Why do I wake up in the middle of the night?

When you Google that question you’ll find all kinds of answers. Some of my favorites:

• You’re following your ancestral rhythms because “segmented, or biphasic, sleep was the natural pattern of human slumber,” according to historian and sleep expert Roger Ekirch.

• For a more spiritual meaning, Ryan Hart posts that waking up at 3 a.m. means you’re hard on yourself and you struggle with perfectionism. Or that you’re going through a life change and your guardian angel is trying to connect with you at that time.

When I wasn’t sleeping well I remember being so frustrated by these answers, especially the ones that seemed downright ridiculous. The most frustrating part for me was that those absurd reasons for not sleeping meant there wasn’t much I could do about it. I was already doing all the other recommended sleep hygiene things: avoiding screens and dimming the lights before bed, trying to manage my stress and not eating spicy or heavy foods too close to bedtime.

Now that I’ve learned more about sleep and combined it with what I know about nutrition, I’ve found the top three reasons why we wake up in the night. I’m talking about true physiological triggers that cause us to wake up and stay awake. All of these reasons have one thing in common: cortisol.

Cortisol is a stress hormone. It gets a bad rap, but it’s a necessary and useful hormone. It wakes us in the morning, keeps us alert throughout the day and helps us prepare to fight or flee during stressful situations.

But cortisol should diminish in the evening as the melatonin, another hormone, is released to prepare us for sleep. So we wake up at night because cortisol is being released at night when it shouldn’t be.

Too much stress

Our bodies are meant to handle acute stress. When we’re chronically stressed and constantly in fight or flight mode, however, our cortisol levels are always high, even at night. If you find yourself awake in the night and wired, with your thoughts racing, that could be why.

What can you do about it? Learn how to manage your stress better during the day to sleep better at night. Mediating, going to yoga and taking a walk are all ways to reduce your cortisol levels during the day so they naturally lower at night as well.

Taking recovery breaks every hour or two during the day can help, too. During those breaks, walk away from your computer or work and take the time to breathe deeply or meditate.

Blood sugar spike

If you’re on a blood sugar roller coaster all day from eating too much sugar and processed carbohydrates, your blood sugar levels will drop in the night. When your blood sugar drops too low in the night, your body will release cortisol to raise it. You may not feel hungry, but you will be awake and stimulated from the release of cortisol at that time.

To prevent that, avoid refined sugar, pastries, sweetened drinks, etc., and focus on eating whole foods with plenty of protein and healthy fats at every meal. Unfortunately, being sleep deprived makes us more likely to crave unhealthy foods because our body wants quick energy. Sleep deprivation also messes with the hormones that control hunger, making us more likely to overeat up to 300 calories a day.

Gut imbalance

The less-known reason you wake up at night has to do with an unhealthy gut and some unpleasant critters that may be living there.

Having a common parasite like Blastocystis hominis or Giardia lamblia, a bacteria like H. pylori, or fungal overgrowth like Candida albicans can affect your sleep. Those creatures are nocturnal and as they’re feeding at night they’re creating inflammation. Cortisol comes to the rescue to deal with that inflammation because it’s anti-inflammatory. Cortisol wakes you up and suppresses melatonin, making it hard to go back to sleep.

To find out if you have unwanted parasites, bacteria or funguses that are keeping you from sleeping, you need to have your stool tested by a lab. If you’ve tried everything else and you still aren’t sleeping, that could be the reason why.

I know how frustrating it is to not get sleep. Manage your stress, avoid the blood sugar roller coaster and test for unwanted bugs that may be keeping you awake when you should be sleeping — and as always, wishing you a good night’s rest.

Martha Lewis is a certified Sleep Sense consultant and owner of The Complete Sleep Solution. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook @completesleepsolution. She can be reached at completesleepsolution@gmail.com.

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