Do you always sleep through the night without problems? Or, are you like much of the population and find yourself waking up at 3 am, unable to fall back asleep? If you’re part of the second group, it’s important to figure out what may be causing you to wake up and, most importantly, how to prevent it from continuing. This is what your sleepless nights mean and how to finally get the rest you need.
Why You Keep Waking Up At 3 am
Waking up in the middle of the night is often a very frustrating experience. You lie there as the minutes tick by, and all you can think about is how tired you will feel at work the next day. There are many reasons why you are waking up at 3 am. Figure out what your reason is, and you will be well on your way to solving the problem.
First, it’s important to note that waking up at night is normal. In fact, most of us do it a handful of times throughout the night, but we fall asleep so quickly we don’t even notice. This is because we sleep in cycles. In one sleep cycle, we transition from wakefulness to sleep, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep. REM stands for rapid eye movement and is the part of the sleep cycle where we will have the most dreams. Typically we have longer deep sleep cycles earlier in the night and longer REM cycles the closer we get to morning. (1)
When you wake up at 3 am, however, and can’t get back to sleep, this is problematic. Though it can be challenging to identify why you might be waking up, it’s important to try so that you can bring an end to this nighttime wakefulness. These are the reasons why you might be waking up, unable to sleep, in the middle of the night.
Our lives today are more stressful than ever. We’ve often got a lot on our minds, and turning that off to get some rest can be very difficult. Stress actually affects the hormones that your body is producing and activates your sympathetic nervous system. This will then cause you to wake up when you should be sleeping. Stress will also cause an increase in your body temperature and your heart rate. Normally when we sleep, both of these decrease. If they are too high, we won’t be able to rest. (2)
Stress can be both acute and chronic. It can be related to your job, relationships, family, and so many other things. If you are in a particularly stressful period with your work, you will likely find your sleepless nights will go away when that is over. Try using stress management techniques such as yoga, breathing exercises, or meditation to help calm your mind before bed. If your stress is chronic, talk to your doctor about stress management, who can help you make some lifestyle adjustments to better manage your stress, or who can refer you to a stress therapist.
Approximately 10% to 20% of the population suffers from insomnia. This is an actual diagnosable health condition that will require professional help to overcome. You might have insomnia if you are regularly having trouble either falling asleep or staying asleep. If you think you have insomnia, talk to your doctor who can help you find the right solution for you. (3)
Aging changes your sleep cycles, and typically as we age we have less of the deep sleep than we did before. This means that you spend more of the night in a lighter sleep and will be more sensitive to light and external noise. You’re also more likely to be on medications that can affect your sleep as you age. Again, talk to your doctor if you find sleeping is becoming more challenging as you get older. (4)
As already mentioned, there are many medications that can affect your sleep. Diuretics, over-the-counter cold medications, antidepressants, beta blockers, and corticosteroids all can make getting to sleep and staying asleep more difficult. If you think that your medications might be affecting your sleep patterns, talk to your doctor. They might be able to prescribe you something else or give you other interventions to help improve your sleep. (5)
There are a number of health conditions that can affect your sleep quality and duration. These include (6):
- Gastrointestinal Reflux Disease (GERD)
- Sleep apnea
- Enlarged prostate
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS)
These conditions can affect your breathing, cause pain that keeps you awake, cause you to have to urinate more frequently, experience tingling or jumping sensations in your legs, breathing problems, or heartburn and indigestion. All of these can make sleeping nearly impossible. If you have or suspect that you have one of these conditions, speak to your doctor about treatment options.
There are many lifestyle choices that we make daily that can affect our sleep. Light in our room or looking at screens too close to bedtime can make sleeping difficult. Both alcohol and caffeine before bed will either keep you up or decrease your sleep quality. Eating too close to bedtime, especially spicy food, can cause stomach upset and prevent your body from entering a truly restful sleep. Smoking, not getting enough exercise, and napping late in the day will also affect you. Consider the lifestyle habits you have currently to determine whether or not you need to make changes to improve your sleep quality. (7)
Sleeping Doesn’t Have To Be Complicated
The best thing you can do for your sleep quality is to get yourself onto a proper sleep schedule. Make sure that where you are sleeping is comfortable and as dark as possible. Do your best to go to sleep and wake up around the same time each day. If you aren’t sleepy at all, don’t try to force it. Do an activity that you know will often make you feel sleepy, such as reading a book. Don’t lie in bed waiting for sleep to come for more than 20 minutes. Again, this is where an activity such as reading might help, or meditation or breathing exercises.
Get sufficient exercise throughout your day, avoid consuming caffeine late in the day as well as alcohol too close to bedtime. Allow for at least two to three hours of digestion between dinnertime and bedtime. Finally, if you currently smoke, consider quitting. If you are waking up at 3 am only occasionally, this likely isn’t something you should be worried about. Everyone has this experience every once in a while. It’s only when it becomes a chronic issue that is affecting your life that you should seek help. If this is you, speak with your doctor to help determine the best course of action for you.
Keep Reading: Keeping your nights dark can provide a massive health boost
- “Everything to Know About the Stages of Sleep.” Healthline. Eleesha Lockett, MS. September 30, 2021
- “Stress and Sleep.” APA
- “Insomnia.” Mayo Clinic
- “A Good Night’s Sleep.” NIH
- “10 Types of Meds That Can Cause Insomnia.” AARP. Dr. Armon B. Neel Jr. April 8, 2013.
- “Why Do I Keep Waking Up at 3 a.m.?” Healthline. Natalie Silver. November 15, 2022.
- “8 healthy sleep habits.” MD Anderson. Brittany Cordeiro