5 reasons why you're waking up in the night, and how to fix them

Someone awake in the night in bed
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Several factors comprise a good night's rest, with one of them being the ability to sleep uninterrupted through the morning. According to one study, over a third of American adults wake up at night at least three times per week, leading to more than mere frustration or inconvenience. Per the same study, difficulty falling back asleep after waking is linked to shorter sleep duration and lower sleep quality overall, greater daytime impairment, and a higher likelihood of relying on sleep medications.

If you regularly wake up in the middle of the night, it's important to understand potential reasons why this could be so you can take the appropriate steps to fix it. Lifestyle factors aside, more serious sleep conditions could also be at play, which will warrant more tailored solutions from a physician or sleep specialist.

Keep reading to see what behavioral sleep specialist Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN, has to share on these points below.

5 reasons why you're waking in the night

While there are many causes of nocturnal waking, Dr. Weiss says the following ones tend to be the most common. "These factors affect sleep physiology and the circadian rhythms (the internal 'biological clock') that regulates immune, hormonal, and physical functions during sleep and while awake," she shares.

When you modify your diet and lifestyle to support your body's circadian rhythms (at the same time promoting general health and well-being), you have a greater chance of achieving high-quality, uninterrupted rest.

Here are the key culprits to watch out for, plus tips to help prevent each from hindering your sleep.

1. Alcohol consumption close to bedtime

While some people find that alcohol helps them fall asleep, the truth is that it inhibits high-quality rest and often contributes to nocturnal waking.

"Although alcohol may induce sleep, it affects sleep quality and how we transition through sleep cycles, increasing the number of awakenings," Dr. Weiss explains. "In addition, cortisol levels increase once our body metabolizes alcohol, making the person wake up from sleep."

The fix: It's best to avoid nightcaps if you find that they contribute to sleep interruptions. "The body takes one hour to eliminate one standard drink, depending on the alcohol concentration," says Dr. Weiss. As such, try to limit your alcohol intake in the hours leading up to bedtime. Doing so can also help reduce nighttime visits to the bathroom.

Person walking into bathroom at night

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2. Poor sleep environment

Dietary considerations aside, the quality of your sleep environment will also dictate how well you're able to sleep throughout the night. Dr. Weiss says that temperature and exposure to light and noise can cause you to wake up in the night—not to mention impede your ability to fall asleep in the first place.

"For example, the body needs to lower its temperature to promote sleep. So, if our sleep environment is too hot, that would affect our natural thermoregulation and make the person wake up in the middle of the night," she explains.

Your sleep setup can have a big impact here. If you're making do with a tired, old mattress, upgrading could be a game-changer. Similarly, the wrong firmness of bed for your sleep style can make for an uncomfortable night.  

Man sits on a bed and rubs his back, looking uncomfortable

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The fix: The good news is that there are many ways to improve your sleep environment to support uninterrupted sleep. Some may require an investment on your part, but remember that high-quality rest is priceless to support your energy levels, mental health, immunity, and overall well-being.

The ideal tips and tricks to promote a better sleep setting will vary based on your specific needs, yet Dr. Weiss shares helpful hacks that can work across the board. "Improve your sleep environment with blackout curtains, a fan, air conditioning, or natural ventilation," Dr. Weiss advises. "Using white noise machines or a sleep mask can also help." Moreover, if you sleep hot, it may be worth investing in a new mattress or bedding with cooling properties.

If it's time for a bed upgrade, check our best mattress guide for our top recommendations, or if you have a new-ish model but firm it too soft or firm for you, adding one of the best mattress toppers could change the sleep feel at a lower price.

Carleara Weiss
Carleara Weiss

Dr. Carleara Weiss, PhD, MS, RN,  is a Sleep Scientist and adult-geriatric nurse specialist with over 15 years of experience. Her work centers on Behavioral Sleep Medicine, Circadian Rhythms, and Aging. She is a Research Assistant Professor at the University at Buffalo and a member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and Sleep Research Society. Additionally, Dr. Weiss is a Sleep Science Advisor for Aeroflow Sleep and Pluto.

3. Caffeine consumption

Caffeine is another key dietary trigger that can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night. "It may take eight to 10 hours to metabolize caffeine," says Dr. Weiss. In other words, it's not just evening consumption that can rob you of quality rest.

The fix: If you're sensitive to caffeine, it may be worth limiting your daily sips of coffee, caffeinated tea, and other sources of the stimulant, as well as cutting off your intake earlier in the day. Tolerance will "vary with age, gender, body weight, and the number of drinks," Dr. Weiss continues—with the same going for alcohol—so you may need to experiment to find the sweet spot of amount and timing that works for you.

Cup of coffee

(Image credit: Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash)

4. Sedentary lifestyle

Per a 2017 review in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine, a sedentary lifestyle (i.e. one that features low-energy output and lacks regular movement) is associated with a higher risk of both insomnia and sleep disturbances throughout the night. It's also linked to a higher risk of countless health conditions, chronic diseases, and earlier mortality.

The fix: To reduce the chances of waking up in the night and support your health at large, you'll want to engage in physical activity on a consistent basis. "Adults are recommended to exercise 150 minutes per week, which gives about 20 minutes per day," says Dr. Weiss.

She then shares a few recommendations that are both beginner- and sleep-friendly, as well as helpful to manage stress—with stress being another potential culprit behind poor sleep. "Walking in the morning (with bright light outside) or relaxing yoga at night are good [options] if you do not know where to start."

Meditating woman sat upright on bed bathed in light

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5. Undiagnosed medical conditions

If you heed the tips above and still find yourself waking up throughout the night, any number of medical conditions—specific to and aside from sleep—could be at play."It is important to investigate when the symptoms of undiagnosed medical conditions—such as obstructive sleep apnea and insomnia—appear," says Dr. Weiss. Symptoms of underlying medical conditions related to sleep include:

  • Loud snoring
  • Waking up with a headache
  • Waking up with a sore or dry throat
  • Difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep more than three days per week
  • Multiple awakenings during the night
  • Multiple visits to the restroom to urinate before bedtime
  • Pain

"Waking up feeling miserable or not refreshed, or having difficulty concentrating and functioning during the day are signs that call for further investigation," she adds.

The fix: Specific remedies will depend on the underlying issue at hand. If you experience any of the symptoms above, it's best to consult your healthcare provider for a more thorough look at the causes of your sleep disturbances.

Michele Ross

Michele Ross is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. For Tom's Guide and TechRadar, she interviews medical experts for sleep tips and tricks, as well as reviews mattresses and toppers to see which ones are truly worth buying for different types of sleepers and budgets. She has also covered a range of sleep topics for publications and brands including Well+Good, HUM Nutrition, and Mini Bloom, among others.