Why You Wake up in the Middle of the Night

Sweta Vikram

Did you know that 2 a.m. Google searches are a real thing? One of the first things I ask my clients to do is to pay attention to their sleep. Both quality and quantity. When they go to bed and when do they wake up? Then we dig deeper. Perhaps it’s falling asleep that troubles them—mind refuses to shut down. Maybe they have no trouble falling asleep, but they wake up in the middle of the night, wanting desperately to keep sleeping without any luck?

The National Institutes of Health estimates that roughly 30 percent of the general population in the US complains of sleep disruption, and approximately 10 percent have associated symptoms of daytime functional impairment consistent with the diagnosis of insomnia. You probably already know that sleep promotes efficient removal of metabolic wastes and directly supports the immune system. It impacts how we navigate the day (literally and metaphorically).

“Sleep is the best meditation,” says the Dalai Lama. Sleep is one of the key pillars of Ayurveda, because the rest we get (or don’t get) determines so much of our overall health. Like our diet, it contributes to how we feel, how we act and how we react to events in our everyday life. Here’s what the classical Ayurveda text Ashtanga Hridayam has to say about sleep: “Happiness and unhappiness, nourishment (good physique) and emaciation, strength and debility, sexual prowess and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, life and death — all are dependent on sleep.”

Western medicine tells us that sleeplessness can be caused by elevated or chronic stress, illness, physical discomfort, environmental factors, changes in our schedules, side effects from prescribed medications, depression, anxiety, and a myriad of other factors. According to the Ayurvedic texts, sleep is caused by increased kapha (earth and water elements) and sleeplessness/insomnia by increased vata (ether and air elements) or pitta (fire and water elements). And that the correct quality and quantity of sleep is necessary in disconnecting a tired mind from the senses. Lack of sleep can make us irritable and prone to overeating, and in-time lead to illness. Both Western science and Ayurveda agree that the hours of sleep before midnight are more restorative.

In the western world, 80% of Ayurvedic clients show signs of vata imbalance! It’s like an Oprah commercial, “You have vata imbalance, And, you have vata imbalance. And, you, too, have a vata imbalance.”

Courtesy Pikrepo

Pay attention to the time of the night when you wake up. The vata time of the day begins, at about 2 p.m. and continues until 6 p.m. as the day gives way to night. Vata time returns from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., marking another time of transition. Vata is made up of ether and air elements. Its attributes are: Dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, and clear. The elements and their attributes can help you to understand why a certain effect is produced. Vata governs the time of transition. The naturally light, etheric qualities of this time of day makes sleep light at this hour.

Ayurveda tells us that waking up in the middle of the night and having trouble going back to sleep is rooted in an imbalance in vata. When we have excess vata, we have too many thoughts and it’s hard to relax. This could be due to a sluggish digestion which is also connected to the vata dosha. When your digestive system is struggling to break down food, it might signal your body to wake up and move around because movement can stimulate digestion. You may also find yourself wide awake (even for no apparent reason) right around the kickoff of vata time (2 a.m. – 6 a.m.) when vata energy begins rising again, with more movement in the mind and body. Vata tends to trigger upward moving energy in the body whereas sleep is supported by downward moving energy.

According to Ayurveda, when excess vata or pitta (a combination of fire and water elements) are active just before (or at any point during) the sleep cycle, they can leave us feeling active, mentally alert, especially sensitive to subtle changes in our environment, utterly preoccupied with racing—or even well-organized—thoughts, and we become inclined to stay awake.

Change in seasons too impact our sleep. Having a routine in place, opting for well-cooked and warm meals (instead of raw), going to bed at the same time every evening, eating a light dinner, no screen time at least a few hours prior to getting into bed, avoiding over-stimulating conversations, meditating, soaking your feet in warm water, and keeping your alcohol and caffeine consumption to a minimum can all help make room for a good night’s sleep.

Try these tips and let me know if it helped!