There are many reasons why you might wake up during the night and not be able to get back to sleep. To start, as the night wears on, your body naturally moves into lighter stages of slumber, during which it’s easier to be roused. That’s why wakeups are more likely to happen in the early morning hours.
Poor sleep hygiene can also play a role. Drinking caffeine in the afternoon or evening can prevent you from sleeping deeply. And having an alcoholic nightcap may make you fall asleep quickly, but often causes wake-ups later on in the night as your body metabolizes the alcohol. A less-than-ideal sleep environment—for example: a room that’s not dark enough, too noisy, or too warm—can result in fitful sleep, too. Over-the-counter sleep aids or prescriptions rarely offer significant help for this problem.
Various underlying conditions might also be to blame. People with sleep apnea, who experience pauses in breathing or shallow breaths as they sleep, often wake up countless times during the night. An enlarged prostate can cause men to wake up frequently to go to the bathroom. Restless leg syndrome, and the jumpiness associated with it, can jolt you awake, and chronic stress or anxiety can cause you to awaken frequently, too. And heartburn or a chronic cough associated with gastroesophageal reflux disorder (GERD) can cause you to wake suddenly through the night. These are all serious conditions, so if you suspect that you might have one of them, speak to your doctor right away.
One reason older adults may be at higher risk for insomnia is that sleep itself changes with advancing age. Sleep latency (time to fall asleep) increases, early morning awakenings are more common, deep sleep (stages 3–4) decreases, and sleep efficiency (time asleep while in bed) is reduced. Because older people spend less time in the deeper stages of sleep and more time in the lighter stages of sleep, they are more likely to awaken, for example, from noise in the environment.
To help stay asleep through the night, try some of these strategies to relieve insomnia:
• Establish a quiet, relaxing bedtime routine. For example, drink a cup of non-caffeinated tea, take a warm shower or listen to soft music.
• Relax your body. Gentle yoga or progressive muscle relaxation can ease tension and help tight muscles to relax. Deep diaphragmatic breathing with longer exhales than inhales is very helpful.
• Make your bedroom conducive to sleep. Keep light, noise and temperature at levels that are comfortable and won’t disturb your rest. Don’t engage in activities other than sleeping or sex in your bedroom. This will help your body know this room is for sleeping.
• Put clocks in your bedroom out of sight. Clock-watching causes stress and makes it harder to go back to sleep if you wake up during the night.
• Avoid caffeine after noon, and limit alcohol to 1 drink several hours before bedtime. Both caffeine and alcohol can interfere with sleep.
• Get regular exercise. But keep in mind, exercising too close to bedtime may interfere with sleep.
• Go to bed only when you’re sleepy. If you aren’t sleepy at bedtime, do something relaxing that will help you wind down.
• Wake up at the same time every day. If you go to sleep later than usual, resist the urge to sleep in.
• Avoid daytime napping. Napping can throw off your sleep cycle.
• If you wake up and can’t fall back to sleep within 20 minutes or so, get out of bed. Go to another room and read or do other quiet activities until you feel sleepy.