5 Scientific Tips for Getting Back to Sleep After You’ve Woken Up in the Middle of the Night

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We’ve all been there: You fall asleep just fine after a long day of work, but at around 2 a.m., something happens. You’re suddenly wide awake, and no matter how many sheep you count or glasses of warm milk you down, nothing seems to get you back to bed. While most people associate insomnia with the inability to fall asleep in the first place, it also applies to people who find themselves unable to fall back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night.

According to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, 30 to 35 percent of U.S. adults experience "brief symptoms" of insomnia, while 10 percent suffer chronically, with symptoms three or more times a week for at least three months. Though some severe cases may prompt a visit to the doctor, the occasional occurrence can be helped with these five science-backed tips.

1. PUT THE CELLPHONE AWAY.

When you’re trying to fall back to sleep in the middle of the night, one of the biggest obstacles in your way is light. This is especially true when it comes to that blue light from your smartphone shining right into your eyes. "Electronic devices emit light that can keep you up—especially the ones you hold closer to your face, like a mobile device," W. Christopher Winter, director of the Martha Jefferson Sleep Medicine Center, told Men’s Health.

The temptation to scroll through social media or a few news sites when you can’t sleep can be hard to resist, but yielding to it can turn a 15-minute sleep interruption into an entire night lost. Do your brain a favor and leave the phones, tablets, and e-readers off.

2. IGNORE THE CLOCK.

While you’re ignoring newsfeeds and social media, you’re going to want to stay away from your smartphone’s clock, too. In fact, don’t worry at all about the time when you’re trying to fall back to sleep, because it’s only going to increase your stress.

Think about it: If you need to be up for work at 6 a.m., and you randomly woke up at 4 a.m., you’re likely going to do the classic, “Well if I fall asleep now, I’ll get two more hours of sleep before my alarm goes off.” Then what happens? Nothing. Then you set another deadline, and chances are you’ll get nowhere with that, too. Soon it’s 5:59 a.m. and you’re still awake, thanks to all the undue stress you put on your body to fall back asleep by a certain time.

"The problems occur when people's minds start to race and they start to worry about things," neurologist Brian Murray told CBC Canada. "Looking at the clock will make people feel anxious about not falling back to sleep. That causes the body to release fight-or-flight hormones, which interfere with the sleep onset process."

Don’t worry about the time—that’s already out of your control. Instead, concentrate on practical tips to solve the problem.

3. DON’T BE AFRAID TO GET UP.

Still can’t get back to sleep after 20 minutes? Well, it might to time to get up—for the moment, anyway. In an article for the Huffington Post, James Findley, Ph.D., clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania, recommended people get out of bed and do some light busy work after that initial waiting period.

Among the activities he recommends are stretching, light reading, or a puzzle—basically, do anything to get your mind off the fact that you can’t sleep, and with any luck, that will be exactly what you need to doze back off.

4. DO SOME BREATHING EXERCISES.

A tense body likely won’t be falling asleep anytime soon, so you’ll want to make sure you’re actually relaxed while in bed. One way to accomplish this is to do some deep breathing—in through your nose and out of your mouth in a rhythmic cycle. According to Erich P. Voigt of New York University, you can also help lull your mind to sleep by repeating a common phrase or word—like “relax”—in rhythm with your breathing.

5. FOCUS ON WHAT RELAXES YOU.

Sleep experts Ilene M. Rosen and Shalini Paruthi both say that one of the keys to falling back to sleep in the middle of the night is to focus on mental images of what's most relaxing to you. For them, it was imagining themselves on a beach or back at a favorite family vacation spot. "I can feel the Sun’s warmth on my skin, I can hear the ocean waves. I can smell the saltiness of the sea," Paruthi said. This type of guided imagery—where you carefully imagine every detail of a favorite memory or activity to get your mind off your sleep woes—is also recommended by the National Sleep Foundation.

For you, these images could be anything—thinking about a favorite movie, imagining yourself at a Yankees game, or remembering some of your favorite books. It's all about whatever memories or thoughts relax you. So instead of stressful newsfeeds or the mocking hands of a clock, your mind will be on a beach, in your favorite restaurant, or simply remembering the sights, sounds, and smells of a perfect day—and hopefully, you'll be back to sleep before you know it.

Why Thousands of 'Penis Fish' Washed Up on a California Beach

Kate Montana, iNaturalist // CC BY-NC 4.0
Kate Montana, iNaturalist // CC BY-NC 4.0

Nature works in mysterious ways. The latest example materialized at Drakes Beach near San Francisco, California, in early December, when visitors strolling along the shore stumbled upon what looked to be the discarded inventory of an adult novelty shop. In fact, it was thousands of Urechis caupo, a marine worm that bears more than a passing resemblance to a human penis.

The engorged pink invertebrate, which is typically 10 inches in length, is native to the Pacific coast and frequently goes by the less salacious name of “fat innkeeper worm.” Burrowing in sand, the worm produces mucus from its front end to ensnare plankton and other snacks, then pumps water to create a vacuum where the food is directed into their tunnel. Since it builds up a small nest of discarded food, other creatures like crabs will stop by to feed, hence the “innkeeper” label.

You can see the worm in "action" here:

Because the worms enjoy a reclusive life in their burrows, it’s unusual to see thousands stranded on the beach. It’s likely that a strong storm broke up the intertidal sand, decimating their homes and leaving them exposed. The event is likely to thrill otters, as they enjoy dining on the worm. So do humans: Penis fish are served both raw and cooked in Korea and China.

[h/t Live Science]

The Horrors of Anglerfish Mating

Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Masaki Miya et al. "Evolutionary history of anglerfishes (Teleostei: Lophiiformes): a mitogenomic perspective," BMC Evolutionary Biology 10, article number: 58 (2010), Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

When you think of an anglerfish, you probably think of something like the creature above: Big mouth. Gnarly teeth. Lure bobbing from its head. Endless nightmares. 

During the 19th century, when scientists began to discover, describe, and classify anglerfish from a particular branch of the anglerfish family tree—the suborder Ceratioidei—that’s what they thought of, too. The problem was that they were only seeing half the picture. The specimens that they were working with were all female, and they had no idea where the males were or what they looked like. Researchers sometimes found some other fish that seemed to be related based on their body structure, but they lacked the fearsome maw and lure typical of ceratioids and were much smaller—sometimes only as long as 6 or 7 millimeters—and got placed into separate taxonomic groups.

It wasn’t until the 1920s—almost a full century after the first ceratioid was entered into the scientific record—that things started to become a little clearer. In 1922, Icelandic biologist Bjarni Saemundsson discovered a female ceratioid with two of these smaller fish attached to her belly by their snouts. He assumed it was a mother and her babies, but was puzzled by the arrangement.

“I can form no idea of how, or when, the larvae, or young, become attached to the mother. I cannot believe that the male fastens the egg to the female,” he wrote. “This remains a puzzle for some future researchers to solve.”

When Saemundsson kicked the problem down the road, it was Charles Tate Regan, working at the British Museum of Natural History in 1924, who picked it up. Regan also found a smaller fish attached to a female ceratioid. When he dissected it, he realized it wasn’t a different species or the female angler’s child. It was her mate.

The “missing” males had been there all along, just unrecognized and misclassified, and Regan and other scientists, like Norwegian zoologist Albert Eide Parr, soon figured out why the male ceratioids looked so different. They don’t need lures or big mouths and teeth because they don’t hunt, and they don’t hunt because they have the females. The ceratioid male, Regan wrote, is “merely an appendage of the female, and entirely dependent on her for nutrition.” In other words, a parasite.

When ceratioid males go looking for love, they follow a species-specific pheromone to a female, who will often aid their search further by flashing her bioluminescent lure. Once the male finds a suitable mate, he bites into her belly and latches on until his body fuses with hers. Their skin joins together, and so do their blood vessels, which allows the male to take all the nutrients he needs from his host/mate’s blood. The two fish essentially become one.

With his body attached to hers like this, the male doesn't have to trouble himself with things like seeing or swimming or eating like a normal fish. The body parts he doesn’t need anymore—eyes, fins, and some internal organs—atrophy, degenerate, and wither away, until he’s little more than a lump of flesh hanging from the female, taking food from her and providing sperm whenever she’s ready to spawn.

Extreme size differences between the sexes and parasitic mating aren’t found in all anglerfish. Throughout the other suborders, there are males that are free-swimming their whole lives, that can hunt on their own and that only attach to the females temporarily to reproduce before moving along. For deep-sea ceratioids that might only rarely bump into each other in the abyss, though, the weird mating ritual is a necessary adaptation to keep mates close at hand and ensure that there will always be more little anglerfish. And for us, it’s something to both marvel and cringe at, a reminder that the natural world is often as strange as any fiction we can imagine.

Naturalist William Beebe put it nicely in 1938, writing, “But to be driven by impelling odor headlong upon a mate so gigantic, in such immense and forbidding darkness, and willfully eat a hole in her soft side, to feel the gradually increasing transfusion of her blood through one’s veins, to lose everything that marked one as other than a worm, to become a brainless, senseless thing that was a fish—this is sheer fiction, beyond all belief unless we have seen the proof of it.”

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