T. (2001). Sleep, sleepiness, and alcohol use. Alcohol Research & Health, 25(2), 101–109.
7. Drake, C. Roehrs, T., Shambroom, J., & Roth, T. (2013). Caffeine effects on sleep taken 0, 3, or 6 hours before going to bed. Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 9(11), 1195–1200. https://doi.org/10.5664/jcsm.3170