Perhaps you've experienced some version of this scenario: Your bladder beckons in the middle of the night, dragging you from dreamland, and now you're finding it difficult to drift off again. But what do you do if you can't fall back asleep after waking up to pee?
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First things first, rousing from a restful snooze is incredibly common. Most sleepers wake up an average of two to three times per night, and one-fifth of Americans have difficulty falling back asleep, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
And there are many reasons why a person might awaken with the urge to pee specifically, says sleep specialist Michael Breus, PhD. Drinking caffeinated beverages or sipping alcohol too close to bedtime are common culprits: They're both mild diuretics, meaning they help the body get rid of extra fluids.
But instead of tossing and turning for hours while shut-eye eludes you, try Breus's expert tips to help you cope with nighttime awakenings and fall back asleep faster.
1. Stop Watching the Clock
"It would be great if people actually did this, but I honestly don't know a single person who doesn't go right for the clock," Breus says.
Still, obsessing over time as it ticks away is the worst thing you can do.
Here's why: Once you clock the clock, you'll start doing the mental math to figure out how many hours you have left before morning. This can make you upset or anxious, which increases your heart rate and blood pressure, making it even more difficult to fall back asleep, Breus says.
So while you may be tempted to peek at the clock, resist the urge.
2. Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation
"This is by far one of my favorite things to get people to try when lying awake in the middle of the night," Breus says.
As the name implies, progressive muscle relaxation is a technique that can ease muscle tension and help you relax.
Here's how to do it, according to the Cleveland Clinic:
- Starting at your toes, tightly tense the muscles in your feet for five seconds.
- Release the tension and relax the muscles.
- Continue the same pattern with every muscle group in your body (focusing on one at a time) until you make your way up to your forehead.
- Take slow, deep breaths along the way.
3. Do Deep Breathing
To achieve a peaceful state of slumber, your heart rate should be slow and relaxed, approximately 60 beats or less per minute, Breus says.
Here are the basics of this breathing technique:
- Slowly inhale for 4 seconds.
- Hold your breath for 7 seconds.
- Slowly exhale for 8 seconds.
- Repeat this cycle five to seven times.
4. Distract Yourself With a Quiet Activity
Distraction techniques are another helpful tool. Instead of focusing on falling asleep, Breus recommends doing a non-stimulating activity like listening to relaxing music or meditating.
One of his favorite distraction methods for quieting an overactive mind is counting backward from 300 by threes. "The task is complicated enough that it will keep your mind occupied, and it is so doggone boring you won't be able to think about anything stressful," Breus says.
Whatever you choose to do, just make sure that your exposure to light is minimal, he says. Once you flip on the lights, your brain will switch to morning mode and you'll become more alert (which is exactly the opposite of what you need to fall back asleep).
5. If All Else Fails, Get Out of Bed
Because your heart rate quickens when you rise from bed (basically, your body thinks it's ready to wake up and start the day), this strategy should only be used as a last resort.
For example, if you've been lying in bed quietly for a while — say, a half hour or so — and you're still wide-awake feeling annoyed or frustrated, getting out of bed might be a better option, Breus says. Remember: Feeling stressed only elevates your heart rate, which is not conducive for sleep.
In this case, a change of scenery can help reset your brain and restore the connection between your bedroom and sleep, he says.
Again, keep the lights low and stick to non-stimulating activities (that means no scrolling on your phone or laptop). Once you start feeling drowsy, try to hit the hay again.
Need some extra help hitting the hay after midnight awakenings? Try these sleep apps to help you get the best rest possible.
Why Are You Waking Up in the Middle of the Night?
The above tricks don't just come in handy when you can't fall back asleep after waking up to pee. They can also help you drift off if you're awakened for other reasons.
Here are some of those common causes of sleep disturbance:
1. Your Blood Sugar Is Low
Wake up at 3 a.m. alert and ready to go? It might have something to do with your blood sugar.
When you sleep, your body is essentially fasting for eight-ish hours. But if your blood sugar drops and your brain believes you've run out of fuel, it'll start producing the stress hormone cortisol to kickstart the metabolic process, Breus says.
In other words, your body will feel hungry and wake you up to eat.
Snacking before sleep could help, although what you eat before bed matters. Some healthy options include plain yogurt with low-sugar granola, cottage cheese on whole-wheat crackers and air-popped popcorn.
2. You’re Overheating
Waking up sweaty is another source of sleep disruption. For sound shut-eye, the optimum room temperature is approximately 65 degrees. Anything that makes our body's thermometer rise (heavy blankets, for example) will rouse us from sleep.
Indeed, higher temps let the body know it's time to get up and move around, Breus says.
Overheating at night — and hot flashes in general — are especially common in people going through menopause. This surge in body heat, which happens as a response to a drop in estrogen, can sabotage your slumber, Breus says.
3. You Had a Nightmare
A disturbing dream can undoubtedly disrupt your sleep.
Indeed, between 2 and 8 percent of people have nightmares that produce sleep problems, and up to 85 percent of adults report experiencing an occasional nightmare, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
Luckily, there are plenty of ways to stop nightmares and feel more rested.
4. It's Your Body’s Natural Rhythm
If you're awakened before the sun's up, blame your body's natural rhythm.
"There is a natural rhythm to your core body temperature that makes you sleep a bit lighter between 2 and 3:30 in the morning, which is when most people tend to wake up," Breus says.
In this case, stick with the above strategies to get you back to dreamland ASAP.