What It Really Means To Be A "Light Sleeper" + How To Sleep Through The Night
When it comes to sleep, many people fall into one of two categories: light or heavy sleepers. And if you're a light sleeper, you may be frustrated by how often you're waking up on any given night. We reached out to experts for the lowdown on what makes a light sleeper, plus how light sleepers can maintain shut-eye through the evening.
What is a light sleeper?
Someone might be a "light sleeper" if they wake up easily during sleep, especially in response to noises in their environment, doctor of chiropractic and functional medicine expert Stacie Stephenson, D.C., CNS, tells mbg. "By contrast," she adds, "a heavy sleeper is less likely to wake up during the night or wake up in response to noise."
For example, you've probably had some variation of a conversation like this before: One person (the light sleeper) says, "Wow, that storm was so loud last night—it woke me up!" and the other person (the heavy sleeper) says, "I slept right through it."
Now, as sleep and health psychologist Joshua Tal, Ph.D., previously explained to mbg, waking up in the middle of the night isn't necessarily a bad thing. "Usually you're waking up between stages of sleep, so you're not really interrupting anything," and it's naturally easier to wake up during the light sleep stages (stages 1 or 2) than the deeper ones.
What causes you to be a light sleeper?
The jury is still out on the exact reason(s) some people tend to wake up easier than others, but there are a couple of theories.
"One is that, for whatever reason, some people spend more time in the deep sleep stage than in light sleep stages," Stephenson says, and these people would likely be deeper sleepers.
The other theory has to do with something called sleep spindles, she notes. "Sleep spindles are a type of brainwave. There are bursts of brain activity during stage 2 non-REM sleep and [...] they seem to protect sleepers from waking up in response to noise."
In fact, research has shown sleepers who have more sleep spindles1 also tend to sleep more soundly and deeply, Stephenson notes, "whereas sleepers with fewer sleep spindles tend to be easier to awaken."
Light sleepers vs. heavy sleepers.
While we aren't sure why some people are light sleepers and others are heavy sleepers, we do know that during deep sleep, it is much harder to wake up. In light sleep, people often drift in and out of their snooze easily.
Here's a refresher on those four stages of sleep and what happens in each one:
- Stage 1 (light sleep): In this stage, you start to drift off, your heart rate slows, and your body begins relaxing.
- Stage 2: Still considered light sleep, this stage is when your body starts to relax even more, and sleep spindles fire off in your brain.
- Stage 3 (slow-wave sleep): Deep sleep starts in this stage. Your whole body (brain included) goes into rest mode, making it more difficult to wake up.
- Stage 4 (REM sleep): The only rapid eye movement stage, this is when you dream. Your heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure also jump during REM sleep.
If someone is spending less time in deep sleep and more time in the lighter sleep stages, they may simply wake up more.
And as Stephenson notes, the cause may be largely genetic. "Some people have been light sleepers all their lives, while others have always been heavy sleepers," she says, adding that "several studies2 have looked at gene mutations that predispose people to more deep sleep or more REM sleep."
Is it dangerous to be a light sleeper?
Stephenson notes that being a light sleeper doesn't have to be a bad thing; you'll just want to pay more attention to your sleep hygiene to ensure that you're getting enough rest through the occasional wakeups.
"Everyone needs a quality seven to nine hours of sleep on most nights for good health," she says, "and this is easy for some and a bit more challenging for others." However, unless you have a medical condition or sleep disorder (which we'll touch on later), she says you should be able to reach this threshold—no matter how lightly or deeply you tend to sleep.
Ways light sleepers can sleep through the night:
Fine-tune your bedroom.
Try a magnesium supplement.*
Taking a relaxing supplement like mbg's sleep support+ may help you not only fall asleep faster but stay asleep longer, too, and wake up feeling like you slept soundly through the night.* When taken just before bedtime, the pioneering magnesium blend enhances sleep quality.* The added PharmaGABA®3 has been shown to increase sleep efficacy (the percentage of time in bed someone actually spends sleeping), making it especially relevant to light sleepers.*
Give yourself more time to sleep.
If you're waking up frequently, Stephenson says you might want to give yourself more time in bed, to make up for the time you spend awake. "Assign more hours to sleep," she advises, "since you may get less high-quality sleep time, and sleeping longer allows for more time spent awake during the night."
Have a bedtime routine.
Ensuring our bodies and minds are calm before getting into bed can go a long way toward getting a good night's sleep, so having a bedtime routine that really helps you unwind is crucial.
Try practicing relaxing rituals before sleeping to calm stress: "Take a warm bath, read something relaxing, listen to calm music, or try meditating before bed," Stephenson suggests.
Don't eat or drink before bed.
And lastly, if you're prone to frequent wake-ups, avoid eating too much within three hours of bedtime, Stephenson notes, and definitely cut caffeine and alcohol late at night.
Eating and drinking too late can keep your body digesting into the night, and alcohol is known to disrupt deeper sleep stages4. Even beverages like water or tea should be consumed in small amounts before bed, to avoid needing to wake up to use the bathroom.
When should I see a doctor for my light sleep?
According to Tal, who specializes in insomnia, if you're waking up excessively (say, around five or more times a night), it could be a sign of an underlying condition. It also shouldn't take you much longer than 15 to 30 minutes to fall back asleep. If either of these things is happening to you, you'll want to talk to a professional.
Stephenson agrees, adding that these could be signs of an underlying medical problem like sleep apnea, restless legs, or poor blood sugar control.
Will melatonin help?
Research shows melatonin may improve sleep quality by increasing REM sleep5 and sleep spindles, Stephenson notes, adding "it probably would help light sleepers sleep more deeply, or at least longer. However, this effect may be individual."
And as functional medicine doctor Frank Lipman, M.D., previously explained to mbg, melatonin is good for regulating sleep rhythm, but if staying asleep is more of the problem than actually falling asleep, he says magnesium might actually be a better option.*
"Magnesium may also help to calm stress before sleep," Stephenson adds, "so it could help naturally light sleepers be less likely to awaken due to stress."*
How will I know I'm getting a good night's sleep?
You can generally gauge how well you slept by how you feel in the morning. If you're feeling groggy, tired, and lethargic when the alarm goes off, that's not an indication of good sleep. But if you wake up feeling ready to go, that's a much better signal.
Note that depending on your age, the amount of sleep you need varies. (Check out our full guide to sleep duration by age.)
How can I share the bed with a light sleeper?
If you're sharing a bed with someone who constantly wakes up, there are a few things you can do.
One of the most obvious options is to invest in a bigger bed that makes tossing and turning less noticeable. On top of that, try to respect your partner's needs for a dark and quiet room, and if it comes down to it, consider getting a "sleep divorce," even if only for a couple of nights a week.
The bottom line.
There's no question that sleeping is a huge part of our overall well-being, playing a role in everything from immunity to memory. If you're worried your light sleeping is taking a toll on your health, talk to a professional, but know in most cases, it's probably not having a hugely negative effect on your sleep, and there are things that can be done to help you stay asleep longer.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.