Why Are You Waking Up Tired?


This morning, when my husband nudged me awake, I groaned.

“How’s it going?” he asked, already irritatingly showered and changed.

I groaned again.

Despite having turned off Love Is Blind mid-episode (a Herculean feat) and gone to sleep at a decent hour the night before, I still felt exhausted. Sound familiar?

What’s the problem? I wondered as I willed myself to get up and start another day.

What was making me so tired? Was it existential dread after two years of a pandemic? Encroaching anxiety about everything from the Supreme Court to World War III? The chronic stress of the mental load that plagues my dreams, conjuring scenarios of high school pop quizzes two decades later? Was it the vegan ice cream pop I ate before bed?

Yum. Ice cream.

The prospect of dessert finally got me up.

The truth is that lately, I wake up tired every morning no matter when I went to bed, despite the fact that my energy should objectively be improving. The weather is getting warmer. I have two small children, yes. But I get to sleep later than many parents, as we live only three blocks from school. My kids are now old (and wise) enough to let me sleep in on the weekends. I’ve never been a morning person, but I’m spending seven to eight hours in bed most nights. Why am I still not well-rested?

After hearing countless friends complain about the same issue, I decided to ask the experts for some answers. It turns out that there may be several (largely improvable!) factors at play, keeping me — and perhaps you too — from waking up chipper.

Since sleep is an innately physical act, the first obvious place to look is at our daily activity and eating habits. Maybe that vegan ice cream pop before bed really is a problem (gasp!).

According to Robert Graham, MD, MPH Chef, founder of New York-based integrative medicine practice Fresh Medicine, that moment of awakening in fog is known as “sleep inertia.” And it doesn’t need to be a given. “Waking up tired can often be remedied with a few changes to your daily habits,” the doctor explains. “The lack of a well-balanced diet and inactivity can catch up with you.”

First, he recommends investigating common nutritional deficiencies, “particularly B12, D, and iron,” which could be sapping your energy, as well as integrating more plants into your diet to bolster overall energy. He also suggests that you stop eating three hours before going to bed (especially caffeine and alcohol, which can actually contribute to sleep conditions). “Sleep should be a time for rest,” he says, “not digestion.” After all, digestion requires effort from your body.

Roll your eyes all you want, but exercise is, as always, key to health, even for rest. Dr. Graham recommends moving at least 30 minutes daily to keep the body active, like the way you might tire out a rambunctious kid or puppy. “Leading a sedentary lifestyle may lead to tiredness during the day,” he says, citing multiple studies to that effect. “Get moving!”

Of course, then, there’s that whole pesky brain-body connection to consider, especially pronounced after the collective stress we’ve experienced over the last few years thanks to the pandemic and a general sense of upheaval. After all, if you’re in bed by 10pm, but you’re waking up in a panic in the middle of the night or having fitful dreams, you’re not getting the deep rest you need.

“When someone experiences significant amounts of stress for extended periods of time, it is processed by the body as a threat and is traumatic,” explains Dr. Bethany Cook, a clinical psychologist, adjunct professor, and board-certified music therapist. “The body responds to this perceived threat by kicking off its natural ‘fight/flight/freeze system. Essentially, the sympathetic nervous system activates a sudden release of hormones (adrenaline and noradrenaline).

Once the perceived threat is gone, it takes the body 20 to 60 minutes to return to a pre-arousal state. This heightened state of alertness contributes to insomnia. Plus, some studies have shown that, depending on the duration and degree of traumatic exposure states, it may take a person months to physically recover from feeling tired, worn out, and exhausted.”

Okay. So, we’re all traumatized. What can we do?

Well, when we find ourselves catastrophizing about the future, Dr. Cook recommends interrupting that tornado of negative thoughts and “cognitive distortions” with a reality check. Ask yourself, what are the objective facts? In other words, if I find myself panicking at 4am because I forgot to buy bread for my son’s lunch, I can remind myself that this is not a disaster. He will happily eat crackers instead. (It sounds absurd saying it aloud in the daylight, but it can be hard to stay rational in the middle of the night.) The level of panic exceeds the actual stakes.

Dr. Cook also notes that “feeling out of control” can also cause insomnia, which is where the sentiment behind the Serenity Prayer comes in, no religious affiliation is required. “Remind yourself of what you do and don’t have control over,” she says. “You can’t control the weather, but you can control how you dress and what you bring with you in case it changes.”

If your anxiety is mounting and/or your depression is worsening, take that seriously. In this day and age, there’s a tendency to write off our personal difficulties because so many people are struggling. There’s always someone who has it worse, and we don’t want to be ungrateful for our good fortune. That said, if you’re waking up tired every day, you may need some legitimate help climbing out of that emotional hole — with good reason. Dr. Cook recommends confiding in trusted family members and close friends and perhaps seeking out a therapist.

But what if the problem is the sleep itself?

According to Michael J. Breus, PhD, ABSM (a.k.a. “The Sleep Doctor”) — a clinical psychologist, author, and fellow of The American Academy of Sleep Medicine — mental health issues like depression and physical health issues like adrenal fatigue, chronic pain, and auto-immune disorders may lead to waking up tired. But a sleep disorder or poor quality sleep while at rest, may also be the cause. The simplest answer can be better sleep habits.

To start, he recommends sticking to a consistent sleep schedule. “In doing this, you essentially train your body to be ready for sleep at bedtime, and then ready to wake up in the morning,” he explains. Beyond the demands of a particular schedule, he suggests determining your ideal bedtime according to your chronotype or “your body’s natural disposition to be awake or asleep at certain times…closely related to your circadian rhythm.” Are you an early bird or a night owl? The doctor even offers a quiz to determine your type.

He also recommends making sure your bedroom is conducive to sleep with blackout curtains if you’re sensitive to light, a white noise machine to cover “intrusive sounds” (like your husband’s snoring — hypothetically, of course!), or earplugs. And, as much as we hate to hear it, Breus reminds us that blue lights from electronic devices inhibit natural melatonin production and should be put away 60 to 90 minutes before sleep or used with blue light glasses. Personally, I’ve had to create boundaries around checking email too. I’ve had my sleep derailed more than once by late-night messages about Covid outbreaks at school or an unresolved work conflict.

Good use of that unplugged downtime? Creating soothing rituals around bedtime can also help support quality sleep. Breus recommends a warm bath or showers an hour before bed, as well as journaling, meditation, or stretching practices like yin yoga to create a sense of calm. And then maybe, just maybe, you can wake up feeling bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next day, morning groans are damned.

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