Everyone’s been there at some point—you wake up, roll over and groan when you realize it’s 3 am and your sleep is interrupted. However, not everyone knows why this phenomenon occurs—we’re going to get to the bottom of waking up in the early hours.
Sleeping All Night: The Facts and Sleep Stages
Nobody sleeps all night.
Sleep is broken up into four cycles, which repeat throughout the night. Two of these cycles allow for an easy rousing, especially during stage one. While you won’t enter stage one many times after you initially fall asleep, that and stage two are responsible for your mid-night wakings.
There are many things that disturb natural slumber. Someone sharing your bed may move, you feel too cold or hot, your pillow slipped away or you’re in an uncomfortable position. This is fine and normal, and when you wake up in the morning you won’t realize you woke up during the night.
Go and get yourself a smartwatch that tracks your sleep, and guaranteed when you check your sleep health you’ll discover you were awake at least once during the night.
Sometimes you will notice these wakings as they happen, which is why you’re asking yourself why you keep waking up in the early hours of the morning. This is down to how you spend more time in light sleep stages as the night progresses.
Despite you noticing the waking moments, never fear. It’s still entirely normal once you can get back to sleep swiftly—it’s when you can’t that it becomes an issue.
Normal Waking vs. Insomnia
If you wake up in the middle of the night and find you can’t get back to sleep, you may be suffering from insomnia.
Insomnia isn’t just about waking up, though—a lack of high-quality sleep is also a sign of insomnia.
The condition can be short or long term, and it’s treatable with improving your sleeping and pre-bedtime practices, as well as a medical intervention.
Insomnia often crops up during times of stress, and sometimes when you’re overexcited and can’t get to sleep because of it. It can be a one-off occurrence, last a few days, or even stretch on for months at a time.
When insomnia stretches on for months and occurs three or more times in a week, then the condition is chronic.
You should go to your doctor if your insomnia is chronic. Not only can a lack of sleep impact your alertness and cognitive function, but can have a lasting impact on your health and increase your chances of developing:
How Do I Know If I’m At Risk For Insomnia?
If you start waking up at 3 am more than usual and worry it may be the beginning of insomnia, do some reflection to see if any of the risk factors apply to you. According to experts, risk factors include:
- Age: The older you get, the higher the risk of insomnia.
- Genetics: Insomnia can run in your family, and your genes can play a role as they determine whether you spend more time in deep or light sleep.
- Environment: If you sleep in a loud, bright, hot or cold environment, it impacts the quality of your sleep.
- Sleep schedule: Working the night shift or frequent travel can disrupt your sleep schedule and cause insomnia.
- Substance use: Whether it’s alcohol, drugs, or just caffeine, consuming too much of these substances can cause insomnia.
- Mental health: If you’re stressed or anxious you may be at a higher risk for insomnia.
- Gender: Women are more at risk with insomnia than men based on hormone changes during different stages of life such as menopause or pregnancy.
How to Combat Insomnia?
You can combat insomnia alone by working towards the best practices for better sleep. See the video below for tips on optimizing your sleep environment for prolonged, refreshing sleep every night.
Other Reasons For Waking Up At Night
Sometimes it’s not insomnia, but a one-off or occasional issue that’s keeping you awake and causing your sleep disturbances. We’re going to go through seven that may be behind your nighttime awakenings.
Your Sleep Environment
As mentioned above, a less than optimal sleeping environment can be one of the causes behind insomnia, but this can occur at any time—even if you just spend one night feeling a bit too hot, or there’s more traffic outside than usual.
In the lightest stages of sleep, almost anything can wake you up and it’s vital you keep your room as comfortable and sleep-compatible as possible.
What you need is a dark, quiet room that’s cool, but not cold. If you can’t optimize your environment you should at least get some tools to trick your mind, like a sleep mask, earplugs and breathable bed sheets.
According to Nesoci Okeke-Igbokwe, M.D., having an anxiety disorder or feeling anxious in general can keep you awake.
Sometimes this is temporary—you may be anxious about an upcoming event. Insomnia can also be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
You’ve Been Drinking
If you were drinking before bed, you’ll have disrupted and low-quality sleep. Alcohol stops you from experiencing REM sleep, which keeps dreams at bay for a while.
As you sleep on, the alcohol starts leaving your body and you start catching up on REM sleep.
Waking up in REM sleep makes you incredibly groggy, which is why you may feel unrested and ill when you wake up even if you’re not hungover.
However, alcohol also makes you experience more light sleep than usual too, making it easier to wake you up throughout the night.
This is highly variable, though, as people have different experiences metabolizing alcohol. While one person can drink heavily before bed and experience no ill-effects, someone who has a single glass of wine an hour before sleeping may be severely impacted.
As a general rule, many doctors state you should wait at least three hours after consuming alcohol to go to bed. Not only does this give your alcohol a head start at leaving your system, but it will help you avoid its diuretic effects, too.
Even when someone isn’t impacted by alcohol’s typical sleep-disruptions, alcohol can still wake you up to use the bathroom at night.
You Have Sleep Apnea
Insomnia isn’t the only sleep-disrupting condition. Sleep apnea can disrupt your sleep, too.
When you have sleep apnea, your breathing stops and starts during the night. This can make you cough, or have you jolting awake gasping for air in the night, too.
There are various types of sleep apnea, but they all have the same results; experts at Mayo Clinic state that your blood oxygen levels drop, and this can wake you up.
The three types of sleep apnea include the following symptoms:
- Your throat muscles collapse and block off your airways.
- Your brain stops sending signals correctly, which stops your muscles from working to breathe.
- Both—this is known as complex sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea often requires medical intervention, so if you suspect you have it, contact your doctor straight away. There are many treatments that can help you and improve the quality of your sleep.
You Have Thyroid Issues
An overactive thyroid gland can cause issues with your sleep. Experts at the Mayo Clinic talk about how the thyroid impacts various systems within your body, including the hormones that impact sleep.
Even if that’s unaffected, you may also wake up due to night sweats with hyperthyroidism. Luckily these are easily compatible if you use cooling and moisture-wicking bedding, but an overactive thyroid in general needs medical intervention.
You Ate Too Much, or Not Enough
If you eat too close to bedtime you can end up with acid reflux, the discomfort of which can keep you awake. This is when the acid in your stomach enters your throat and creates an uncomfortable pruning sensation.
You may also feel bloated and uncomfortable, preventing a solid sleep so you keep waking up in the night.
On the other hand, if you go to bed hungry that discomfort could wake you up in the night, or stop you from sleeping entirely. It gets worse if you suffer from diabetes, where your blood sugar is impact and can become dangerously low.
Experts at the Cleaveland Clinic state that low blood sugar can cause:
- Restless sleep.
Hypoglycemia, also known as low blood sugar, is an issue that can plague anybody but it’s most commonly found in those with type 2 diabetes.
You Suffer From Restless Leg Syndrome
Finally, restless leg syndrome can definitely impact your sleep. This is a neurological disorder, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke describe its symptoms as:
All of the above will be felt on the skin and muscles of your legs and feet.
Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to treat this issue as experts aren’t quite sure what causes the phenomenon. It may be down to dopamine reduction, which stops your muscles from working correctly.
Experts are working on treatments for restless leg syndrome that include muscle relaxants, dopamine increasing medications, and they suggest taking baths to soothe your muscles before bed.
Although they can’t do much, consult a medical professional if you feel you have restless leg syndrome that’s keeping you awake in the early hours of the morning.
It’s perfectly normal to wake up at night as your body goes through the natural sleep stages and responds to external stimuli. However, if you have trouble getting back to sleep, then you may be suffering from insomnia. One of the following factors may also be the cause:
- You have a low-quality sleep environment.
- You’ve been drinking alcohol.
- Sleep apnea.
- You overate or are hungry.
- You have restless leg syndrome.
If you have any questions or comments, please leave them below.