GASP! Is that why I keep waking up gasping?

27th November 2018

Read time is about 9 mins

GASP! Is that why I keep waking up gasping?

You’re so comfortable. The room temperature is just right, the mattress is a Goldilocks-approved level of firmness and the pillows make you feel like you’re sleeping in a pile of clouds. Before you even realize you’ve fallen asleep, you’re startled awake, a loud gasp escaping your lips. Sound familiar?

Most of us have experienced that scary feeling of waking up gasping for air. Have you ever wondered why this happens? There are many reasons and/or conditions that could be behind it, and each time you experience it, it could be caused by something different. This week on the blog, let’s look at the 6 most common reasons you might wake up gasping.


If you have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, you have an increased risk of experiencing an anxiety attack at night. People often forget that they can occur during sleep without any trigger, so even for someone who has anxiety attacks during the day, the experience of being jolted awake, gasping or choking with your heart racing, can be very scary.

Having anxiety also brings about an increase in hypnagogic jerks, which is the second cause of gasping during sleep that we’ll explore today.


A hypnagogic jerk is when you wake up feeling like you’ve been falling, or as though you’re about to hit the ground. Nearly everyone experiences these harmless jerks from time to time. There is not a lot of research yet into what causes them, but it seems to occur at the transitional moment between wakefulness and sleep. Due to this, researchers suspect that there could be a link between hypnagogic jerks and caffeine and other stimulants, as they inhibit you from reaching deep sleep. Similarly, exercising too late at night can confuse the brain and hinder your sleep, possibly leading to more frequent jerks.


Another prevalent cause of gasping during sleep is gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), more commonly known as acid reflux. GERD is one of the leading causes of disturbed sleep among adults according to NSF. This condition causes stomach acid to flow up the esophagus, in some cases right up to the larynx or throat. When you’re laying down (like you are when you’re sleeping), the flow can increase, making the symptoms of acid reflux worse. Experiencing reflux at night can cause you to wake up choking, coughing or gasping.


Along with snoring, gasping is one of the primary symptoms of sleep apnea. When we sleep, our throat muscles relax, which can narrow the airways that allow oxygen to flow to our lungs. The brain recognizes that you aren’t getting enough air and will briefly rouse you, to restore the flow of oxygen. You may snort or choke in your sleep, and very commonly, you may gasp for air.

This can happen hundreds of times a night, preventing you from reaching deep phase of sleep, without you realizing it. Even though the episodes are very brief, the frequent disruption to your sleep can have big consequences. Having untreated sleep apnea increases your risk for heart disease, high blood pressure, memory and mental wellness problems. Even obesity has been linked to OSA..


Individuals with asthma are highly likely to experience gasping at night. In fact, some people who don’t have symptoms of asthma during the day, may find they experience them at night. This is known as nocturnal asthma. At night, the hormones that help to regulate asthma symptoms are at their lowest level. When these levels fall, you are more likely to wake up gasping or wheezing. In particular, cortisol levels have been linked to the gasing symptom; at night, your body releases heavier levels of this hormone, which can cause inflammation in your airways and negatively impact your breathing.


Whether due to illness or allergies, when you’re congested, your breathing can be significantly impaired. Have you ever wondered why it is that symptoms seem to be worse at night? When you’re laying down, nasal secretions tend to accumulate in your airways; this accumulation obstructs your throat and thus your  breathing, causing you to wake up gasping or choking.

Aside from the common cold, allergies to things like dust could also be the problem. Dust bunnies can easily hide under the bed and if you have a pet who sleeps in your bedroom, pet dander tends to get everywhere. When your allergies are flared up, you’ll often end up congested, and experience the same obstructed breathing as if you had a cold.


Does any of this sound familiar to you? The most important thing to consider with any of these conditions is whether they’ve happened once, if it’s occasional, or if it’s chronic. Any condition that is frequently disrupting your sleep should be addressed. Hypnagogic jerks themselves are harmless, but if they’re happening all of the time, it could be worth discussing with your doctor. Similarly, most people will experience acid reflux at some point in their lives, but if it has become chronic, your doctor should know about it.

Never underestimate the power of lifestyle changes. Putting a good bedtime routine in place, avoiding blue light and electronic screens at night, and skipping caffeine in the late afternoon and evening can do wonders to improve the quality of your sleep. Some people may also benefit from a sleep study, which will give you a more complete picture of your sleep and rest quality. Our sleep experts will analyze your results and provide you with a personalized sleep solution!


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