A light sleeper is a person who wakes up easily, even if there are only small changes in the environment. Being a light sleeper can make it more difficult to get a good night’s sleep because a person wakes up frequently and does not enter the deeper levels of sleep.
This article will explain the characteristics that make someone a light sleeper and the possible causes.
A light sleeper is a person who will wake up easily due to even small changes in their environment. These may include:
- smells, such as when a person is cooking
- sounds, even quiet ones
- light, such as that from car headlights or outside streetlights
A person who is a deep sleeper may need a significant stimulus to awaken. Doctors refer to this stimulus as an “arousal threshold.” An alarm buzz or someone shouting at or shaking a person to wake them up are examples of significant stimuli that can create an arousal threshold.
A person goes through several stages of sleep during a night.
- Stage 1: This is non-rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. This stage is usually short and lasts only a few minutes, as a person transitions from being awake to sleeping. A person’s heartbeat, breathing, and eye movements start to slow down, and they enter a period of light sleep.
- Stage 2: During this stage, the muscles become more relaxed, and the heart rate and breathing rate slow further. The second stage lasts for about 30–60 minutes before a person transitions into stage 3. It is common for people to spend most of their repeated sleep cycles in stage 2.
- Stage 3: This stage is a non-REM sleep period in which a person is in refreshing, deep sleep. Their heart rate slows down, and, during this time, it is usually hard to awaken a person. Learn more about deep sleep here.
- REM sleep: In this sleep period, a person’s eyes move rapidly. This movement usually starts about 90 minutes after a person falls asleep. Dreaming often takes place during REM sleep, and a person’s heart rate and blood pressure rise. During this time, a person’s brain wave activity is similar to how it is when they are awake. Learn more about REM sleep here.
Most people will naturally follow sleep transitions from light to deep sleep throughout the night. However, a light sleeper may rarely cycle through the deeper sleep stages.
To discover more evidence-based information and resources on the science of healthy sleep, visit our dedicated hub.
A person who is a light sleeper may have a different arousal threshold than deeper sleepers. Many factors affect a person’s threshold for waking up. These include:
- the amount of time they spend awake during the day
- the stage of sleep and brain activity during the sleep stage
- a person’s level of vigilance before they went to sleep — for example, a person who is nervous or anxious when going to sleep may wake up more easily than someone who is relaxed
Doctors have attempted to measure brain waves as an indicator of how deeply a person sleeps, and they have identified brain wave spikes known as “sleep spindles.” These are protective against external stimuli, such as sound and light, which could cause a person to wake up. When a person experiences more sleep spindles during sleep, they are less likely to respond to external stimulation.
However, doctors have not identified how to encourage more sleep spindles in humans. Many of the studies relating to sleep spindles and responding to outside stimulation have used rodents as the subjects.
A combination of body changes, brain wave adjustments, and hormonal rhythms influence how a person sleeps. Each of these factors can play a role in whether a person sleeps lightly, deeply, or somewhere in-between.
Light sleepers can try several techniques that may help them wake up less often at night.
When a person has difficulty sleeping soundly, they may try to improve their “sleep hygiene.” This term refers to the sleep habits that could help a person sleep more deeply. Examples
- setting a consistent sleep schedule that involves going to bed and waking up at the same time each day
- exercising for at least 20–30 minutes a day, but refraining from exercising at least 3 hours before going to bed
- keeping the bedroom cool and dark so that it promotes sleep
- avoiding using a television, computer, or cell phone in the bedroom, which may help by providing light cues to tell the body that it is time to sleep
- avoiding nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine before bed, as these can affect the depth of sleep and increase wakefulness
- meditating or practicing some other relaxation techniques before bed, which can help a person unwind and ideally feel less anxious, possibly enhancing sleep
- listening to white noise or soft, instrumental music while asleep to provide a consistent stimulus, so a person is less responsive to other sounds while sleeping
- wearing an eye mask or using other methods, such as dark curtains or closed blinds, to block out light
Doctors can also prescribe medications to help treat problems sleeping. These usually treat insomnia, which is difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep. Light sleepers do not necessarily have insomnia, but they may benefit from medication to help them sleep more deeply.
- Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics: Nonbenzodiazepine hypnotics are the most commonly prescribed medications to treat sleep disorders. Examples include zolpidem (Ambien) and eszopiclone (Lunesta). These medications help improve sleep maintenance in some individuals.
- Melatonin agonists: Melatonin is a hormone that plays a role in regulating a person’s sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is available in an over-the-counter form in doses that range from 0.1 to 5 milligrams (mg). However, doctors can also prescribe a medication called ramelteon (Rozerem), which acts to stimulate more melatonin production in the body.
- Antidepressants: The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have approved the tricyclic antidepressant doxepin (Silenor) to treat insomnia that affects a person’s ability to stay asleep. Doctors can prescribe the medication at doses that range from 3 to 6 mg.
Less commonly, doctors prescribe or recommend some other medications to treat sleep concerns. These include antihistamines, such as diphenhydramine (Benadryl), and benzodiazepines, such as lorazepam (Ativan) or alprazolam (Xanax). These medications may be less effective in treating light sleeping in the long term and may have more side effects than benefits.
If being a light sleeper affects a person’s quality of life, they should see their doctor. Some examples of how light sleeping may affect a person’s quality of life include:
- creating or adding anxiety around sleeping
- experiencing excessive daytime sleepiness that affects a person’s work or school abilities
- affecting relationships with a significant other due to sleep concerns or issues
A good night’s sleep is important to a person’s health in terms of physical and mental performance. If a person sleeps so lightly that they cannot sleep well, they should see their doctor.
Light sleepers wake up easily to changes in environmental stimuli, such as light, sounds, or smells. There are many potential causes.
If a person experiences unrefreshing sleep due to being a light sleeper, they should talk to their doctor about potential solutions.