Wake up from a deep sleep in a cold sweat? One of these surprising culprits could be to blame

By Cassie Shortsleeve
March 22, 2016

Nightmares aren't just a kid thing: Every now and then, we all get 'em-they're super common. In fact, The American Sleep Association suggests that between 80 and 90 percent of us will experience at least one throughout our lives. And horror movies aren't the only culprit. We talked to experts about five (surprising) reasons that could be behind why you woke up in a panic.

You Boozed

A night on the town can lead to a freaky night in between the sheets (...and not that kind of freaky). Alcohol is a huge cause of nightmares, says W. Christopher Winter, M.D., a sleep expert and medical director of the sleep medicine center at Martha Jefferson Hospital in Charlottesville, VA. For one, booze suppresses rapid eye movement (REM) sleep-which is when we dream, he says. Then, as your body metabolizes your drinks, dreaming comes roaring back-sometimes making for intense nightmares, he explains.

Alcohol also relaxes your upper airway. When you drink before you sleep, your airway wants to collapse more, he says. "The combination of dreaming and not being able to breathe regularly can create a situation where you have a nightmare-often involving drowning, being chased, or a feeling of suffocation," he says. Your body basically takes that feeling of struggling to breathe (which may actually be happening) and creates a story around it-likee that a wolf is chasing you. (Find out how else alcohol messes with your sleep.)

You Slept Somewhere New

We've all woken up in a hotel bed in the middle of the night not knowing where the heck we are. A change in setting can be anxiety-inducing-and that element of confusion can creep into your dreams, says Winter. Sleeping in foreign places can also sometimes mean you're waking up more in the middle of the night, which can disrupt your snooze and lead to nightmares, he adds.

You Ate Dinner at 10 P.M.

Lying down on a full tummy can trigger acid reflux, which might disrupt sleep, says Winter. And while some research suggests that certain foods (like spicy ones) are to blame for bad dreams, the more likely reason for freaky dreams is that your sleep is simply being disturbed. In fact, anything that causes sleep disruptions-young kids waking you up, a room that's too hot, or a dog as a sleeping partner-can cause nightmares, says Winter. When your body is busy trying to cool itself down, digest food, or filter out a snoring spouse, your sleep is thrown out of whack, which can make for scary dreams and more wake-ups throughout the night. (Make sure to fill your pantry with The Best Foods for Deep Sleep.)

You're Super Stressed

If you go to bed with fears and worries, you'll likely find that your dream are filled with similar content, says Winter. In fact, some research suggests that 71 to 96 percent of people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may have nightmares. But other studies also show us that small stressors like an upcoming presentation, an athletic competition, or exposure to trauma via the media can disrupt our minds while we sleep. (Will Melatonin Really Help You Sleep Better?)

You Slept on Your Back

If you snooze on your back, you may have more breathing disturbances-and thus, the possibility of more nightmares, says Winter. "Generally, sleeping on your back creates a position where the airway is less stable and more likely to collapse," he says. And just like with the drinking, this need for air could be translated to scary imagery in your mind. (There are more Strange Ways Sleeping Positions Affect Your Health too.)


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