SWEET DREAMS: Disturbed sleep can be stressful (Image: Alamy/PA)
Some people see four o’clock in the morning more regularly than they would like. There are many reasons why your sleep could be disturbed but worrying about waking up in the middle of the night may make it happen more often.
A good night’s sleep helps you feel refreshed and ready for the day ahead, with a healthy sleep pattern promoting good health and improving mood. During the night our bodies go through different stages of sleep which can be monitored with a sleep-tracking device, such a smart watch.
Light sleep is the first stage, when eye movements and muscle activity slow; deep sleep is when your heart rate and breathing slow, and you become difficult to rouse; rapid eye movement (REM) sleep is the final stage of a sleep cycle, when dreams are most common. So if you find yourself regularly waking up at 4am, is it just an annoying habit or is something more sinister is going on?
“We start to experience less deep sleep after around four to five hours,” says Lisa Artis, deputy chief executive of The Sleep Charity. And once we’re in that lighter sleep phase, we wake much more easily.
If you generally fall asleep around 11pm, which is a very common bedtime, 4am wake-ups are more likely. And there are several different factors that can lead to inconvenient night time stirrings.
Sleep is guided by our internal clock or circadian rhythm and one of the most significant and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle, says Lisa. “Sleep is regulated by the levels of two hormones: melatonin and cortisol, which follow a regular 24-hour pattern. Melatonin assists you in dozing off, while cortisol helps get you up, and keeps you awake.”
Keeping an eye on your hormones is important in preventing those late-night wake-ups. “Engage in calming activities before bedtime, such as reading, listening to soothing music, or practising relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or meditation,” suggests Dr Mariyam H Malik, GP at Pall Mall Medical.
Although browsing online might be a nice way to unwind, avoiding your phone before settling down for the night can aid restful sleep. “Blue light from electronic devices can suppress melatonin production,” says Dr Malik. “Try to avoid screens for at least two hours before bedtime, or use blue light filters. It is best to charge them in a separate room overnight.”
Stress is not good for sleep and a study by Bupa found that 32 million Brits wake up worrying about their health at precisely 4:05am. The report, which surveyed 4,000 British adults, revealed that more than three-fifths of us wake up in the middle of the night.
If you are finding yourself awake at all hours worrying, or waking up with stressful dreams, there are a few things that may help. “Keep a journal by your bedside and write down your worries before going to bed,” says Dr Malik. “This practice can help get your concerns out of your mind and onto paper, making it easier to let go of them temporarily.”
You may also want to try mindfulness or meditation exercises before bedtime. “Mindfulness can help you focus on the present moment, reducing anxiety about the past or the future,” says the doctor.
Caffeine, heavy meals, alcohol, sugar, and a lack of magnesium or B vitamins can also lead you to have a more disturbed night’s sleep, according to Dr Malik. Sugar and carbohydrates may have a particular impact. “
A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar fluctuations, leading to wakefulness during the night,” she says. Lisa Artis suggests looking at what you eat for your last meal or snack of the evening, to help reduce “ungodly hour awakenings”.
Instead of carb or sweet-based snacks, she suggests opting for protein-packed and magnesium-rich foods, like hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, dark chocolate, cashews, chicken thighs or turkey. Protein can take the edge off your night-time hunger, she says, while magnesium is known to support sleep.
Needing a wee
If you wake up needing to wee at the same time every night, try not to drink excessive amounts of fluids before bedtime, says Dr Malik. “It’s important to stay hydrated, but try not to drink anything for around two hours before your usual bedtime. Go to the toilet before you go to bed to empty your bladder.”
Age and life stage
Sleep tends to become more disrupted as people get older. Dr Malik says: “Sleep patterns change with age, and various factors can contribute to sleep disturbances in older adults. Some common reasons for sleep disruption in the elderly include changes in your circadian rhythm, decreased melatonin production, medical conditions or medications, and potential sleep disorders.”
Night time waking can also affect women during the perimenopause. “The reproductive hormones – oestrogen and progesterone – are entwined with the sleep and relaxation hormones, melatonin and serotonin,” says Lisa Artis.
“When oestrogen begins to fall before and during menopause, it can create a disturbance in the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, meaning it can’t properly balance out cortisol. When this happens, the ability to fall and stay asleep is affected.”
Recurring hot flushes, night sweats, dry skin, and low libido can signal waning oestrogen. Lisa suggests incorporating foods with high levels of phytoestrogens into your diet throughout the day to help with this.
“Phytoestrogens imitate the natural estrogens found in your body. As a consequence, they can bind to your body’s oestrogen receptors and produce similar effects,” she says. Try lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, edamame, spinach, cauliflower and broccoli.