child reading book at night

Why Do I Wake Up At 3 am?

Why Do I Wake Up At 3 am?

Generally, a healthy adult should have between seven to nine hours of sleep per night. During this time, sleep will be compartmentalised into several stages, including periods of light, deep, and even REM sleep (or rapid eye movement.)

Each sleep cycle will run its course numerous times during quality sleep, but morning time is when you will experience lighter sleep and REM. If you’re experiencing trouble sleeping, you might wake up once or twice during the night. You may even be finding it difficult to fall back asleep.

Why are you waking up in the middle of the night? Sleep problems make it more difficult to get the sleep quality you need to feel refreshed and recharged for each day. Let’s dig into some of the causes for nighttime awakenings and what you can do to mitigate them.

Causes for Waking Up in the Middle of the Night

Barring the potential for underlying sleep disorders, which, if you suffer from one, you should consider consulting your physician, there are numerous reasons why you might be suffering from sleep maintenance insomnia – or rather, “nighttime awakenings.”

Your reasons could be due to physical causes or psychological causes.

Let’s dig into both of those.

Physical causes for disrupted sleep

woman under the covers in bed laying awake

Your sleep habits are an indicator of your physical health. If you find your nighttime sleep is continually being disrupted, it might indicate that you have an underlying health condition. The following physical causes could be contributing to your lack of healthy sleep.

  • Digestive issues, such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome, etc. If you are experiencing pain from a digestive issue, it could be resulting in your poor sleep hygiene and needs to be addressed.
  • Chronic pain, such as pain from arthritis, cancer, an injury, etc. If you are hurting too much to stay asleep, it might be time to ask a doctor to change your medication.
  • Women especially may struggle to get a good night’s rest due to hot flashes and night sweats. Talk about women’s health with your physician about managing this for better sleep.
  • Breathing problems, including asthma or other lung conditions.
  • Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and dementia may all make it difficult to get consistent sleep.

Certain medications may benefit your sleep stages and aid in managing any health conditions that could prevent you from sleeping. Discuss the possibility of medications with a health professional if your sleep is suffering due to a physical cause.

Psychological causes for disrupted sleep

small scientific model of a brain

Have you ever stressed so much about an upcoming work event, test, or occurrence that it kept you up at night? Stress and other psychological causes are one of the biggest factors that impact sleep. Some brain basics: your brain needs sleep to function, and while it is remarkably active as you sleep, research suggests that sleep plays a significant role in reducing toxins that build up in your brain while you’re awake.

Waking up with anxiety in the middle of the night is a big indicator that you might be struggling with your mental health. If you are struggling with your mental health and it is beginning to disrupt sleep, it might be time to contact a mental health professional.

The following mental health problems may be contributing to your difficulties with staying asleep:

  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Depression
  • Schizophrenia

Luckily, the treatment options for mental health conditions are broad and can be managed with the right doctor and medications.

Tips for a Consistent Sleep Schedule

silhouette of a woman running at sunset

If you find you frequently wake during the night and aren’t struggling with any physical health conditions or mental health problems, then it might be time to address your lifestyle factors. Barring any health conditions, dealing with these factors could promote quality sleep and help you benefit from consistent sleep cycles for overall health.

Some lifestyle factors may contribute to your inability to maintain a consistent bedtime routine. Older adults may also be especially sensitive to the influence of sleep habits.

  • Environmental factors. If you are sleeping in a room with too much light, your bedtime partner is too noisy, or other distractions are present, you could be experiencing consistent sleep disruptions. Address these and establish a relaxing bedtime routine. Try earplugs, a fan, dark shades, etc.
  • If you are drinking caffeine too late in the day, either swap out your post-lunch coffee for a snack or plan your Starbucks trip earlier in the day. Caffeine can take up to 8 hours to wear off.
  • Electronic devices. Using blue light devices too close to bedtime can disrupt the production of melatonin, i.e. the hormone that makes us feel sleepy.
  • Nicotine is actually a stimulant, believe it or not. It raises our blood pressure and may cause us to wake through the night frequently.
  • Regular exercise is great, but avoid exercising too late at night as it can impact your ability to stay asleep. If you must exercise late in the evening, avoid using any pre-workout before you do.
  • Sleep schedule. Your internal clock depends on a consistent sleep schedule to know when to feel sleepy and when to feel awake. Try to stick to a consistent sleep schedule.
  • Avoid napping later in the day. Naps are fine if they’re kept short, but try to take any nap you need in the morning or just after lunch.

Sometimes sleep disturbances are thrown off because our circadian rhythm gets disrupted. This could be due to age – (our body’s sleep rhythms change as we get older) – jet lag, working late shifts, etc. There isn’t much you can do about these issues, so it’s important to address the factors you can control to prevent regularly waking in the night.

Obviously, sleep disorders do exist. Sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, periodic limb movement disorder, and night terrors can affect your ability to stay asleep. If you suffer from any of these, it’s important to consult a physician to discuss them.