How to Get to Sleep After Catching a Second Wind
Whether you're just getting home from a night on the town or you simply got a jolt of energy winding down on the sofa, few things are more frustrating than your body giving you a sudden burst of energy right when you're winding down to drift off. This irksome occurrence is known as catching a second wind.
“A second wind refers to the phenomenon when a person stays awake longer than their usual bedtime, causing a temporary boost in alertness,” says Wendy Troxel, Ph.D., author of “Sharing the Covers: Every Couple’s Guide to Better Sleep.” You essentially miss your body’s ideal or familiar sleep window,” she explains, “which makes it very difficult to fall asleep, even after extended periods of wakefulness.”
If you regularly stay up past your bedtime, whether planned or not, you may be pretty used to second winds by now. One way to turn things around is to better familiarize yourself with your body’s wake maintenance zone (more on that in a moment). Getting to know this aspect of how your body functions can help you become one with your circadian rhythm and get the full night’s sleep you need to function at your best.
How do our brains determine sleep-wake cycles?
Human sleep is driven by two processes: circadian rhythm, which regulates when we feel awake versus sleepy over the course of a 24-hour period, and homeostatic sleep drive, or the pressure that builds for sleep based on extended periods of wakefulness.
The master clock in our brain that coordinates our body’s various biological rhythms, including our sleep or wake cycle, is called the suprachiasmatic nucleus, or SCN. It’s a control panel influenced by diet, exercise, habits, hormones, and light. Changes in light in our environment are processed by our eyes, which send direct messages to our master clock, which sets our cycles of alertness and sleepiness.
When there’s more light — cue sunrise — the brain sends an alert that it’s time for the body to produce more cortisol, a hormone that’s best known for its role in biological stress response, but is also a key player in stimulating wakefulness, especially first thing in the morning.
Our cortisol levels are highest when we wake up, then gradually decline throughout the day. They hit their lowest levels right around bedtime — just as your eyes are reporting to your SCN that it’s getting dark, and time to amp up melatonin production, resulting in feelings of sleepiness.
As your circadian rhythm is doing its thing, so is your homeostatic sleep drive: “The longer you’ve been awake, the more your sleep drive increases,” Troxel says. “This is indicated by the buildup of a chemical in the brain called adenosine.”
Adenosine accumulates in the brain during wakefulness, eventually inducing physiological sleep. While you’re snoozing, the brain washes away the adenosine buildup so that come morning, cortisol levels can do their thing, helping you feel refreshed and ready to rock.
Of course, life has a way of going awry and sending your sleep/wake cycle off the rails. This is where bonding with your wake maintenance zone can really come in handy.
What causes a second wind, exactly?
Adult circadian rhythms have two natural periods of peak alertness: in the morning hours and again a few hours before bedtime. That second period of alertness is your wake maintenance zone, or WMZ.
“The WMZ refers to the fact that in the early evening hours, just prior to the release of melatonin, the circadian drive for sleep is actually very low — serving to maintain wakefulness at a time when sleep drive is quite high,” Troxel says.
It might seem counterintuitive for this to happen just as it’s time to unwind, she adds, but the WMZ keeps you awake in the early evening to enhance the likelihood of obtaining roughly 16 hours of extended wakefulness during the daytime and eight hours of consolidated sleep at night.
However, sometimes life interrupts our biological rhythm and sleep cues, whether from stress elevating cortisol levels, screens suppressing melatonin production, or activities giving us social jetlag. When that happens, our bodies end up receiving instructions to stay awake instead of climb into bed, which brings on the second wind.
“A second wind is usually caused by a flux of dopamine in the brain,” says Nicole Avena, Ph.D., associate professor of neuroscience at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. “Dopamine counteracts the sleep-enacting hormone adenosine, keeping you awake for longer.”
Dopamine preventing sleep can be triggered by multiple things, including:
- Nighttime events or social functions
- Vigorous exercise late in the day
- Watching intense television shows or movies
- Stimulating conversation or company
Revenge bedtime procrastination, or the tendency to delay your wind-down routine even if you know you’re ready for bed, has also become a prominent reason why people miss their sleep window and experience a second wind.
How to fall asleep after catching a second wind
Dim the lights
“Keep the lights dim in the hours before going to bed, as light exposure at night can cue the circadian system that it’s time to be awake and alert, rather than prepare for sleep,” Troxel says.
According to the CDC, the circadian clock is most sensitive to light about two hours before your usual bedtime, so keeping lights on past this point could amplify your second wind. To encourage your body to feel sleepy:
- Dim all of your overhead lights
- Sit at least six feet away from your television
- Use blue-light blockers or install f.lux software, which adjusts your computer screens based on the time of day
- Steer clear of your cell phone in the one to two hours before bedtime
Troxel recommends families set up a central charging station where everyone retires their phones at night, so that phones aren’t in bedrooms. “Your phone can recharge overnight, just as your body can recharge with sleep,” she says.
Have a magnesium-rich snack
Magnesium may counteract elevated cortisol levels due to stress that might trigger a second wind before bed and also helps our muscles relax. “Eating a magnesium-rich snack may help you fall asleep faster and wake up feeling more refreshed,” Avena says.
Some examples of simple snacks that are packed with magnesium include:
- Nuts, like almonds and cashews
- Low-fat yogurt
- Whole grains such as oats
- Pumpkin seeds
- Leafy greens such as spinach
“Sugar gives us energy — and that’s the opposite of what we need to fall asleep — so avoid nuts that are honey-roasted or caramelized, as well as high-sugar oat bars or yogurts,” Avena says.
Cozy up under a weighted blanket
Weighted blankets use deep-pressure stimulation to essentially swaddle the body, simulating the sensation of touch — à la acupressure or massage. These blankets are thought to induce a relaxation response by both encouraging the production of calming hormones, like oxytocin, and discouraging stress hormone production (peace out, cortisol!).
Take deep breaths
“Making breath-work a part of your nightly routine can signal to your body it’s time to rest,” Avena says. Slow, deep breathing acts as a light switch, switching off your sympathetic (fight-or-flight) nervous system and turning on your parasympathetic (rest-and-digest). The result? A slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and a body and mind ready to snooze.
Avena recommends 4-7-8 breathing: Breathe in for four seconds, hold your breath for seven seconds and breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds. Repeat for three to four rounds at a time.
Let it be
If you catch a second wind, avoid the trap of catastrophic thinking about the consequences of not sleeping — that will only keep you awake longer, Troxel says. Instead, pep talk yourself with statements like, “It’s not the end of the world if I have one night of bad sleep. I’ll get back on track tomorrow.”
When you finally do feel sleepy again, that’s your cue to go to bed. “It will take as long as it takes and the less you stress about it, the sooner sleep will come,” Troxel says.
How to prevent a second wind from happening in the first place
Maintain a consistent bedtime
Maintaining a consistent bedtime allows your circadian rhythm to follow a timeline. “Dopamine will be released in the brain at the same time, every day, if this is made a habit,” Avena says. “You can prevent your body from releasing dopamine before bed if you go to sleep at the same time every day.”
Do higher-stress activities earlier in the day
Cortisol overload at night can prevent us from falling asleep at our scheduled time and lead to a second wind. “By front-loading your more stressful work at the beginning or middle of the day, you can prevent cortisol spikes at nighttime,” Avena says. “This will leave you feeling more accomplished, less stressed out and allow for a better night’s sleep.”
Avoid taking naps
Naps can be detrimental to our normal sleep schedule by throwing off our circadian rhythm. “By taking a nap, you run the risk of resetting your circadian rhythm, leading to more energy later in the day and an irregular bedtime,” Avena says. It’s ultimately best to get the proper amount of sleep at night so that you don’t feel the need for naps.
Set a wind-down alarm
Even though the best way to avoid experiencing a second wind is to stick to a consistent bedtime and wake-up time, many of us only think to set an alarm to wake us up.
“To avoid the night ‘slipping away’ and a second wind kicking in, set an alarm for bedtime too,” Troxel says. “The bedtime alarm should be set at least an hour before your desired bedtime as a signal that it’s time to start winding down and avoiding activities that are too stimulating.” Think: work, exercise, heavy convos, doomscrolling.
Give the changes you make time to work
Putting a nighttime ritual in place that will keep second winds to a minimum requires trial and error. “Don’t force a ritual upon yourself and expect it to work within a day,” Avena says. “Good things take time and practice—if a technique aimed at helping you sleep better still isn’t working after two weeks, move onto a new one.”