Why do we wake up at night?

One in four Germans has difficulty sleeping through the night and regularly suffers from interrupted sleep. The fact that we wake up again and again at night can have various causes and have a negative impact on our health and well-being. So find out why we wake up frequently at night and what you can do to improve sleeping through the night here.

Table of Contents

      1. Nocturnal awakening
      2. Why we wake from sleepawaken
      3. Common reasons for sleep interruptions
      4. Making the most of waking hours
      5. Conclusion

        Nocturnal awakening

        Good sleep is the basis of a healthy and productive everyday life. However, according to a study by the Techniker Krankenkasse health insurance fund, almost one in four people in Germany suffers from problems sleeping through the night and waking up frequently during the night. In fact, we all wake up up to 30 times every night naturally and completely independently of external stimuli. Experts assume that this is due to our ancestors and evolution, and that short interruptions to sleep during the night served to protect us from potential danger and to check the environment for safety. Most of the time, however, we do not remember this because sleep is only interrupted for a short period of time.

        Only longer periods of wakefulness lasting three to five minutes or more remain in our consciousness and disturb our sleep, especially when falling back asleep does not work straight away and we therefore lie awake for longer. As a result, not only the duration of sleep suffers, but also the quality of sleep, which is particularly important for our health, performance and well-being during the day. But what are the possible reasons why we wake up at night and what can we do to avoid frequent sleep interruptions?

        Why we wake up from sleep

        During sleep, our body works at full speed and can be disturbed by internal or external stimuli. Find out exactly what happens during sleep here. Every night we go through several sleep cycles, which in turn consist of different sleep phases.

        Wach- und Schlafphasen je Schlafzyklus

        In the REM sleep phase, i.e. towards the end of each sleep cycle, our brain is particularly active and reacts more easily to disturbing stimuli, as they are transmitted far into the brain regions and processed directly. If the activation of the nervous system (also called arousal) triggered in this way is strong enough, the body becomes active and enters the waking state.

        Common reasons for sleep interruptions

        #1 Stress

        Stress, strain, anxiety, and worry often cause us to think a lot and have a hard time relaxing before sleep. In addition, stress leads to a high release of the stress hormone cortisol, which makes us feel awake and inhibits melatonin production, which is important for sleep. Thus, increased cortisol levels due to stress can lead to disturbed sleep at night, waking us up more often and, most importantly, making it harder for us to find our way back to sleep. Therefore, try to avoid stress and excitement already during the day and in the evening, and purposefully wind down and relax before going to bed. And even if you wake up at night or have trouble getting back to sleep: don't put yourself under pressure, because this further promotes the release of cortisol and thus works against sleep.

        #2 Bright light

        Light and darkness function as an external stimulus that adjusts our internal rhythms to our natural daily routine. Bright light signals the body to reduce melatonin production and prepare to wake up. To avoid waking early from sleep at night, it is advisable to keep the bedroom generally dark and avoid disturbing light sources, such as dense curtains or blinds. Also, avoid bright lighting or screen light during nighttime waking hours to help your body wind down and fall back asleep.

        #3 Noise & sounds

        A snoring partner, annoying neighbors, or late-night street noise - loud or unfamiliar sounds can disrupt sleep and make it difficult to fall back asleep. Especially when a noise sticks out of an otherwise quiet sleeping environment, our brain reacts quickly and wakes us up. Therefore, make sure to remove potential noise sources from your sleeping environment before going to bed. For example, you can keep your window closed at night, turn your cell phone on silent or use earplugs.

        Wieso wachen wir nachts auf: Wach in der Nacht

        #4 (Night)Dreams

        Due to increased brain activity, we wake up especially often when we are in a REM sleep phase. During this period, however, not only do numerous processing processes take place in the brain, but so do our dreams. Depending on the intensity of the dream, the processing and visual experience in REM sleep can also disrupt sleep and lead to interruptions in nighttime sleep. We are especially familiar with this when we experience dangerous situations or anxiety in a dream and the emotional experience triggers a strong arousel. As a rule, it is unfortunately not possible to influence one's own dreams. However, nightmares are thought to be caused by anxiety or severe stress and mental strain.

        You can find out more about dreaming in the article Why do we dream?

        #5 Wrong diet

        Heavy, sumptuous meals in the evening can have a negative impact on sleep quality and should be avoided, as the digestive process disrupts sleep and can prevent you from sleeping through the night. It is also recommended to avoid caffeinated drinks and foods in the last 3-4 hours before bedtime, as caffeine is a stimulant and can stimulate the nerves. Also be careful not to drink too much liquid in the evening, as a strong urge to urinate during the night can also interrupt sleep.

        #6 Unfavourable room climate

        During the night, our body temperature initially drops and is at its coldest around three o'clock in the morning, before slowly rising again afterwards. In principle, sleep experts therefore recommend a medium to cool room temperature between 16 and 18 degrees. However, studies have shown that in addition to hypothermia of the body, overheating is a common reason for waking phases at night. It's best to try to keep your bedroom rather cool and avoid overheating, for example by wearing too tight sleeping clothes or incorrectly adjusted radiators.

        Making the most of waking hours

        In the end, it is quite natural that we wake up from sleep at night from time to time and usually quite banal reasons, such as street noise or the nevertheless too rich meal in the evening are responsible for the sleep interruptions. In order to lose as little sleep quality as possible, it is important to use unavoidable waking phases correctly, so that you can fall asleep again as quickly as possible and start the new day refreshed.

        So when you wake up at night, try to stay calm and relaxed. Don't put pressure on yourself and avoid looking at your watch or smartphone. Because the increased melatonin level at night also has a negative effect on your mood, you should not try to think about problems or worries during this time.

        If you still can't fall asleep after a while, it's better not to toss and turn senselessly in bed, but to get up briefly instead. With the lights dimmed, you can read a book or use the time to write down your thoughts and clear your head. In this way, you can make the most of an unwanted sleep interruption and get a good start to the day despite the nightly waking phases.


        • Even if we can't remember it, we wake up to 30 times every night.
        • Strong internal and external stimuli can disrupt sleep, especially towards the end of our sleep cycles, by activating the nervous system.
        • The cause of frequent waking during the night can be external stimuli such as noise, lighting conditions or room climate, as well as internal stimuli such as stress, poor diet or dream experience.
        • Avoid stress before going to bed and don't put yourself under pressure during nightly waking phases.
        • Make sure your sleeping environment is dark and especially avoid bright screen lights.
        • Minimize potential noise sources or sleep with protective earplugs.
        • Relax before sleep and reduce stress and mental strain so as not to encourage nightmares.
        • Focus on light meals before bed, reduce fluid intake, and avoid caffeinated foods for the last 3 to 4 hours.
        • Prefer rather cool room climate between 16 and 18 degrees and avoid overheating during sleep.

        Best regards and see you soon!

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