Waking at 2am? Here’s How to Get Back to Sleep
Tips for the wee hour wakers from a recovered insomniac and sleep coach
Written by Jillian Mariani
Waking up in the middle of the night is not fun, but is a pretty common thing – especially since the pandemic. Most of us actually wake a few times each night, as we cycle through the 4 stages of sleep, but we don’t remember waking, because we slip right back into sleep easily. But if you are waking at 2AM (or another time), tossing and turning and really struggling to get back to sleep, it can be incredibly frustrating, and really mess up your focus and ability to function and feel good the next day.
Here are some typical reasons why you might be night waking:
The number one reason for waking in the middle of the night is usually stress – and stress levels have been elevated since the pandemic started. Cortisol, the stress hormone, should ebb and flow so that secretion is low during the night. With prolonged stress though, cortisol levels stay elevated and can surge in the wee hours, causing you to wake up at 2am or 3am, often with a racing mind and feeling of panic. To make matters worse, the sleep loss caused by stress causes more elevated levels of cortisol, impeding your function during the day, and leading to difficulty sleeping the next night too. You can end up in a vicious circle of poor sleep.
2. Hormonal Changes
As women, our hormones can make us vulnerable to sleep issues. Spikes and drops in hormone levels in peri-menopause and menopause can wreak havoc on sleep. Hot flashes, caused by falling estrogen and plague 2/3 of perimenopausal women, tend to disrupt sleep in the first half of the night, and can last several years.
Defined as regularly having difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep, or waking too early without feeling rested, insomnia impacts 30%-35% of Canadians. Interestingly, in 2002, that number was only 13.4%.
Alcohol may help you feel sleepy, but it disrupts your sleep in the second half of the night, causing you to wake up and creating an opportunity for your brain to start to worry and stress.
5. Poor Sleep Hygiene
Sleep hygiene can do a lot for improving sleep and poor sleep hygiene makes getting to sleep and staying asleep much harder. Good sleep hygiene means a consistent bedtime and wake time, and a healthy bedtime routine, as well as some good habits during the day like restricting caffeine and getting exercise. If you want to read more check out my Sleep Hygiene 101 blog.
What To Do To Get Back To Sleep
1. Initially, try taking 10 long, deep breaths in through your nose and out through your mouth. Make the inhales to a count of 4 and the exhales to a count of 7. Then count backwards from a high number, like 750. Focus and keep coming back to it when your mind starts to wander back to stressful thoughts. If you get to 600 and you are still awake, move to step 2.
2. Get out of bed and go to a different room. Your bed is for sleeping; when you toss and turn and “try” to sleep it becomes a stressful place, not a restful one. Do something relaxing like reading a dull book with a small reading light, or knitting or meditating. No screens please and keep lights dim. Don’t return to bed until you feel quite sleepy.
3. Avoid looking at your phone or the clock. Checking your phone exposes you to blue light which messes with your melatonin levels. Clock-watching is just stressful and makes getting to sleep harder. It does you no good to “count down” the hours left to sleep. I keep my phone out of my bedroom and cover my clock so I can’t see it.
4. When you get back in bed, do a muscle relaxing body-scan. This is where you lay in bed with eyes closed and progressively tense and relax each muscle in your body from head to toe, one muscle group after another. You can go back up from toes to head too.
5. Start your backwards counting from 750 again. Repeat as needed, and do not just stay in bed tossing and turning.
If it’s one night of poor sleep, try not to get too fixated on it throughout the day. Our bodies will bounce back, and most of us can get though one day not feeling great. But if this happens regularly, and the above tips don’t help you, see a health care practitioner right away.
Natural sleep supplements can be a big help. Many people find melatonin effective, especially timed-release formats. If melatonin hasn’t helped you or has made you groggy the next morning our Sleep Like Buddha natural sleep aid is melatonin-free. You can take 1 capsule 30 minutes before bedtime, and then a second capsule if you wake in the night, so long as you have a few hours left in your sleep cycle. And our Hey Relax Magnesium powder is excellent to drink in the evening, hot or cold, to help you wind down, and sleep deeper.
Although it’s best to stay off screens, a sleep app can be a solid exception. Most have free trial plans so you can see if they work for you. My youngest went through some sleep issues a few years ago and loved the guided sleep meditations on Headspace. Calm, Aura and Slumber are all highly rated. Use headphones if you don’t sleep alone so you don’t disrupt your partner’s sleep too.
Jillian Mariani is the founder and general manager of Niyama Wellness. Jillian spent her 20+ year corporate career in the Canadian Natural Health Supplements category, in sales, marketing and product development with some of Canada’s favourite brands of vitamins and supplements. Jillian holds a BA from UofT, a diploma in Nutritional Management from GBC, an MBA from Schulich School of Business, a YTT-200H from Downward Dog Yoga Centre and is a certified Sleep Coach.. She lives in Toronto with her husband and children, and teaches yoga part-time. In addition to yoga, she enjoys cooking, travel, Netflix/HBO binges, good books exceptional coffee, chocolate, and dog walks.