Why am I waking up at 3?
October 17, 2010 5:41 PM   Subscribe

What should I do about this particular form of insomnia?

I moved to Brooklyn from the Midwest about a year ago, and ever since moving here, I've had this weird intermittent insomnia, in which I wake up at 2 or 3 or 4 or 5 and can't go back to sleep-- sometimes for a half hour, sometimes for an hour or more. This is what I've tried so far:

1. Hot bath before bedtime (helps, but hasn't completely solved the problem)

2. Valerian root tea (also seems to help, but drank it last night and was up at 5am)

3. Unplugging wireless router (tinfoil-hat crazy, I know, but I read some research about wifi interrupting sleep patterns)

4. Not drinking ANYTHING hazardous in the evening (alcohol, caffeine) nor eating chocolate.

Has anyone successfully solved this sort of insomnia? A doctor friend recently told me it's frequently a problem of "the elderly" (I am 33!).

This might also fall under the tinfoil-hat-crazy category, but could cell phone towers contribute? Or the high density of wifi routers in my 14 story apt. building? I'm not stressed out, and I'm not depressed. I just wake up in the middle of the night for no reason!

Any tips, advice, input, or thoughts would be helpful. Thanks!
posted by enzymatic to Health & Fitness (26 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

Wifi and cell phone towers have nothing to do with sleep.
posted by dfriedman at 5:44 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Do you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day (weekends included)? That's what my doctor said to try first when I had a similar type of insomnia, and when I manage to do it for a couple weeks in a row, it always makes a big difference.
posted by brainmouse at 5:47 PM on October 17, 2010

A very dark room helped my early-waking insomnia somewhat. Room temperature can matter, too.
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:49 PM on October 17, 2010

Self-styled lifestyle guru Tim Ferriss has some ideas on how to "hack your sleep". Your mileage may vary. I had noted that he suggests taking a cold shower before bed and I've since taken to dunking my head in cold water before bed, and indeed I do feel a bit more relaxed and ready to zonk out.

May I also suggest taking a melatonin tab before sleep? I take one every night and about a half hour from taking it, I get this wave of sleepiness that's really hard to fight off. Tends to keep me asleep well, too.
posted by holterbarbour at 5:58 PM on October 17, 2010

Ever since about age 28 I've had this happen. I just don't sleep as heavily as I used to, so even the smallest creak in my apartment can wake me up. Is it possible that you're being woken up by outside noise? I imagine Brooklyn is noiser than many parts of the midwest. Maybe try some earplugs?
posted by joan_holloway at 5:59 PM on October 17, 2010

I was having the same problem, and taking a melatonin before bed helped a lot. It used to happen every night. Now it happens maybe once or twice in a two week period.
posted by BlahLaLa at 6:09 PM on October 17, 2010

Exercise in the evening before dinner. Knocks me right out.
posted by special-k at 6:15 PM on October 17, 2010

Non-drug elements that help me: white noise machine, cool (but not cold) temperature, and a very dark room (I even cover up my alarm clock display). Once we moved to a place where the bedroom faces a fairly busy street, we added sound-absorbing window plugs to the mix.
posted by scody at 6:16 PM on October 17, 2010

Giving up caffeine just in the evening might not cut it; you might have to cut afternoons, too. I can't have caffeine past about 11am and still reliably get to sleep at night.
posted by Andrhia at 6:17 PM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I have the same waking pattern. A few things help intermittently, and often I have to change things up when my mind/body become accustomed to a certain approach.
- Go to bed a half hour earlier than normal. This is a well-researched approach for early waking with children and often works for me. Here's my fuller response from an askme a few years ago.
- Take a combined calcium/magnesium tablet at bedtime. Magnesium helps with sleep maintenance (which is what you're having trouble with).
- Don't look at the clock. When you wake, tell yourself it's around midnight or 1am, that you have plenty of time to sleep, and do some relaxation technique that works for you (daydreaming, counting, breathing, etc.)
- Delta Sleep System - I was skeptical of any "self-help" CD working, but the drones and tones on this really do help me sleep. I tend to use this during the day for an almost-guaranteed 10-30 minute nap if I haven't slept well the night before. I don't find it as useful at night only because my husband doesn't like the music and if I fall asleep with earphones in, I wake a short time later when they start hurting my ears. YMMV if you sleep alone or if your partner doesn't mind the ambient noise.
- Benadryl is probably my silver bullet when I just can't risk not getting sleep. I've tried melatonin, valerian, Ambien, and Trazadone and they either did nothing or made me feel hung over. The benadryl is just about perfect in that I actually still often wake up (I have 2 kids' room monitors by my bed) but I can fall back to sleep within 5-10 minutes. Conversely, if something is the matter and I need to attend to it, it doesn't stop me from thinking and acting coherently.
posted by cocoagirl at 6:23 PM on October 17, 2010 [6 favorites]

Add some white noise, such as a fan. Also try changing your bedtime and/or wake-up time and then sticking to it consistently.
posted by stp123 at 6:24 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have this too and it was driving me crazy - there's nothing worse than lying in bed desperate to sleep and unable to - but then I started just going with it. Instead of fighting it, I surf and read emails or maybe read a bit. I find I can fall back asleep in a half hour or so.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:27 PM on October 17, 2010

Are you getting too hot or cold in the middle of the night? I wake up if it's too hot and by "too hot" I mean more than 60 degrees in my room.
posted by fshgrl at 6:31 PM on October 17, 2010

Best answer: I get that, often started by an outside noise one night, and then continued on successive nights.

I just do something productive for an hour or two, until I feel sleepy again. So I might get two solid four hour blocks of deep sleep, plus an hour or two of work/household tasks/things I wanted to get done. I go to bed earlier to account for the extra time. And if I sleep all night, that's fine, too, I'll wake up early and do stuff then.
posted by anaelith at 6:33 PM on October 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Do you smoke? I stopped waking up in the middle of the night after I quit smoking. Supposedly the nicotine withdrawal in the wee hours was enough to wake me up. They've returned since I've been back on the nicotine (with an e-cig this time).
posted by elsietheeel at 6:36 PM on October 17, 2010

Been there, done that for years. Sometimes it is better or worse on its own. Being stressed out definitely seems to make it worse... I wake up, my mind starts working, I can't get back to sleep. It helps if I have something interesting and non-stressful going on in my life that I can think about: a hobby project, upcoming fun plans, a good book or TV series.

White noise helps to keep small noises from waking me up. We run fans in our room all year round for the noise (plus we like our room a bit cool.)

Do you get up and go to the bathroom when you wake up in the night? I read in some insomnia book that if you wake up and feel like you have to go pee, that you should ignore it, roll over and try to go back to sleep. Following this advice has cut down on my middle-of-the-night wakefulness quite a bit. I used to think going to the bathroom would make me more comfortable so I could go back to sleep, but more often than not I'd be wide awake by the time I made the trip there and back to bed.

Obviously it depends on the strength of the urge... if you wake up because you really have to go, you gotta do what you gotta do. But I've discovered I can hold it a lot longer than I think I can. So if I'm not bladder-burstingly in need of a whizz when I wake up, I'll turn over, get comfortable again and frequently I will drop back off to sleep.

Herbal tea before bed is about the best way I know to guarantee that I will have to pee so bad at some point in the night that I'll need to get up and go. I keep valerian capsules by the bed with some water and don't take them unless I wake up in the wee hours and can't get back to sleep in a reasonable amount of time (and if I'm that wide awake anyway, I'll generally go ahead and visit the bathroom.) Then I take the capsules and usually get up and sit at the computer for a bit until I start to get sleepy again. (Reading in bed would probably be better but I don't want to disturb my hubby.)
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:41 PM on October 17, 2010

Most of the women in my family have this problem. I stopped being stressed about it when I decided to enjoy an hour to myself when the whole world is asleep to think nice thoughts about whatever I felt like. I don't get much quiet time to myself during the day. :) So I'll think about what Christmas presents I might buy people, or imagine myself in a novel I liked recently, or think about a baby shower I'm going to and the adorable clothes I bought, how much I like having an hour to myself when nobody else is awake -- anything happy and inconsequential.

If I'm too stressed to think about something happy and inconsequential, or if I just can't settle to it, I'll get up with some dim light and either read a lightweight book or do some light housework -- typically dishes, laundry, and paying bills. That way, even if I'm exhausted in the morning (which, if it's only an hour, I'm usually not), I've already got a jump on the day and it's okay if I'm not quite totally with it.

This is very common in women, and becomes much more so after menopause. (There are evolutionary theories about this, that post-menopausal women's use to the tribe was waking frequently in the night to watch for danger and care for babies.) It's somewhat less common in men, but still not all that unusual.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:43 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Also, in regard to sitting at the computer: I turn the brightness of my monitor down to 50%, and I keep the room I'm sitting in fairly dark and turn on the hall light instead. This seems to help with getting sleepy again.

And I do sometimes do what anaelith does if I'm really wide awake and feeling energetic (which is usually because I'm anxious.) I actually wouldn't mind sleeping on the schedule she describes except that it cuts into my designated early morning gym-time. If I have to choose between getting another hour of sleep after a wakeful night and going for my daily swim, bed is going to win. So I try not to do that too often.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 6:51 PM on October 17, 2010

I used to have a similar thing, waking up at 5 AM, but it was prompted by an actual sound (the milkman, nostalgia fans). So it may be that something like a delivery truck or garbage pickup or train wakes you up but you don't realise it because of the time it takes to wake up.

I only realised it one morning when, for different reasons, I was already awake at the time.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 7:28 PM on October 17, 2010

...we added sound-absorbing window plugs to the mix.

scody: what are these plugs of whence you speak?
posted by hapax_legomenon at 7:35 PM on October 17, 2010

Best answer: what are these plugs of whence you speak?

Sorry, should have explained; my boyfriend made them himself, using very dense sound-absorbing foam anchored onto plywood and cut to fit our windows exactly. As I'm fond of saying, when the curtains are up and we have them in (they're removable), it looks like we've decorated in Early American Crackhouse, but it's a small price to pay if you want to get serious about cutting down on outside noise. (I just keep the blinds drawn in the bedroom most of the time.)
posted by scody at 8:43 PM on October 17, 2010

Any tips, advice, input, or thoughts would be helpful. Thanks!

Not so much tips for avoiding waking, but tips for getting back to sleep:

- if anything is on your mind, jot down a quick list of what you need to do about it; this will allow your brain to relax again.

- try counting backwards by threes from a number like 400. You probably won't even get to 300 without dozing off, truly.

- a big glass of milk also helps heaps.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:00 PM on October 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yes. Yes. Yes. What Ambrose Chapel said:

I used to have a similar thing, waking up at 5 AM, but it was prompted by an actual sound (the milkman, nostalgia fans). So it may be that something like a delivery truck or garbage pickup or train wakes you up but you don't realise it because of the time it takes to wake up.

I only realised it one morning when, for different reasons, I was already awake at the time.

This is way more common in cities than people think. Truck goes by, neighbors car starts, trash can gets dumped by kerb, etc. but by the time you're awake enough to know you're awake the noise has stopped, so you don't know what woke you up.
posted by Ahab at 10:25 PM on October 17, 2010

According to this great New York Times article, you're normal, and it's just mattress companies and pharmaceutical companies that have convinced us otherwise.
posted by daisyace at 4:18 AM on October 18, 2010

I would suggest reframing this as "not a problem." Sleep patterns do tend to change over time, so sleeping differently than you did in years past is just normal, as long as you can still get enough sleep overall. If you can fall asleep again in an hour or so, so what? That interval between sleeps can be a very pleasant time--think about your dreams, or what you'd like to dream about. It can be very lovely to just let your mind drift.
posted by Corvid at 1:07 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yup, it's normal. Check out Wikipedia's article on segmented sleep, for more information.
posted by underflow at 6:54 PM on October 24, 2010 [1 favorite]

« Older Tenth Anniversary show?   |   Strange OSX Crash... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.