I Started Waking Up Hours Before My Alarm, So I Asked a Sleep Doctor What to Do
When I have sleep problems, it's usually not about struggling to fall asleep; I conk out pretty quickly once I get in bed. For me, the problem comes on the other side, when I'll wake up two hours before my alarm, perfectly alert and awake and ready to start my day despite repeatedly telling my brain that, hello, excuse me, it's really not time yet.
Turns out there are a few reasons this could be happening to me (and you) and — even better — a couple of things to do right now that can help. POPSUGAR spoke to Vaishnavi Kundel, MD, assistant professor of pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, to figure out what it is that's waking us up way too early and what we can do to sleep straight through to morning.
Why Am I Waking Up So Early?
There are a few different reasons you might be waking up too early and finding yourself unable to sleep in, Dr. Kundel said.
- Obstructive sleep apnea: People with this condition experience a partial or complete blocking of their airway when they sleep, resulting in episodes where they stop breathing at night. "This can wake you up multiple times through the night," Dr. Kundel said, adding that these might even be periods of "micro-arousal," where you're not even aware that you're waking up. "It leaves you feeling exhausted and tired during the day," she said.
- Restless leg syndrome: RLS occurs when you have an overwhelming urge to move your legs, Dr. Kundel said, especially in the evening and night, which can result in sleep disruption. It's twice as common in women as in men, she added, and can come on during pregnancy or as a side effect of iron deficiency or some antidepressants.
- Anxiety: While nerves and chattering thoughts can make it hard to fall asleep when you go to bed, anxiety can also wake you up at night. "Once you wake up, it can keep you up because now you're thinking about all the things you have to do the next day," Dr. Kundel explained.
- Alcohol: It might feel like alcohol helps you fall asleep faster, but it can actually be "pretty disruptive" to your sleep, Dr. Kundel said. It could cause you to wake up earlier than you want, especially if you drink it within three to four hours of bedtime.
- Electronics: Your phone, TV, computer screen, and any other kind of electronic emit a blue light that stimulates your brain and inhibits melatonin (a hormone that helps you fall asleep and stay asleep) as well as your intrinsic sleep rhythm, Dr. Kundel said.
How Do I Sleep Longer?
If you're waking up during the night or having trouble sleeping in until your alarm, there are a few things you can do to help you sleep longer and better.
- Avoid electronics for one to two hours before bed: You've probably heard this one before, and there's a reason for that. This is a simple (though not necessarily easy) fix that can improve your sleep and keep you from waking up in the night, Dr. Kundel said.
- Write a "worry list": If you think anxiety might be contributing to your nightly wake-ups, Dr. Kundel suggested writing down everything you're anxious about before bed, especially ones that feel urgent or have to do with what you're doing the next day. "So now you can say, 'OK, I've made a list of the things that I need to do tomorrow, so I don't have to think about them now,'" she said.
- Stick to a bedtime routine: Easier said than done, we know. Incorporate whatever relaxing habits you want; Dr. Kundel recommended meditation and deep breathing exercises, and you could also try reading or drinking a warm (uncaffeinated!) beverage. This routine will signal to your brain that it's time to sleep, helping you start to wind down for a restful night's sleep.
- Talk to a doctor: If you think you might have sleep apnea or restless leg syndrome, Dr. Kundel recommends talking to a doctor. For sleep apnea, you'll likely do a home sleep test. For RLS, you can also try stretching your legs at night and taking a warm bath, Dr. Kundel said, as well as exercise (at least four hours before bedtime). Make sure to talk to your doctor about RLS as well, as it can sometimes be caused by iron deficiency.
How Do I Fall Back Asleep at Night?
Dr. Kundel also recommends a couple of techniques to help you fall back asleep at night, if counting sheep isn't cutting it anymore.
- Avoid clock-watching: When you wake up and immediately look at the clock, you're "triggering this anxiety about not being able to fall asleep," Dr. Kundel said, which in turn makes it even more difficult to fall back asleep. If you can't stop yourself from turning over to check the time, try removing all clocks and watches from your room and sticking your phone in a drawer or under the bed where you can't easily reach it.
- Get up and go to another room: If you haven't fallen back asleep in about 20 minutes (by your own estimation — no clocks!), get out of bed and go sit in another room. This is because you want your brain and your body to associate your bedroom with sleep and relaxation, Dr. Kundel said. Lying in bed for hours, anxiously waiting for sleep, "disrupts this connection," she explained, which can exacerbate your problem in the long run. Instead, head to another room and try doing a breathing exercise, meditating, or reading something calming to distract your brain from the anxiety and help you wind down again.
Try a couple of these techniques before bed tonight, and happy sleeping!