Why Some People Are Light Sleepers

Does it seem like everything wakes you up? Light sleepers struggle to sleep through even the smallest disturbances, making achieving a good night’s rest difficult. Learn about what causes this and what you can do about it.

By Nicole Gleichmann

May 2nd, 2022

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Every night I go to sleep, it feels like a race. If my spouse falls asleep first, my chances of falling asleep within the next few hours are slim. And even when I win that initial race, the snoring eventually snaps me out of slumber, and I’m left there wondering why I can’t sleep through the softest noises…he’s not even a loud snorer!

If you’re reading this article, you probably understand exactly how I feel. Being a light sleeper makes a lot of things hard. Not only is regular sleep at home difficult (at least there you have some form of control), but travel can be quite challenging.

This begs the question: Why are some people heavy sleepers who might just sleep through a house burning down, and others of us are unable to sleep if a light rain starts to pitter-patter on the windows?

In this guide, we’ll help you understand why some people are light sleepers and what you can do as a light sleeper to improve your quality of sleep.

Light Sleepers Might Spend Less Time in Deep Sleep

Our bodies transition between REM (rapid eye movement) sleep and non-REM sleep about every 90 minutes while we’re sleeping. Non-REM sleep consists of three sleep stages:

  • Stage 1: Light sleep where the body and mind begin to slow down, when muscles relax, temperature drops, and brainwaves start to slow.
  • Stage 2: Another light stage of sleep where the body’s temperature and brainwave frequency continue to decrease.
  • Stage 3: Also known as slow wave sleep, this is when deep sleep occurs. How much time we spend in stage 3 deep sleep is correlated to how rejuvenated we feel during the day.

We are more likely to wake up during stages 1 and 2 sleep. If you’re someone who spends more time in these light stages of sleep rather than the deep sleep stages, you might wake up more often than someone who spends more of their time in deep sleep.

Related: REM rebound sleep

Additionally, researchers have found that the greater our sleep spindle activity, the less we wake up from external stimuli. In this study, the researchers measured sleep spindle activity on an EEG test and used noise to disturb sleep. Based on this research, there is hope that a therapy to increase sleep spindle activity could help people who struggle to stay asleep during the night.

Why Are Some People Light Sleepers?

So, what, exactly might contribute to someone not spending enough time in deep sleep, or having low spindle activity? There are two primary causes.

1. Genetics

As any light sleeper knows, there is some part of this difficulty sleeping that is linked to our genetics. There are often two siblings who grew up in the same house, one who can sleep through an earthquake and another who is woken up by a creaky board. It might be that they were born with genetic differences that makes one of them a lighter sleeper.

Additionally, research suggests that women tend to be lighter sleepers than men. Why? Part of this might be evolutionary. When a baby cries in the middle of the night because it’s is hungry, years ago (before breast pumps and formula), the only way for that baby to eat was for the mother to get up and feed it. What’s more, when women go through menopause, they experience changes in their hormones and sleeping abilities that can make it harder to sleep through the night.

2. Sleep Disorders

Sleep disorders like sleep apnea can dramatically reduce how well you sleep and increase how easily you’re woken up due to a lack of oxygen during the night. In fact, some sleep disorders, like narcolepsy, might decrease how much time you spend in deep sleep. This can make you easier to wake since you aren’t in your REM stage. Others, like restless leg syndrome, may wake you due to a painful sensation in your body.

Tips for Getting a Good Night’s Sleep if You’re a Light Sleeper

If you find that you’re easily woken up, the first thing to do is to work on your sleep hygiene and sleep habits. Research ways to set yourself up for a good night’s sleep as this can help to reduce awakenings.

Here are some ways to make sure you get a better night’s sleep:

  • Avoid napping during the day so you are more tired at night.
  • Limit electronic use 1 hour before bed.
  • Reduce your stress through meditation, yoga, or other relaxation techniques.
  • Invest in blackout curtains to keep your room dark.
  • Turn on a fan or play white noise to block out other noises.

For some, it might be a good idea to visit a sleep specialist and discuss your struggles. It might be that you have a sleep disorder that you’re unaware of. Sleep experts can help identify what’s making it hard for you to sleep throughout the night and come up with a plan to rectify it.