Frequently Waking Up at Night: Causes and Cures

Nothing beats a good, restful night of straight, uninterrupted sleep, but for many people, their nights are interrupted by constantly awakening, or in some cases, needing to go to the bathroom. Are frequent or even less-than-frequent nightly awakenings normal? In a word, no, but let’s look at some causes and some cures for those of you who may be bothered by interrupted sleep.

This phenomenon is also called middle-of-the-right insomnia. Often it can be caused by daytime stress that builds up, or that builds upon itself as you start fretting about your sleep problems. In addition to stress, causes of middle-of-the-night insomnia include chronic pain, menopause (twice as many women as men experience middle-of-the-night insomnia), sleep apnea and the need to go to the bathroom (sometimes accompanied by aging).

“Everyone wakes up at night once in a while. Most people roll over and go back to sleep. But some people begin to fret about it,” clinical psychologist Theresa Lengerich, PsyD.,  director of behavioral sciences at the Bethesda Family Medicine Residency Program in Cincinnati, says.

“As you lay there, you become tense, which makes it harder to fall back asleep. And then you become even more upset,” Lengerich further explains. “If this continues night after night, it can become a conditioned response that can cause insomnia all by itself.”

Obviously, it’s important to avoid developing a vicious cycle whereby a night or two of stress-interrupted sleep becomes a pattern feeding on itself. To avoid having sleep-interrupted nights, sleep experts recommend:

  • Avoiding naps in the daytime
  • Getting regular exercise
  • Getting out into the sun daily to set your circadian clock
  • Avoiding alcohol and large meals at night, especially close to bedtime
  • Following a set routine of when to sleep and when to rise
  • Quitting smoking or cutting way back at the very least
  • Avoiding emotional scenes (arguments and the like) in the evening

Following these steps should help you get a good night’s rest, but there are situations and conditions that call for medical evaluation and help. How do you know when to seek help?

Lengerich recommends a “rule of threes” to help you decide whether to see a doctor:

  • Are you waking up at least three nights a week?
  • Does it take longer than 30 minutes to get back to sleep?
  • Has this been going on for 30 days or more?

If your answer to these questions is “yes,” then you need to seek professional help.

We haven’t even mentioned the role sleep apnea plays in interrupted sleep, but if you suspect sleep apnea, that’s the number-one signal to get help and treatment as soon as possible.

Regardless of the cause, don’t let interrupted sleep ruin your daytimes. Seek help fast.

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