Six reasons why you’re waking up at night

Sleep is an essential part of your overall health. Adults need around 7-9 hours of sleep each night to be fully rested. But in Canada, only 50% of adults fall asleep and stay asleep without difficulty. 

It’s normal to wake up once or twice during the night, but if you can’t fall back asleep then you might have an underlying health issue. Here are some common reasons for waking up at night, and how to combat them.

Sleep apnea

People who have sleep apnea repeatedly stop breathing while they’re asleep. There are different types of sleep apnea, with obstructive sleep apnea being the most common. With obstructive sleep apnea, the soft tissue in your mouth and throat become so relaxed during sleep that they block your airways. The result is snorting, coughing or gasping for breath, causing you to wake up in the night. A few ways to alleviate sleep apnea are:

  • Weight loss. People who are overweight sometimes have extra tissue around their face and throat, which puts more pressure on their airways.
  • Avoiding sleeping pills, sedatives, or anything that further relaxes your muscles while you sleep.
  • Continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) masks. They pump a continual flow of oxygen into your airways while you sleep. The positive pressure keeps your airways from collapsing.


If you’re consistently stressed in the daytime, you probably go to bed stressed too. It’s normal to have this happen once in a while. But if your worries frequently cause you to wake up at night, there will eventually be negative health effects. Trouble staying asleep and waking up panicked are both signs of Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). People with GAD have persistent, excessively worried thoughts. And since your brain still processes emotions and feelings while you’re sleeping, anxiety at night can wake you up.

Talking to a therapist helps relieve anxiety. With support, you can find coping strategies to minimize your worry and get more satisfying sleep.


It’s not uncommon for your quality sleep to change as you get older. Sometimes that means falling asleep earlier, waking up earlier, or waking in the middle of the night. Ageing impacts your circadian rhythm, your body’s internal clock. Your circadian rhythm regulates your cycles of sleeping and waking. Older adults commonly experience an advanced sleep phase, causing them to fall asleep early. Falling asleep early leads to waking up early, which could make you feel tired in the daytime. One study found that 40% of people surveyed over age 65 have a sleep-wake disorder like insomnia that causes them to wake up at night.

Ways to rebalance your circadian rhythm include:

  • Avoiding naps.
  • Going to sleep and waking up at the same time whenever possible.
  • Avoiding smoking, caffeine, and drinking alcohol.
  • Avoiding food too close to bedtime.  


Cigarettes cause damage to your airways and lungs, which can result in breathing difficulties. This can exacerbate existing conditions like sleep apnea. Nicotine from cigarettes could also be keeping you up at night. It’s the ingredient in cigarettes that creates a feeling of euphoria. Nicotine is also a stimulant, so smoking before going to bed can stop you from getting a deep sleep. When you sleep lightly it’s easier to be woken up in the night by stimuli like light or noise. 

Quitting smoking can be tough, but it’s possible with the right support. There are programs available to anyone that wants to try.

Hormonal changes

Hormones and sleep have a tricky relationship. Hormone imbalances can cause sleep disruption, but poor sleep can also trigger hormone imbalance. While it can be hard to know which came first, your age is a clue. 

In women, menopause causes a fluctuation in hormones, triggering symptoms like hot flashes and night sweats. The discomfort makes it hard to sleep through the night. In men, testosterone production decreases with age. Low testosterone causes lower energy levels, so men might nap more or decrease their physical activity. 

Hormone replacement therapy, exercise, and diet adjustments are all options to help rebalance hormone levels so you can get back to restful sleep.

Screen time

Electronic devices emit a blue light that suppresses the release of melatonin. Melatonin is a hormone that’s essential for regulating your sleep-wake cycle. When you look at screens before bed, there’s a delay in your brain’s release of melatonin. The result? Endless tossing and turning, wondering why you can’t get to sleep.

Try setting up a nighttime routine that gives you a break from screens before bed. Reading a book or practicing breathing exercises will help your brain wind down more effectively.

When you’re asleep, your body is busy completing essential processes for keeping you in good health. Waking up in the night interrupts that work. It’s also frustrating to wake up all the time, with the side-effect of daytime fatigue. Getting to the root of what’s waking you up at night is the first step towards getting a full night’s sleep back.

If you’re finding yourself unable to get the rest you need, our sleep therapists can help. 

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