See if this sounds familiar: You wake up in the middle of the night and look at your phone to check the time…but you already know it’s too early to be awake.
According to sleep expert Michael Breus, Ph.D., one of the most common questions he gets is why do I keep waking up in the middle of the night — at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. — and what can I do about it?
If you keep experiencing a 3 a.m. wake up, welcome to the club! You’re in good company. Nighttime awakenings are quite common, and usually NBD — as long as you’re able to easily fall back asleep. In fact, according to experts, most people wake up several times during the night, whether from noise, the room being too hot or too cold, shifting sleep positions, or to use the bathroom, without remembering it in the morning.
You may still be wondering: Why do I keep waking up at 3 a.m. or at 4 a.m.? While your awakenings may be surprisingly precise —right down to the minute night after night — the time itself really isn’t significant, according to psychologist and sleep expert Alexa Kane, Psy.D. There are, however, a few reasons why it may be happening.
4 Reasons Why You Keep Waking Up at Night
Listen, we get it: Repeatedly enduring a 3 a.m. wake up when you should be sleeping is stressful. But while it may seem like you're waking up at 3 a.m. for no reason, there most likely is a reason. Assuming you have no underlying medical conditions, here are four possible reasons why you might find your eyes open at 3 or 4 a.m., and sleep experts’ tips on how to sleep through the night.
Reason #1: Your blood sugar is low
When someone asks me, Why do I keep waking up at 4 a.m., or 2:30 a.m., “the first question I ask them is, ‘When was the last time you ate?’” says Breus. “Often, they’ve finished their last meal at 7 p.m.; now it’s 3 in the morning—that’s 8 hours later—so guess what? They’re out of fuel.” When your brain senses your tank is close to empty, it spikes cortisol to help jumpstart the metabolic process, get you hungry, and wake you up to eat. “That can be part of what’s going on,” says Breus.
How to stay asleep: “Don’t go to bed hungry,” says Breus. To be clear, you shouldn’t go to sleep with a full belly — the body isn’t meant to digest food lying down — but you don’t want to be starving either. "About 30 minutes before bedtime, think about having a 250-calorie snack… and here’s the key: It should be 70% complex carbs and 30% protein. An apple with some nut butter would be a perfect type of snack. Or a non-sugary cereal like oatmeal with some almond milk."
“Another option is a teaspoon of raw honey,” says Breus. “I’ve found that raw honey is difficult for the body to metabolize and helps keep your blood sugar stable longer. Many of my patients can make it through the night simply with a teaspoon of honey.”
If you don’t want to eat, consider having a cup of guava-leaf tea. “It’s a little medicinal tasting, but the literature has shown it can help stabilize blood sugar,” says Breus. “Some of my patients have that 30 minutes before bed and it seems to help.”
Note: If you have diabetes, you’ll want to check with your doctor to make sure your blood sugar is properly controlled throughout the night. Waking up often could signal that your hormones or blood glucose levels are fluctuating.
Reason #2: You’re shifting from deep sleep to lighter sleep.
The length of each stage varies throughout the night. You have longer deep sleep earlier in the evening and longer REM sleep — lighter sleep when dreams occur — as morning approaches. Your arousal threshold (meaning how easy it is for something to wake you up) varies depending on what sleep stage you’re in.
Once you’re past the deep-sleep stage (the first four to four-and-a-half hours you’re asleep) and into lighter sleep, you’re more easily awakened. So, if you turn in at, say, 11 p.m., according to James C. Findley, Ph.D., clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Penn Sleep Center in Philadelphia, by 3 in the morning you’re mostly out of deep sleep and shifting into longer periods of lighter sleep. And since your brain is more active during light sleep (the REM stage), it’s more likely that you’ll wake up.
How to stay asleep: During lighter sleep, you’re more apt to wake up from environmental factors like noise from a passing truck or your bedroom being too hot or stuffy. Ideally, your bedroom should be dark, comfortably cool, and quiet. Consider using earplugs or an eye mask to block out unwelcome noise and light or cracking the window to let in some cooler air.
Interestingly, says Breus, between 2 and 3 a.m. is when your core body temperature, which is determined by your circadian rhythm, stops dropping and starts rising back up, which also puts you in a slightly lighter phase of sleep. “If your environment is too warm, if it’s not nice and cold, you’re almost assured to wake up,” Breus says.
Reason #3: You’re anxious or stressed.
Stress may be something thing to consider if your 3 a.m. awakenings are a fairly recent phenomenon. If there’s something in your life causing anxiety or worry (like, oh, I don’t know, a global pandemic?), or uncertainty surrounding your job, relationships, health, or finances, that could very well be a cause.
Cortisol, which is best known as the body’s “stress hormone,” also plays a pivotal role in managing our sleep “architecture.” Studies of our circadian rhythm—your 24-hour body clock—have shown that cortisol levels naturally begin to increase between 2 and 3 a.m. If you’re already stressed or anxious, and your cortisol levels are naturally rising, it’s not surprising that your eyes would pop open at this hour. When your body’s sympathetic nervous symptom kicks into gear, the increase in heart rate and blood pressure also may make it harder to fall back asleep.
How to stay asleep: The key to falling back asleep when you keep waking up during the night is encouraging a transition from a state of anxiety or frustration to relaxation. The calmer you are, the quicker you’ll fall back asleep. Relaxation techniques, like deep breathing, and proper sleep hygiene can help you quiet your mind and fall back asleep.
Reason #4: You’re experiencing age-related sleep issues.
Aging influences our sleep cycles. As we get older, we spend less time in deep sleep, so we’re more prone to awakenings from things like noise and light. In addition, our sleep-wake times may also shift: Typically, as we get older, we go to bed and wake up earlier than we did in our younger years. We may also develop a medical condition that impacts our sleep or take medications that alter our sleeping patterns.
How to stay asleep: Discuss any significant sleep changes with your doctor, especially insomnia or odd sleep awakenings, to rule out medical issues like sleep apnea, menopause-related hot flashes, diabetes, or thyroid dysfunction, which can cause nighttime awakenings.
When Waking Up at Night Becomes an Issue
Waking up during the night is usually harmless — as long as you’re able to easily doze off again. And of course, for whatever reason, we all have stretches where our sleep is troubled or restless.
That said, persistent sleep difficulties — which include difficulty falling asleep, difficulty staying asleep, and poor sleep quality — that occur at least three nights a week for three months or more and interfere with your daily activities, can be defined as chronic insomnia, a medically diagnosable sleep disorder.
If this sounds like you, it’s important to talk to your doctor, who may run some lab tests or suggest a sleep study to find out what’s going on. Although there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to better sleep, preparing yourself for good, quality sleep with a set of healthy habits called sleep hygiene, and even eating foods during the day that are shown to calm the nervous system, will set the stage for a more restful night and help you sleep more soundly.
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