Waking up with heart racing: causes and treatment

October 16, 2020 4 mins read
Waking up with heart racing: causes and treatment

There’s no doubt that waking up with a racing heart can be a scary experience. Waking up in the middle of in the night with your heart pounding or rising in the morning with unsettling heart palpitations can be frightening, but is usually not serious.

We’ve compiled this guide to help you identify why it’s happening and how you can prevent it.

What causes waking up with a racing heart?

Lifestyle habits like heavy drinking, medical conditions like diabetes, and sleep disorders like sleep apnea raise your heart rate and can cause palpitations.

You could also be waking up with a racing heart because of one of the following:

Anxiety

Are you under pressure at work? Have you spent sleepless nights thinking about a family issue? Stress hormones such as cortisol are released when you feel anxious, and the feeling of worry can make your heart beat faster than usual.

If you have anxiety, you might also experience these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling worried all the time
  • Insomnia
  • Difficulty enjoying rest

Caffeine

Feeling nervous, anxious and unable to focus on one activity at a time have all been listed as symptoms related to consuming too much caffeine. The stimulation that caffeine brings can also make your heart beat irregularly when you wake up.

Nightmares

Nightmares (and night terrors, which are a type of sleep disorder) can wake you up suddenly, with your heart racing. When you wake from a nightmare, you might feel sweaty, uncomfortable and fearful with your heart beating uncontrollably.

Lack of sleep

One of the many negative side effects of sleep deprivation is an increased heart rate. Staying up all night can leave you feeling sleep deprived. If you miss more nights of restful sleep, then the chances of you waking up with a racing heart will increase.

Sleep apnea

If you have sleep apnea, you experience brief breathing pauses throughout the night because of a blockage in your air tubes. This causes a dip in oxygen levels in your body which can put extra strain on your heart.

Medical reasons

Diabetes, anaemia and atrial fibrillation (AFib) are all medical conditions that can cause you to wake up with a racing heart. With diabetes, the drop in blood sugar levels can cause your heart to beat faster. A lack of iron in the blood causes anaemia which can then trigger a pounding heart while AFib is a condition where the heart’s electrical signals are out of sync, resulting in an irregular heartbeat.

How to calm down a racing heart

When you wake up with your heart pounding, follow these tips to get your heartbeat back to normal:

  • Don’t panic; it will only make your palpitations worse.
  • Breathe deeply and try to relax until your palpitations pass.
  • Splash your face with cold water to stimulate your autonomic nervous system (ANS), which controls your heart rate.

In the long term, making a few changes to your daily habits can reduce waking up with a racing heart. Follow the techniques listed below to see a change:

Relaxation techniques

Guided meditation helps you to relax before bed, which can improve the quality of your sleep. You can listen to sleep music or binaural beats (these mimic the delta waves released during deep sleep) to ease your transition into dreamland. Using essential oils like lavender in aromatherapy has also been found to ease tension built up from a busy day and alleviates anxiety.

Reduce stimulants

Caffeine can keep you alert for long periods of time and cause a racing heart. Try to limit your coffee intake to 8 hours before bed to promote better sleep. Similarly, too much alcohol can increase your heart rate.

Stay hydrated

Keep a water bottle on your bedside table. Studies have found that dehydration puts a strain on the heart, resulting in heart palpitations.

Regular exercise

Cardio exercises like jogging, boxing and skipping all raise your heart rate, strengthening the muscle and making it less susceptible to heart palpitations in your sleep or when you wake up in the morning.

Tests for a racing heart

There are three tests that a doctor can conduct to see if your heart palpitations are linked to a medical condition.

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): a technician will put a device on your chest to record the electrical signals that your heart makes.
  • Holter monitoring: you’ll wear a small device for a day or two to track your heart rate and rhythm.
  • Echocardiogram (Echo): this test picks up sound waves of your heart to create moving visuals through ultrasound technology. Your heart specialist is then able to see the size and shape of your heart.

When to seek medical advice

So you’ve tried meditation, yoga and cutting out coffee and smoking before bedtime and you’re still waking up with your heart racing? It may be time to visit a doctor to ensure that there aren’t any underlying medical conditions. Your doctor can also suggest a change in your daily habits or prescribe short- or long-term medication to ease your symptoms.