June 30, 2016

Experts weigh in: Six steps to sleep through the night

Daily Briefing

Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on April 14, 2020.

Waking up in the middle of the night—and failing to fall back asleep—is the most common form of insomnia, Andrea Petersen reports for the Wall Street Journal.

Interactive map: The states with the healthiest sleep habits

Every year, about 30 percent of adult Americans suffer from insomnia symptoms. Middle-of-the-night insomnia is a normal, appropriate response to stress, according to doctors. But there are ways to prevent it from becoming a chronic condition.

Older adults are more likely to wake up overnight, as hot flashes and the frequent need to urinate can interrupt sleep. Chronic pain, gastroesophageal reflux disease, and sleep apnea can also contribute to the problem.

Petersen spoke with several sleep doctors and experts to determine the best way to handle a 3 a.m. wake-up.

1. If you're awake, get out of the bed.

Try to limit the amount of time you're tossing and turning in bed. Instead, get up and read or do a puzzle.

2. Watch out for light.

Bright light in the middle of the night can suppress melatonin, which helps regulate your sleep cycle. Light may also interfere with your circadian time system, says Daniel Buysse, a professor of psychiatry and clinical and translational science at University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.

Use a night light instead of overhead lights, and if you must watch TV, put on sunglasses. Avoiding all screens, including computers and smartphones, is best.

3. Ignore your stomach.

Eating in the middle of the night may condition your body to wake up at that odd time, and it may contribute to weight gain.

4. Don't check the clock.

It makes you "start to think, 'How many more hours until I get up?' That tends to create a lot of anxiety. You can't sleep when you're anxious, and you can't sleep when you're doing math," says Jennifer Martin, a clinical psychologist and sleep specialist at the University of California, Los Angeles.

5. Eliminate noise and discomfort.

If necessary, try relegating pets to the floor instead of your bed.

6. Resist the urge to rest more in the morning.

"Don't sleep in. Don't nap. Don't go to bed early the next day, and everything will turn out fine," says Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania's Perelman School of Medicine.

It's better to lean on caffeine for the day than to compensate with more sleep, Perlis says. If you oversleep today, you may find it harder to get back on a normal schedule tomorrow (Petersen, Wall Street Journal, 6/27). 

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