Waking up at 3am? Here’s Why and How to Stop It

Welcome to the 3am club. If you’ve found yourself this far then you’ve probably found yourself restlessly lying awake in the middle of the night at the same time.

For most of us, 3am is the strange hour this happens, while for others it might be 1, 2 or 4am. Regardless of when it occurs for you, it can get extremely frustrating knowing your beauty sleep will be interrupted at some point in time during the night. 

The good news is that it’s not uncommon; most people actually wake up several times at night without noticing because they’re able to fall back asleep quickly. While this is harmless, it can become a problem if it turns into a regular occurrence and you find it difficult to drift back asleep quickly.

We spoke to GO Healthy naturopath Inge Verstraeten, to find out more about the causes and solutions for waking up in the middle of the night.

Why do I wake up at the same time every night?

The process of waking up during the night and not being able to fall back asleep is called ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’. 

“It happens when you are coming out of your deep sleep (stage 3) and move into the final stage called REM sleep,” Verstraeten tells Bed Threads Journal. “You go through several sleep cycles each night, but in the successive cycles the duration of stage 3 decreases, and the time you spent in REM sleep increases.

"As the REM phases last longer and your brain is more active during the REM phase in the early hours of the morning, it only takes a little nudge to wake you up at 3am.”

There are several factors that can trigger sleep maintenance insomnia. 

1. Stress

It’s no surprise stress is one of the most prominent factors. 

“When you are stressed, your sympathetic nervous system is active and produces stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. These are the hormones that keep you alert, and naturally start to increase around 3am,” Verstraeten explains. “If you are already on the brink of waking up, this rise in stress hormones may just be enough to make that happen and stop you from falling asleep again.”

2. Drop in blood sugar 

A drop in blood sugar levels can mimic that of stress. “The brain is highly active at night processing memories and repairing and regenerating, which depends highly on glucose for energy. 

“Because you go for a long period without food while sleeping, a drop of blood sugar levels occurs. In response, the body produces stress hormones to raise blood sugar levels again; but unfortunately, this may also cause you to wake up and not be able to fall asleep.”

3. Hormonal fluctuations

Hormonal fluctuations during a woman's menstrual cycle and menopause can also affect sleep patterns. 

“A sharp decline in progesterone just before the onset of a woman’s period can make it difficult for some women to stay asleep during the night. This is due to the fact that progesterone stimulates the release of GABA, a neurotransmitter that helps promote calm and relaxation.

With a premenstrual drop in progesterone and thus GABA, the brain becomes more active and that can cause sleep maintenance insomnia before the onset of a period,” Verstraeten explains. “Oestrogen, on the other hand, is an excitatory hormone that peaks mid-cycle and can keep women awake.” This is because oestrogen is also inversely related to melatonin.

“When oestrogen increases, melatonin decreases. So, depending on the time of the month, different hormones can interrupt a good night’s sleep.”

4. Ageing

“Melatonin production declines with age, which is one of the reasons why older people have a changed sleep pattern, spend less time in deep sleep and are more likely to wake in the early hours of the morning.”

5. Lifestyle choices

You’ve heard time and time again to put screens away at least an hour before bed, yet how many of us actually listen? 

“The brain produces melatonin in response to darkness to help make you feel tired and go to sleep,” Verstraeten says. Light, such as blue light from electronic devices, can block melatonin production and shorten the effect it has in the body, resulting in your natural alarm clock waking you at 3am.

Other lifestyle choices that may affect this include smoking, alcohol and caffeine consumption late at night, eating too closely to bedtime, lack of exercise (or too much intense exercise before bed) and taking too many naps during the day.

6. Underlying health condition

It could be a sign of an underlying health condition, according to Healthline. Some of these include:

  • Sleep apnea
  • Arthritis
  • Depression
  • Neuropathy
  • Enlarged prostate
  • Restless leg syndrome
  • Gastrointestinal reflux disease

Seek advice from your GP before self-diagnosing yourself or making any diet or lifestyle changes.

How to go back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night

Unfortunately, a magic pill isn’t going to fix your problem. Instead, it’s about looking at your overall sleep hygiene and making sure your bedroom’s environment is one that promotes peace and tranquility. 

When you find yourself lying awake in bed, Verstraeten suggests to allow yourself 15-20 minutes to fall back asleep. 

“If you don’t fall asleep in that timeframe, get out of bed and do something that promotes sleep, such as deep breathing exercises, meditation, have a warm cup of milk or read a book (not on an electronic device). 

“What you shouldn’t do is start watching the clock or worry about having to get up in a couple of hours,” she warns. “Not only will this increase your stress hormones, but if you stay in bed and start worrying, your brain starts to associate being in bed with worrying instead of sleeping. Getting up breaks that association, and doing something that promotes sleep will make it easier to fall asleep again.”

Other things you could try include:

Eating a small amount of protein 

Examples include a spoonful of nut butter, a few pieces of meat or a hard-boiled egg as this will help stabilise blood sugar levels enough to fall back asleep. Just avoid eating refined carbohydrates as it will cause your blood sugar levels to spike and drop again. 

A guided visualisation

Close your eyes and use your imagination to place yourself somewhere calm and soothing. Go to your happy place, or envision your troubles floating away from you. The key is to stop your mind from dwelling on your anxiety about being awake. Refocus on relaxing thoughts.

Consider a natural sleep supplement

Consider a supplement with magnesium or valerian 30-minutes before sleep. Magnesium supports the nervous system and can help relieve stress. 

6 tips to stay asleep during the night

Creating a healthy bedtime routine will help lull you to sleep and keep you asleep, so you wake up feeling refreshed. Here are six things to consider before winding down at night, according to Verstraeten:

1. Develop a bedtime routine. Allow yourself 30 minutes to wind down and go to sleep at the same time each day. 

2. Switch off the TV and other electronic devices 30-60 minutes before sleep. 

3. Keep the bedroom as dark as possible throughout the night.

4. Avoid having caffeinated drinks in the afternoon. Caffeine is a stimulant and may keep you awake. 

5. Avoid alcohol in the evening. Although alcohol is a sedative that can make you feel sleepy, it can disturb your sleep cycle and cause fragmented, non-restorative sleep

6. Don’t have large meals at night. A high-protein, high-fat meal takes longer to digest and can lead to sleep disturbances, indigestion or reflux, which can also keep you awake.

When should you go seek professional help?

“If you are waking at 3am on a regular basis and can’t fall asleep again, and this is preventing you from feeling rested and healthy, it’s important that you talk to your healthcare professional. They can also investigate the underlying causes and check if a medical condition is the underlying cause for your sleep problems.”

Insomnia keeping you up at night? Try these natural remedies.

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