Mental Health / Sleep

7 Reasons Why You Keep Waking up at 3 A.M.

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waking up at 3 a.m.

Written by Mona Freund
Reviewed by Raj Dasgupta, MD

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There’s nothing lonelier—and more frustrating—than waking up in the middle of the night. It’s too early to start your day, too late to repeat your bedtime routine, too liminal a time to do anything but stare at the ceiling and contemplate life. If this sounds familiar, you can take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone. Waking up at 3 a.m. (or 2:45, 3:30, or whatever constitutes “middle of the night” for you) is a common phenomenon—and it should be pretty easy to make sure it doesn’t happen too often.

The Ness Well Tip:

3 a.m. is a great song. It’s not a great time to be awake. If you’re up in the middle of the night, put your phone or laptop away and take a few deep breaths. Count to four while breathing in, hold your breath for seven seconds, and count to eight while breathing out. This technique can calm anxiety and help you fall asleep again. If you’re still up after 20 minutes in the dark, get up and do a relaxing activity before getting back in bed. Either way, stop looking at your screen—this article will still be here in the morning. 

1. You’re Shifting Sleep Cycles

If you paid attention in biology class, you may know that people go through different sleep stages icon-trusted-source Sleep Foundation “Stages of Sleep” View Source every night. The stages of your sleep cycle are divided into Non-REM and REM with their percent of total sleep time (TST):

  • N1 (falling asleep, non-REM): 5-10% of total sleep time
  • N2 (light sleep, non-REM): 40-50% of total sleep time
  • N3 (deep sleep, non-REM): 20% of total sleep time
  • REM sleep: 20-25% of total sleep time

In healthy adults, the sleep cycle repeats itself every night. You’ll go through different light, deep, and REM phases as you sleep. The percent of each stage depends on a range of factors, including your age, past sleep patterns, your surroundings, and whether or not you’ve consumed alcohol. We tend to get more REM sleep closer to the morning.

What’s happening: When you’re transitioning to a lighter sleep cycle, you’re more likely to wake up from noise, temperature, or light changes.

What you can do: Create a sleep environment that stays consistent throughout the night. Temperature-wise, something between 60 to 67 degrees Fahrenheit icon-trusted-source Cleveland Clinic “What’s the Best Temperature for Sleep?” View Source is best. Find your sweet spot and set up your ideal temp before nodding off by turning on the AC, heat, running a fan, or cracking a window.  It’s also crucial to “wear breathable clothing at night to prevent your body from overheating,” says sleep expert Michael Bennett.  Anything from an old cotton t-shirt to fancy bamboo sleepwear should keep you cool. 

If outside light is an issue, invest in blackout curtains. If the light is coming from inside the house, take care of any stray flashes that could pop up when you’re trying to nod off.  Remember to either turn your phone off, put it in airplane mode, or put the screen side down before you go to bed so notifications or calls won’t wake you. Hide any other cables or devices that light up as well, or ban them from your bedroom altogether. Alternatively, a sleep mask can help block out unwanted light.

If you live near a loud street or have noisy neighbors, keep your windows closed and consider a white noise machine. A constant, pleasant hum may help you stay asleep even if your neighbors turn up the bass late into the night.

2. You’re Hungry

woman opening refrigerator at night
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Timing is important. This is true with all things, but your sleep schedule is particularly attuned to it. Leave too much time between your last meal of the day and bedtime, and hunger could wake you up. Eat too late, and heartburn or indigestion could disrupt your sleep icon-trusted-source National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Issues “Treatment for GER & GERD” View Source (or prevent you from falling asleep in the first place).

What’s happening: If it’s been more than eight hours since you had your last meal, your blood sugar could drop and wake up your body. Eating a heavy meal too close to bedtime isn’t the solution, though. On the contrary: Eating too much, too late in the day can cause acid reflux icon-trusted-source American Journal of Gastroenterology “Association between dinner-to-bed time and gastro-esophageal reflux disease” View Source , an inconsistent sleep pattern icon-trusted-source International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health “Does the Proximity of Meals to Bedtime Influence the Sleep of Young Adults? A Cross-Sectional Survey of University Students” View Source , and indigestion icon-trusted-source Cureus “Influence of Dietary Intake on Sleeping Patterns of Medical Students” View Source .

What you can do: Avoid high-intensity workouts close to your bedtime. This can make it harder for you to fall and stay asleep. If you prefer evening workouts, start them at least two hours before bedtime—this may actually help you sleep better icon-trusted-source European Journal of Applied Physiology “Effects of timing of moderate exercise in the evening on sleep and subsequent dietary intake in lean, young, healthy adults: randomized crossover study” View Source !

If you’re always waking up in the middle of the night with hunger pangs,  try to eat a dinner at least two to three hours before going to bed icon-trusted-source Cleveland Clinic “Is Eating Before Bed Bad for You?” View Source . And, if you’re still peckish after that, eat a small snack about an hour before tucking in. Just make sure it’s not too heavy or something that contains a lot of sugar, caffeine, or spice. A banana with nut butter or unsweetened yogurt should do the trick.

3. Your Diet Is Disrupting Your Sleep

man drinking coffee in front of laptop
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Eating dinner too early or too late may wake you up in the middle of the night. But there are other dietary choices that can contribute to poor sleep quality.

What’s happening: You know not to eat something heavy right before bed. But having coffee or caffeinated drinks late in the day can also negatively impact your sleep quality. So can alcohol and nicotine icon-trusted-source Sleep Medicine Reviews “Effects of nicotine on sleep during consumption, withdrawal and replacement therapy” View Source .

What you can do: Stop drinking caffeine about six hours before you go to bed icon-trusted-source Sleep Foundation “Caffene and Sleep” View Source . This gives your body enough time to metabolize it before you want to get some rest. 

If you like to have a glass of wine or coffee in the evening, but your sleep quality is suffering, consider weaning yourself. A recent study suggests that alcohol intake less than four hours before bedtime icon-trusted-source Sleep “Evening intake of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine: night-to-night associations with sleep duration and continuity among African Americans in the Jackson Heart Sleep Study” View Source can disrupt your sleep.

If you really need a pre-bedtime beverage, try water or a calming tea like peppermint or chamomile. Just make sure to use the bathroom before getting settled in bed—this way, your bladder won’t wake you up. 

4. You’re Stressed or Anxious

Thinking of that 8 a.m. call tomorrow morning with your boss? Having nightmares about forgetting to pick up your kids from school? And did you remember to pay off your credit card? Whatever it is that’s stressing you out, the feeling may get amplified in the middle of the night.

What’s happening: If you’re stressed or anxious about work, your family, or something that’s happened in the news, it can affect your sleep quality.

What you can do: Just don’t be stressed, right? If only that were the solution…

But for real, making conscious decisions to minimize your stress levels before bedtime may help you sleep through the night. Here are some things you can do to calm your nerves:

  • Turn off your phone, TV, and/or laptop at least an hour before bedtime. The blue light from your screens can suppress the secretion of melatonin icon-trusted-source Harvard Health “Blue Light Has a Dark Side” View Source and negatively affect your sleep quality (and ability to drift off in the first place).
  • Avoid the news and social media at nighttime. Exposing yourself to jarring headlines or other people’s perfect-looking lives on the ‘gram could make it harder to fall and stay asleep.
  • Instead, try a mindful activity to calm down your nerves. Try a gentle yoga session, a calming audiobook, or a pre-bedtime meditation

5. Your Medication Is Keeping You Up

woman holding medication in palm waking up at 3 a.m.
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Some medications can disrupt your sleep pattern. While they may help you through the day, you still need a good night’s sleep to be your best self.

What’s happening: Some antidepressants icon-trusted-source Mayo Clinic “Antidepressants: Get tips to cope with side effects” View Source or ADHD meds icon-trusted-source Neuropathics “ADHD Treatments, Sleep, and Sleep Problems: Complex Associations ” View Source can affect you initiating and maintaining sleep. 

What you can do: If you think your meds are keeping you up, don’t stop taking them cold turkey. Instead, talk to your doctor about your concerns and see if they can give you a different medication or update your dosage. It could also be a matter of timing—your doctor may advise you to take your medication earlier in the morning to help you fall and stay asleep better.

6. You May Suffer From a Sleep Disorder

There are a plethora of sleep disorders that you may not even have heard of. If waking up in the middle of the night is the norm for you, and none of the tips above have helped you improve your sleep quality thus far, you may suffer from a sleep disorder.

What’s happening: The most common sleep disorder, insomnia icon-trusted-source Cleveland Clinic “Insomnia” View Source , affects up to 70 million Americans. Other sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea and narcolepsy, could also be the reason you’re having excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and poor sleep at night. 

What you can do: Describe your symptoms and sleep issues to your doctor. They may prescribe medication or refer you to a sleep specialist. To potentially speed up the diagnosis and kill time while you wait for your appointment, keep a sleep log and  journal. Track things like:

  • Your bedtime
  • How often you wake up
  • How you feel when you wake up
  • How many hours of sleep you got total
  • How you feel throughout the day

These insights can help your doctor get a better idea of what you’re dealing with.

7. You’re Getting Older

man lying in bed
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Experiencing trouble falling or staying asleep is (unfortunately) normal as you age. Research shows that about half of all people over 55 icon-trusted-source BMC Geriatrics “Sleep disorders among educationally active elderly people in Bialystok, Poland: a cross-sectional study” View Source struggle with sleep problems.

What’s happening: As you age, the quality of your sleep decreases because you have less deep sleep and REM sleep icon-trusted-source HHS Public Access “Sleep Problems in the Elderly” View Source . Both stages are essential for healing and functioning, both mentally and physically.

What you can do: Yes, increased sleep problems become more common with age. But this doesn’t mean that you have to accept poor sleep quality as your new normal. Physical activity icon-trusted-source Psychogeriatrics “Prevalence and correlates of sleep problems among elderly Singaporeans” View Source (even just a few short walks a day) and cognitive behavioral therapy icon-trusted-source Sleep Medicine Reviews “Cognitive behavioral therapy for insomnia: A meta-analysis of long-term effects in controlled studies” View Source with sleep hygiene may help you get back on track and sleep better.

Ultimately you may need to make some lifestyle changes. Whether it’s to quit smoking, stop taking daily naps, or by upgrading your sleep environment—there’s no need to continue the 3 a.m. dates with your alarm clock. Remember that Ness is here to help you make healthy changes and investments, so join the waitlist and collect rewards!

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