And just like that, you’re awake, and it seems impossible to go back to sleep. You roll over to check the time, but there is little need. You already know it’s about 3 am, because you wake up at 3 am every night!
The average person wakes up three to four times a night, but they usually fall straight back to sleep. So, what happens if you have trouble falling asleep at this time of night?
Why do we struggle to fall asleep after 3 am?
Despite being one of the quietest times of the day, 3-4 am is a busy time for your body as it resets itself for another day ahead. By then, we have had a good chunk of deep sleep and our sleep hormones, like melatonin, are starting to wane, and the hormones that keep us alert, like cortisol, serotonin, and testosterone, are starting to stir.
By 3 or 4 am, our bodies have gone through the deeper stages of the sleep cycle and have started to go through the rapid eye movement (REM) and final stages of light sleep. If we suddenly wake up during the lighter stages, our bodies don’t feel as tired compared to when we wake up during a deeper stage of sleep.
Why are 3 am wake-ups a problem?
3 am wake-ups can be a problem because they interrupt the sleep cycle and prevent you from getting quality deep sleep and REM sleep.
What’s the name for waking up in the middle of the night?
Nocturnal awakening is the name for the annoying moment you wake up in the middle of the night. Nocturnal awakening can break up the nightly sleep cycles and it’s more common than you think. If your nighttime awakenings are becoming a regular occurrence and you have trouble sleeping, there may be a few reasons why.
Reasons for waking up at 3 am
Sleep Environment Disturbances
Our sleeping environment is critical for a good night’s sleep. As a person shifts towards the lighter stages of sleep (around 3 am,) they are more likely to be roused by lights and sounds. Outside noises and lights emitted from windows, mobile phones and televisions can prompt you awake. Try to leave phones and electronic devices out of the bedroom and close all doors and windows to create an easier environment to sleep in.
When people say “something” is keeping them up at night, they can mean it. Sleep reactivity is where people experience disrupted sleep due to something stressful. Stress from certain responsibilities like money, careers and parenting can cause people to focus on their thoughts and keep them awake.
If you find yourself lying awake in the middle of the night with panicked responsibilities, keep a pen and notepad beside the bed to write down any racing thoughts to help get them out of your system so you can relax back to sleep.
Mental conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), major depression and schizophrenia can also be responsible for disrupted sleep. Anxiety disorders and severe phobias can also keep people awake at night.
Unwanted side effects from chronic illnesses can also cause nighttime waking:
Pain and Mobility Issues
Discomfort can make it harder for people to reposition themselves comfortably to return to a restful sleep.
Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA)
OSA and airway diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) can disrupt breathing and ‘jolt’ people awake through the night.
Hormones can regulate our sleep patterns and any kind of hormone imbalances or disorders can influence our quality of sleep.
Late-night Bathroom Breaks
Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night with the sudden urge to pee? If nature calls, listen to your body and go to the bathroom; it’s hard to fall asleep with a full bladder.
Nocturia is a condition that involves frequently waking up at night to urinate. If limiting your liquid intake in the lead-up to bed is not making a difference, consult your doctor.
Sometimes, the 3 am wake-up can be a force of habit. This is common for shift workers or parents of young children who are learning to sleep through the night. With a stable routine, your body will gradually adjust to waking up to a new time.
Aging and Menopause
As we grow older, we experience age-related sleep changes and hormonal changes. Hormone imbalances can cause early morning awakenings that coincide with night sweats, hot flashes and insomnia.
Older people are encouraged to seek medical advice if they are having trouble sleeping, as being awake in the middle of the night can increase the risk of falls.
How do I stop waking up at 3 am?
Some essential tips to help you improve sleep include:
- Maintaining a stable routine by going to bed and waking up around the same time every night.
- Sleeping in a dark room free of disruptive technology or try wearing an eye mask to block out light.
- Avoiding eating 2-3 hours before bed, as an active GI tract and high blood sugar can prevent deep sleep.
- Taking a warm bath to help you wind down before bedtime.
- Avoiding caffeine in the evening.
- Reducing screen time in the evening.
- Avoiding alcohol. Whilst it may help induce sleepiness it can disrupt sleep in the second part of the night as the body tries to process the alcohol.
- Exercising during the day.
- Avoiding long naps in the afternoon or evening.
Should I see a doctor about my sleep patterns?
Waking up at 3 am is more common than you think, but if you find yourself waking in the middle of the night on a regular basis and struggling to get back to sleep, despite trying the home remedies above, it might be time to visit a doctor. Sleep disruptions can seep into all aspects of your life, so it’s important to speak to a medical professional.
Please note: This article is not to be used as medical advice. If you have any worries about your sleep health, speak to a medical professional. This article may contain affiliate links.