Why Do I Wake Up at 3AM? 6 Reasons Why and How to Stop It

Posted by Dr. Ian Stern on

Dr. Ian Stern Dr. Ian Stern Dr. Ian Stern

There are a few possible reasons for consistently waking up at 3 AM. One reason you may be waking up is because you have low blood sugar. Low blood sugar sends a message to your body that you have run out of fuel. Therefore, the body will produce cortisol to jumpstart the metabolic process, make you hungry, and wake you up to eat.

Also, according to Chinese medicine, 1-3 AM is the time for the liver to carry out its essential functions in the body. When you wake up at that same time every night, it may mean that your liver is having trouble unloading from overconsumption of alcohol or bad foods.

Some other possible reasons include anxiety or depression; having to go to the bathroom due to excessive fluid intake or an enlarged prostate; changes to your circadian rhythm and sleep cycles; or other medical conditions. Below we will describe some of the most common reasons for waking up at 3 AM.

1. Low Blood Sugar

The brain is very active at night, repairing, regenerating, and converting short-term memories into long-term memories. If you go too long without eating or have chronic low blood sugar, at night when the body is in a fasting state, the blood sugar drops too low and your brain thinks you have run out of fuel.

Therefore, it will wake you up by producing cortisol to help jumpstart the metabolic process and make you hungry. While cortisol is released in order to help reverse the low blood sugar level, it may also lead to blood sugar levels that are higher than normal in the morning. This is known as the Somogyi effect.

2. Too Much Stress On The Liver

According to Chinese medicine, 1-3 AM is the peak time for the liver to carry out its essential functions. When repeated issues occur at the same time of day, it could be an indication that the organ that’s working at that time is in trouble.

Unfortunately, the modern diet and lifestyle put a lot of pressure on the liver with fatty and processed foods, refined sugars, alcohol, and way too much stress. The liver uses glycogen from the body’s sugar storage.

When we are stressed and our stress hormones are run-down, our sugar levels fluctuate throughout the day. By 3 AM there is not enough glycogen for the liver to regenerate. Therefore, adrenaline is produced by the body to compensate and adrenaline is designed to keep us awake.

3. Anxiety or Depression

People suffering from depression or anxiety may have interrupted sleep due to bad dreams or feeling restless and agitated. Oftentimes upon going to bed, they toss and turn for an hour or more, worrying about various things and then wake up at 3AM in a panic, unable to get back to sleep. Many times anxiety becomes exaggerated at night due to the relative isolation, dark, and lack of distractions.

4. You Reach A Lighter Stage of Sleep

This typically happens roughly five hours into your sleep. For the first five hours, you are in REM deep sleep, and then you cycle into light sleep, during which it becomes easier to be woken up. Therefore, if you go to sleep around 10 PM every night, around 3 PM your sleep is much lighter and it is easier to be woken up.

5. Nature Calls

There are several reasons why a person may need to go to the bathroom at night: enlarged prostate, pre-diabetes, excessive fluid intake, just to name a few. Even if you’ve just had too much water before bed, waking up in the middle of the night to use the restroom is very common.

6. Underlying Health Issues

It’s possible that an underlying health issue is causing you to wake up. For example, sleep apnea or pain in the joints or muscles or irregularities in hormones can exacerbate sleep difficulties.

Menopausal women have fluctuating hormone levels which cause night sweats and hot flashes which can wake the brain during sleep. In addition, lower levels of progesterone make some women irritable and less able to relax.

Is It Normal to Wake Up In the Night?

Although very common, it is not normal to be unable to sleep through the night on a regular basis. Although many people wake up 2-3 times over the course of the night as they cycle through different phases of sleep, and may need to get more comfortable or go to the bathroom, staying up for hours and getting way too little quality sleep is not normal and very unhealthy.

Usually, interrupted sleep is a signal from your body that something is wrong and requires you to make changes to your lifestyle and/or seek medical attention. Usually, by making some changes, people are able to improve their sleep significantly, resulting in more energy and feeling better overall during the day.

What to Do When You Wake Up

If you do wake up in the middle of the night, try not to panic. Fears of being tired and unable to be productive or energized the next day only make you more anxious, raise your stress hormones, making it more difficult to fall back asleep. Tend to your body’s needs. If you feel hungry, eat a small but nutritious snack with protein and some good fat, such as a spoonful of organic peanut or almond butter. Go to the bathroom if needed.

Most importantly, try to relax. Practice deep breathing, relaxing all your muscles as much as possible. Close your eyes, and focus on each muscle of the body starting with the head and face and working your way down, first tensing and then relaxing the muscle, breathing deeply all the while. You can use your breath to help alleviate tension from each muscle by envisioning that the tension is leaving your body with your breath every time you exhale.

If you’ve done all of the above, and you still can’t fall asleep, try to do something else for a while. Read a book or listen to some meditative music. Write in a journal. Do not watch TV or start scrolling through social media. Blue light from your phone or TV will interfere with your melatonin levels, keeping you up longer.

Tips for Falling Back Asleep

Here are some tips, which I hope you find useful in helping you fall back asleep:

  1. Be attentive to your body. If you feel hungry, eat a nutritious snack. Pick one that is easy to digest.
  2. Practice deep breathing.
  3. Don’t watch the clock.
  4. Try progressive muscle relaxation techniques.
  5. Keep electronics off.
  6. Keep your bedroom cool. Cooler temperatures are better for sleep. Also, some people find it helpful to turn on a fan.
  7. Use lavender essential oil. Rub a few drops of lavender oil on your temples or wrists, use a diffuser or an inhaler. Lavender can help you relax further and fall asleep faster.

How to Keep from Waking Up in the First Place

  1. Keep a regular sleep schedule. Going to sleep and waking up at the same time every night can help regulate your circadian rhythms
  2. Wind down before bed. Turn off electronics at least one hour prior to bedtime. Take a relaxing bath with Epsom salt and a few drops of essential oil. Read a book or take part in other relaxing activities.
  3. Avoid caffeine after 12 PM, and avoid alcohol right before bedtime.
  4. Get at least 2 hours of sunlight during the day.
  5. Get plenty of exercise. Walking, swimming, and jogging are especially effective.
  6. Practice relaxation techniques and/or behavioral or cognitive therapy.
  7. Try my Relax supplement to help regulate your stress hormones, resulting in peaceful sleep and more energy the next day.

Sleep is imperative to good physical and emotional health. Ongoing sleep deprivation is linked to high blood pressure, heart disease, depression, and diabetes. If you are waking up in the middle of the night for more than 20 minutes 3 or more times per week, it is time to make changes to your lifestyle an/or seek professional medical help to address the underlying issue. I hope you have found the advice in this article helpful. I wish you good night and peaceful sleep.


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