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How To Fall Back Asleep During "Middle Sleep," From A Holistic Psychiatrist

Women sleeping in bed with a nightlight
Image by PonyWang / iStock
October 3, 2022

If you're one of the lucky few who manages to sleep through the night every night—congratulations. But for the rest of us, waking up at least once in the middle of the night is far from uncommon.

But listen up: Holistic psychiatrist, author, and sleep expert Ellen Vora, M.D., shared her personal approach to the pesky phenomenon of "middle sleep" in a recent installment of mbg's new sleep series, The Wind Down—and it's too good not to try yourself.

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Wait, what's middle sleep?

According to Vora, waking up in the middle of the night is a completely normal experience, and it actually has a name: "middle sleep."

Middle sleep is a physiologic wake-up that happens between two symmetric blocks of sleep. For example, if you're someone who goes to bed around 10 p.m. and usually sleeps eight hours, Vora explains, you might wake up around 2 a.m. (like she tends to herself!).

As sleep doctors have previously told mbg, there's usually nothing wrong with waking up in the middle of the night. But if you wake up and are unable to fall back asleep, that's when problems can occur. To that end, here's Vora's advice.

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What to do about it.

Like many others, Vora used to stress herself out when she woke up in the middle of the night, worrying that she wouldn't be able to fall asleep and it would subsequently ruin the next day. "And it turns out," she says, "that narrative I was telling myself, by stirring up my stress response, became a self-fulfilling prophecy."

In an Instagram video for mbg, Vora expands on the idea of middle sleep further, explaining that when you wake up in the middle of the night, "what your body really needs is maybe to use the restroom and have a sip of water, and then fall back asleep."

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But if you use this brief wake-up window to turn on the bathroom light, start thinking about your to-do list, or check the time on your phone, it really won't be conducive to falling back asleep. "[When] we flip on the bathroom light, we get all this light exposure into our eyes, suppressing our melatonin," she explains. Taking a look at our tech will have the same effect.

So instead of doing any of those things, Vora suggests, you'll just want to shuffle to the bathroom (sans lights if you can!), take a sip of water, and lie back down with your eyes closed. "Trust that you're going to fall back asleep—it might take five or 10 or 20 or 30 minutes, but reassure yourself that this is a normal wake-up and you're going to fall back asleep," she says. Then, prepare to drift back into dreamland once again.

The takeaway.

When it comes to getting quality sleep, sometimes we're our own worst enemy. If you're someone who wakes up in the middle of the night, know that it's totally normal and you're not alone. Do your best to keep your lights off and your mind calm, and with any luck, you'll be back to snoozing in no time.