I Need Sleep! Why Do I Wake Up At 3 A.M. Every Night?

Updated July 11, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Most everyone experiences nighttime wakefulness from time to time. However, loss of sleep that occurs for more than a night or two, or that occurs intermittently could be insomnia (Buysse, 2013). Those who find that sleep is elusive the majority of the time getting less than five hours rest on average may have chronic insomnia (Morin & Benca, 2012). Several factors are to be considered regarding sleep, how much sleep, and lack of sleep. Some of these have to do with age, health, lifestyle, and even weight.

How Much is Enough?

It is not uncommon for a patient seeing their doctor for sleep issues to state they often wake at the same time of the night, or morning several times per week. This could be that an individual has gotten enough sleep, or other factors are getting in the way of sleep. While most doctors recommend on average seven to eight hours sleep per night for most adults (Buysse, 2013), some adults say they are at their best when they sleep no more than five to six.

Is Stress Eating Away At The Quality Of Your Sleep?

Age has a great deal to do with not only how well we sleep, but also how much. Adolescents for example need anywhere between eight and 14 hours sleep per night (Wolfson, 2010). In fact, recent studies support the need for later school hours, and fewer week night extra-curricular hours for adolescent so they can get a proper amount of sleep. While teens need more sleep, this is not to suggest they always get it, or can get it. Stress levels in teens may limit the amount of sleep they are getting, in addition to that electronics, games, cell phones, and television can cause sleep disturbances due to over-stimulation of the brain.

Emerging adults (18-24), much like teens need more sleep on average than do adults in their late 20s and 30s (Wolfson, 2010). Our mothers were right when they said we need proper sleep to grow. Children and adolescents do their best growing while sleeping as important hormones are released through the sleep cycle (Liao, Zhang, Mahan, Jiang, & Holtzman, 2015). Recent research supports that emerging adults (Wolfson, 2010) are still developing both physically and cognitively and this is the reason they need more sleep.

Stress is a common reason individuals find themselves either not falling asleep, or waking in the middle of the night unable to return to sleep (Lin, Jen, & Yang, 2015). When individuals say they cannot sleep because they have too much on their minds, they are being quite truthful. It is a bit too simplistic to say stress per se is keeping us up at night, what is really happening is that our minds are at their most vulnerable when we sleep and all the thoughts that we quash during the course of the day seem to flood our minds (Lin et al., 2015). Our brains literally attempt to problem-solve while we are sleeping. This nocturnal overstimulation of the brain can bring us to wakefulness, and because of the heightened stimulation, unable to return to sleep.

Health Factors

Obesity ("Nutritional and Metabolic Diseases and Conditions - Obesity; New Obesity Findings Has Been Reported by Investigators at University of Regensburg (Insomnia and obesity)," 2016) and sleep apnea (Chen, Redline, Shields, Williams, & Williams, 2014) are two very common health factors intruding upon the ability to get a good or a full night's sleep. Sleep apnea can occur in anyone at any age, and is also prevalent among those who are obese (Chen et al., 2014). Sleep studies show that many of the reasons for sleep apnea have to do with genetic factors, or factors such as obesity, injuries to the nasal canal, or respiratory illness (Gupta & Knapp, 2014).


Lifestyles are also taken into consideration when determining why some individuals sleep well and others do not (Buysse, 2013). Those who are on the go all day sometimes find it difficult to simply wind down; however, others who live the same type of lifestyle may find they drop off to sleep as soon as their head hit the pillow. Time of day and workouts or other strenuous activities are factors that can interfere with sleep, and this also includes strenuous mental work. When these are under scrutiny as possible factors, individuals are encouraged to change their habits over a period of time to see if there are any positive changes to their sleep patterns ("Overcoming insomnia. Options include lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, and medication," 2011).


Sleep is essential to all individuals; good sleep is often elusive. Our physical as well as mental health depend on quality sleep. Even our safety and the safety of those around us can be placed at risk if we do not get the proper amounts of sleep. If you are having trouble falling asleep, or staying asleep, talking to a licensed mental health therapist via BetterHelp might help you to rule out what it is or is not, before spending a great deal of money on a sleep study.


Buysse, D. J. (2013). Insomnia. JAMA, 309(7), 706. https://doi.org/10.1001/jama.2013.193

Chen, X., Redline, S., Shields, A. E., Williams, D. R., & Williams, M. A. (2014). Associations of allostatic load with sleep apnea, insomnia, short sleep duration, and other sleep disturbances: findings from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2005 to 2008. Annals of Epidemiology, 24(8), 612-619. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2014.05.014

Gupta, M. A., & Knapp, K. (2014). Cardiovascular and psychiatric morbidity in obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) with insomnia (sleep apnea plus) versus obstructive sleep apnea without insomnia: a case-control study from a Nationally Representative US sample. PLoS One, 9(3), e90021.

Liao, F., Zhang, T. J., Mahan, T. E., Jiang, H., & Holtzman, D. M. (2015). Effects of growth hormone-releasing hormone on sleep and brain interstitial fluid amyloid-β in an APP transgenic mouse model. Brain, Behavior, and Immunity, 47, 163-171. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.bbi.2014.09.005

Lin, Y.-H., Jen, C.-H., & Yang, C.-M. (2015). Information processing during sleep and stress-related sleep vulnerability. Psychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 69(2), 84-92. https://doi.org/10.1111/pcn.12206

Morin, C. M., & Benca, R. (2012). Chronic insomnia. The Lancet, 379(9821), 1129-1141.

Nutritional and Metabolic Diseases and Conditions - Obesity; New Obesity Findings Has Been Reported by Investigators at University of Regensburg (Insomnia and obesity). (2016). Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week; Atlanta, 345.

Overcoming insomnia. Options include lifestyle changes, psychotherapy, and medication. (2011). The Harvard Mental Health Letter, 27(8), 3-5.

Wolfson, A. R. (2010). Adolescents and Emerging Adults' Sleep Patterns: New Developments. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(2), 97-99. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.11.210

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