You are feeling tired and eager to get into bed and snuggle up on your millet pillow. You soon fall asleep only to awaken several hours later and much too early. You look at the clock and see it’s 3 am. This is not the first time this has happened. In fact, it often feels like you have an internal alarm clock set to 3 am, and you can’t change the time.
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone. The 3 am wake-up call is a phenomenon that happens to many people. It can feel very frustrating when you still feel tired and struggle to fall back asleep. You have likely wondered why this keeps happening and how you can stop it.
When this happens once and a while and you don’t have difficulty falling back asleep, then it likely isn’t anything to be concerned about. However, if it happens frequently, it could be insomnia.
Though many people who wake up in the night report 3 am as the wake-up time, there isn’t an overly exciting reason as to why. Instead, there are a few different theories about why it may be happening to you.
Possible reason #1: Medication
Certain medications can disrupt your sleep. For example, over-the-counter cold medicines, antidepressants, beta-blockers, and corticosteroids can cause you to wake up in the middle of the night or make it difficult to get a full night's rest. If you feel like your medications are disrupting your sleep, you should speak with your doctor about alternatives.
Possible reason #2: Stress
Stress can be a significant sleep disrupter! It can make it hard to fall asleep and stay asleep. When you are under stress and dealing with high levels of anxiety, it can activate your sympathetic nervous system, which can then jolt you awake in the night. In addition to being awoken, your blood pressure and heart rate may rise, making it challenging to fall back asleep. Cortisol levels are often lowest at around 3 am and then continue to rise. However, if you are waking up in a state of fight-or-flight, your cortisol levels may be spiking earlier than they should be. By better managing stress, you can prevent these abrupt wake-up calls.
Possible reason #3: Insomnia
Insomnia is a sleep condition characterized by difficulty sleeping. Those with insomnia may have trouble falling asleep or may wake up in the middle of the night on a regular basis. Research suggests that up to 20% of the adult population has insomnia, which increases to 40% in older adults. A natural sleep aid or sleep tea can help with insomnia.
Possible reason #4: Low blood sugar
Your body still needs fuel, even while sleeping. As you sleep, your body is doing major maintenance and repair. When it starts to run out of fuel, it will cause cortisol levels to spike and get your metabolism going. This makes you feel hungry and can then wake you up. Many people try to have their last meal at dinner. Though this may work for some, some bodies just don’t want to go 8 hours without food. If you wake up hungry, consider a light bedtime snack of about 250-calories. Look for complex carbs and protein foods, like an apple with nut butter or oatmeal with almond milk. If you have a sensitive stomach, sleep expert Michael Breus recommends a teaspoon of raw honey before bed.
These four reasons are most commonly discussed by sleep experts today, but additional theories do exist. The historical approach suggests that this is human conditioning coming from the Industrial Revolution. During this time, people had two periods of sleep, which disrupted circadian rhythm, which is why many of us still struggle with sleep. The spiritual belief is that the spiritual world is trying to get our attention. It may be a guardian angel or a spirit looking to send a message. Alternatively, you may have astro projected during deep sleep and are coming back into your body.
Though the reason may differ, for many the timing remains the same. This is believed to be due to shared patterns in sleep cycles. When you are sleeping lightly, you are easier to wake. Those experiencing this may find they are in their light sleep cycle each night around 3 am. The length of your sleep cycles will vary throughout the night (read more on our sleep stages blog). Typically, you will pass your deep sleep stage in the first 4.5 hours of sleep, leading you into your light sleep stage.
You are less likely to be awoken while in deep or REM sleep, and you are also less likely to be in these sleep cycles at 3 am. Instead, if you fall asleep around 10:30 – 11 pm, you will reach light sleep around 3 am. When light sleepers enter a light sleep stage, they can easily be awoken. For example, it could be a dog barking outside or the need to use the washroom.
For those who wake up in the middle of the night, after they have fallen asleep, the time is usually familiar. It may not be 3 but could instead be 1 or 2 am. This is because of where they are in their sleep cycle and when they are in light sleep. Though seeing the same time on the clock each night may make you suspicious, it isn’t that deep. According to Alexa Kane, sleep expert and psychologist, the timing isn’t very significant but your body may be conditioned to it.
The fact that you are waking up isn’t the real issue. We all do but rarely remember these moments as we swiftly fall back asleep. However, it does become a problem when you can’t fall back asleep. According to Dr. Kane, it will be harder to go back to sleep when you wake in fight-or-flight mode. This is triggered by stress but can lead to insomnia.
Preventing the Dreaded 3 am Wake-Up
To stop yourself from waking up in the night, you need to figure out what is causing it. For example, stop drinking fluids before bed if you wake up to use the restroom. If noises outside your home wake you up, try earplugs or using a white noise machine. If it is medication or a health condition, you should speak to your doctor. Finally, if you wake up in fight-or-flight, reduce stress before bed. For example, try spending time on your meditation cushion and doing some deep breathing exercises.
You should also keep the temperature of your room low. Not only will this help you fall asleep, but it will also help you stay asleep. For most people, their core temperature will stop dropping around 2 to 3 am and then begin to rise. However, if your room and bedding are too warm, it will cause your temperature to rise faster and wake you up.
To prevent these nightly occurrences, remain consistent with your sleep-wake schedule. Try to go to bed at the same time every night and wake up at the same time each day. Consistency is crucial for getting into a healthy sleep routine. Chronic insomnia often occurs in those with poor sleep hygiene and inconsistent sleep routines. Start to wind down an hour before bed, and only keep your bed for sleep.
If you believe stress contributes, keep a notepad beside your bed. A 2018 study found that when participants kept a notepad beside their bed and wrote down everything on their to-do list and the things that were stressing them out, they got more sleep. This practice helps your mind let go of the busy thoughts and allows you to rest.
How to Fall Back Sleep
If you have woken up, don’t immediately stress about your sleep – this will only make it worse. Instead, give yourself about 15 minutes to fall back asleep. Think about your cozy millet pillow, plush duvet, and supportive mattress. Then, you can focus on your breath and wait for sleep to come. And if it doesn’t, get up!
Sleep experts suggest getting out of bed when you can’t fall back asleep. We want to build a strong association with our mind that we are sleeping when we are in bed. The bed is not a place to stress, worry or think of to-do lists. Instead, get up and go to another room in your house. Turn on a dim light, read a boring book, sit up and listen to a podcast, or spend some time on your meditation pillow. Various relaxation exercises can help calm your mind and body, so you start to feel sleepy again. Then, when you feel like you could fall back asleep, go back to bed.
If the problem persists and you are experiencing daytime fatigue, foggy-headedness, or difficulty concentrating, you should speak with a sleep expert. They can help determine what is causing you to wake up in the night and ways to get back to a full night's sleep.