Home What causes you to wake up in the middle of the night?

5 min.

6 June 2023

What causes you to wake up in the middle of the night?

#waking up #rem sleep #sleep knowledge

It’s normal for us to wake up during the night, with most people waking up once or twice during their sleep. According to a 2010 study of 8,937 people aged 18 and older, 36% reported waking up at least three times per week during the night. These regular wake-ups in the middle of the night can become problematic as they interrupt our sleep.

There are a number of reasons why you might be waking up during the night. This includes poor lifestyle habits, age, a poor sleep environment, a sleep disorder, and other health conditions. It’s important to establish why you wake up during the night so that you can treat the problem. This will allow you to get better sleep.

In this guide, we will explore what causes people to wake up in the night. We will then recommend research-backed sleep products over at Emma Sleep, all proven to help improve your sleep.

Why do we wake up? - psychological causes

The reason we wake up in the middle of the night is entirely situational. However, there are a few contributing elements that may cause this to happen on a more frequent basis.

Some psychological factors that cause us to wake up in the middle of the night include:

  • Effects from medications such as beta-blockers, antidepressants, ADHD medications and NSAIDs. These can impact sleep and wake-up cycles.

  • Stress can lighten your sleep and prevent you from attaining a deep, or REM, slumber.

  • Anxiety disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar disorder, depression and schizophrenia can induce sleep disturbances. In extreme cases, they can cause insomnia.

  • Night terrors that cause screaming, thrashing or fear. They are more frequent during the NREM stage 3 of sleep and in children, although they can occur in adults as well. 

Why do we wake up? - other sleep issues

There are other sleep issues that can also impair your ability to get a full night's sleep, which include:

  • Breathing difficulties caused by asthma, bronchitis or another lung illness.

  • Sleep apnea can block your airways and make you stop breathing several times during the night. Your brain will wake you up and allow you to breathe again.

  • Restless leg syndrome generates a tingling or prickling sensation in your legs, making you want to stretch or move them. It can be especially unpleasant at night.

  • Digestive issues, particularly pain and coughing caused by acid reflux or symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome.

  • It can occur during menopause, or in general, if you have hormonal imbalances. Sleep is sometimes disrupted by hot flashes and nocturnal sweats.

  • Nighttime allergies can cause you to wake up in the night, such as dust mites, pollen, mould and pets.

  • Going to the bathroom frequently. This could be due to high fluid intake or a medical condition.

Your wake up routine can alter how easy it is for you to wake up during sleep. If you follow your chronotype, it is more likely that you will sleep through the night. This is the inherent predisposition of your body to feel sleepy at a specific hour, or what most people refer to as being a morning lark or a night owl.

You can find out which category of sleep you fall into by taking our chronotype quiz.

How does your body wake up?

The brain area that plays a crucial role in waking up is the reticular activating system (or RAS). This brain area functions as a gatekeeper or filter, ensuring that it doesn't have to cope with any more information than it can manage. The brain is able to detect critical information to keep you alert during the day. This triggers the production of neurochemicals that cause other areas of the brain to wake up.

Researcher theories

Some research suggests that the concentration of particular chemicals in the cephalorachidian fluid drives the transition from sleep to wakefulness. This fluid surrounds the cells of the central nervous system to make us wake up.

However, the most widely used theory of awakening is that it occurs thanks to a series of neurotransmitters. Examples of these are acetylcholine, orexin, histamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine. These awaken a group of neurons responsible for memory, reasoning and learning, thus initiating consciousness.

More sleep tips from Sunrise by Emma

Visit the Sunrise by Emma website to find more articles that provide tips and advice about sleep health and sleep wellness. You can also see recommended sleep products that will aid your sleep and allow you to awaken your best.

Make sure to head over to Emma Sleep for research-backed sleep products to ensure the best night’s sleep. These range from premium mattresses to weighted blankets, all proven to help improve your sleep.

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What happens to the body during REM sleep?

REM sleep is when we are most likely to dream, hence the other name for it being ‘dream sleep.’ However, it is still possible to dream in other stages of sleep, but they won’t be as vivid or ‘story-like.’  It is also referred to as a paradoxical sleep as the muscles are actually in a state of paralysis, but this is not as worrying as it sounds, as involuntary muscle movements such as breathing still occur, and the muscles are still supplied with oxygen and blood.

What happens to the body during REM sleep?

REM sleep is when we are most likely to dream, hence the other name for it being ‘dream sleep.’ However, it is still possible to dream in other stages of sleep, but they won’t be as vivid or ‘story-like.’  It is also referred to as a paradoxical sleep as the muscles are actually in a state of paralysis, but this is not as worrying as it sounds, as involuntary muscle movements such as breathing still occur, and the muscles are still supplied with oxygen and blood.

Sleep and temperature

Whether it's the heat of summer or the bone-chilling coldness of winter, the temperature has a large impact on our sleep. Not only does the environment’s temperature have an effect on sleep, but so does body temperature. The body can have a negative reaction during extreme weather shifts, as it has to adjust. In this guide, we will explore how temperature affects our sleep and what can be done to combat the weather changes throughout the year. We will also give you advice on how you can regulate your body temperature to give you the best chance of obtaining a good night’s sleep.

Sleep and temperature

Whether it's the heat of summer or the bone-chilling coldness of winter, the temperature has a large impact on our sleep. Not only does the environment’s temperature have an effect on sleep, but so does body temperature. The body can have a negative reaction during extreme weather shifts, as it has to adjust. In this guide, we will explore how temperature affects our sleep and what can be done to combat the weather changes throughout the year. We will also give you advice on how you can regulate your body temperature to give you the best chance of obtaining a good night’s sleep.

Why is waking up to music beneficial?

Waking up to the usual monotony of an alarm can leave you regretting that late night Netflix binge or social media scroll, leaving you groggy and unwilling to face the day.  Introducing happy melodic tunes into your morning routine can be the difference between waking up energised and wishing you’d had a few more hours in bed.  Not only is listening to music upon waking a pleasant experience, it actually releases hormones that improve your mood and increase positive emotions. According to research, upon listening to music that is particularly pleasing, dopamine is released in your brain, which is a hormone that invokes happy and rewarding feelings.

Why is waking up to music beneficial?

Waking up to the usual monotony of an alarm can leave you regretting that late night Netflix binge or social media scroll, leaving you groggy and unwilling to face the day.  Introducing happy melodic tunes into your morning routine can be the difference between waking up energised and wishing you’d had a few more hours in bed.  Not only is listening to music upon waking a pleasant experience, it actually releases hormones that improve your mood and increase positive emotions. According to research, upon listening to music that is particularly pleasing, dopamine is released in your brain, which is a hormone that invokes happy and rewarding feelings.

How your bedroom affects your sleep

You may not know it, but the environment you sleep in contributes considerably to you choosing to hit snooze on your alarm every ten minutes. There are several main factors that can influence your sleep quality, from your mattress to the type of lights you have. Based on research from several studies, there are many things you can change about your bedroom that will help you achieve a better sleep.

How your bedroom affects your sleep

You may not know it, but the environment you sleep in contributes considerably to you choosing to hit snooze on your alarm every ten minutes. There are several main factors that can influence your sleep quality, from your mattress to the type of lights you have. Based on research from several studies, there are many things you can change about your bedroom that will help you achieve a better sleep.