Why Do I Keep Waking Up At 3am?

By: Mary Elizabeth Dean

Updated July 30, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Kay Adkins, LPC

Frequent waking can drain you of energy and happiness. The lack of sleep, combined with the frustration you feel as a result, is certainly not fun. You deserve a restful sleep and a happy waking life. If you feel fed up or tired of constantly having interrupted sleep at night, all hope is not lost. There are many things you can try to win back a restful sleep.

Interrupted Sleep Can Be A Big Hindrance To Your Productivity
Consult A Therapist To Discuss Your Sleep Difficulties

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Why Do I Wake Up During the Night?

Therapists have discovered that the most common sleep concern is, "Why do I keep waking up at 3am?" Some people suffer from a sleeping disorder of some kind, while others find themselves waking up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep again, for other reasons. It may seem as if there may be a specific psychological reason behind waking up at such a precise time. One explanation is based on a belief from Traditional Chinese Medicine. These issues can often be fixed by eliminating stress and any other thought altering behavior. Some others include stress and blue light, as well. We will further discuss why people wake up and how you can get help for this condition.

Traditional Chinese Medicine's Explanation. One of the main beliefs in Traditional Chinese Medicine is that the body's internal organs seem to work as a 24-hour 'clock,' in which each organ's functions are heightened during certain parts of the day.

For example, the stomach carries out most of its functions between 7 am and 9 am, and the bladder is most active between 3 pm and 5 pm. Should there be consistent problems at a particular time of day, there may be something off with the associated organ. The organ that is working the 1 am to 3 am shift is the liver. In most cases, the liver is acting up because it does not have enough glycogen to produce the energy that your bodies need to function, even while you are asleep. The reason that the body may not have enough glycogen is that the body had already spent most of it when creating adrenaline during the day. The body should not be generating adrenaline very often, but if it does, it is usually during times of stress, which can cause disruption in a person's sleep patterns.

Stress. A lack of glycogen might be keeping you up, but the adrenaline that exhausted it may also be a contributing factor. Stress hormones don't only make things hard during the day; they also make it hard for the body to fall asleep. It gets worse, however. A lack of sleep causes your body to produce more stress hormones, which, in turn, makes it harder for you to sleep.

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Stress also makes it harder for you to sleep in other ways. Your body has ways of expressing stress that you might notice pretty easily during the day, but they can be harder to catch at night. Nocturnal habits, such as clenching or grinding teeth, maybe enough to wake you up in the middle of the night - and it's terrible for your teeth. Getting a mouthguard from a local sporting goods store may help you to rest more comfortably and protect your pearly whites.

Alcohol and Caffeine. Alcohol can make us drowsy, and it even makes it easier for us to fall asleep. It doesn't promise a good night's sleep, however. While it may put you out faster, alcohol disturbs the body's natural sleep patterns in several ways, including messing with your body's internal clock and making you need to go up and go to the bathroom more often.

Outside of alcohol, other drugs can interrupt someone's sleep. Most of us know that caffeine can energize us, but many people don't know how it works. Would you drink a cup of coffee at seven in the evening? Probably not. Indeed, caffeine has a half-life of five hours. That means that if you drink two cups of coffee at two in the afternoon (seems much more reasonable, doesn't it?) you can still have quite a lot of it in the system, even if you go to bed at eleven or twelve.

Eating. If it isn't drinking that's keeping you up, it could be eating. Eating late at night can mean that your digestive system is working overtime, and that can lead to discomfort that may wake you up in the middle of the night. Try to have your last meal around two to three hours before going to bed.

Other Factors. Other things can keep you up, for example, artificial light. The body has a sort of internal clock, called circadian rhythm. Our bodies used to set this rhythm-based on night and day cycles- among other things. Humans have had artificial light for quite some time, but it is still able to confuse our bodies as they set sleep schedules. If you stay up late or work after dark, all of the natural light may be confusing your body and can lead to sleep trouble. If you need to stay up, try to use dimmer lights.

Interrupted Sleep Can Be A Big Hindrance To Your Productivity
Consult A Therapist To Discuss Your Sleep Difficulties

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There's a specific kind of light, called blue light, that might be doing even more damage. This kind of light comes from electronics like televisions, computers, and mobile phones. If you like to scroll through social media or watch videos in bed, cutting that habit may help you to sleep better. If you sometimes need to check your phone at night, consider installing a blue light filter on your phone. Some phones come with this feature in the settings; if your phone doesn't, consider looking for an app that will do the job.

Getting Your Sleep Schedule Back on Track

To regain balance in the body's system, it's important to focus on the body functions involved in glycogen production.

  • First, eat healthier meals and reduce the consumption of alcohol, junk food, and drugs similar to painkillers. This will help the liver better produce the glycogen.
  • Second, keep adrenaline throughout the day at a low level. This means cutting out sugar and caffeine from your diet. This also means reducing the use of technology around bedtime and using that time to perform meditation or breathing exercises. This will lessen stress, which will keep adrenaline levels to a minimum and leave enough glycogen for the liver.
  • Third, balance blood sugar levels. To do this, eat meals regularly, but avoid foods with refined sugar and carbohydrates. Ideal foods to eat are foods with protein such as nuts, oats, and bananas.
  • Finally, if you're only recently having problems with waking up in the middle of the night and you recently changed your schedule, it could just be your body adjusting to your new routine. Be sure to go to bed and get up at the same time every day, and give your body a little more time to catch up.

How Therapy Can Help

If it feels like there is something more pressing that is preventing a good night's sleep, it may be helpful to consult a therapist. Many doctors agree that frequent waking is a common complaint for many adults. You may experience feelings of solitude and loneliness, especially at 3am, but you are not alone. There is relief to be found. Many adults have found great success in using therapy as an option to fight their lack of sleep. Talk therapy is more than just discussing your problems. There could be an underlying issue that is causing you to lose sleep. If this is the case, as it is for many Americans, you won't be able to fix your sleep issues without first addressing the underlying problems.

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A licensed counselor or therapist can help you with your problems and lead you to more restful sleep and a happy life. Dealing with your problems can be intimidating and sometimes might feel like a chore, but the result is always worth it. Outside of traditional counseling sessions, you can seek therapy online at BetterHelp. The counselors on this site get matched specifically to you and your case, and they offer many different forms of therapy, as well as "homework," that can be assigned to help you finally get a good night's rest. Through this online therapy service, subscribers can receive assistance from a certified professional at any time. Research shows that online therapy can be a powerful tool in reducing insomnia.

Interrupted Sleep Can Be A Big Hindrance To Your Productivity
Consult A Therapist To Discuss Your Sleep Difficulties

You may read the full study here: Internet-vs. group-delivered cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia: A randomized controlled non-inferiority trial

Read below for some reviews on BetterHelp counselors.

Counselor Reviews

“Really helpful and positive! Being able to type out what's bothering me when I can't sleep at night is very helpful to me, and usually there's a reply by the morning!”



"I tried a few counselors and almost gave up until I found Colleen. I love her! She's easy to talk to, really gets me and best of all she makes me feel like I'm talking to a friend. She's given me some great tips and I'm sleeping better already most nights."

Conclusion

If you find yourself waking frequently, you could be suffering from stress, lack of exercise, a sleeping disorder, or another underlying problem. The answer to your problems can be identified and alleviated through therapy. If you reach out and get help today, you can finally get a good night's sleep!

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What does waking up at 3am mean?

Waking up repeatedly in the middle of the night can be an indication that something is "off" with your mind or body. In some cases people will wake during the night due to sleep disorders or other medical issues. High levels of stress and mental health issues can also cause an interruption in regular sleep patterns. If you suspect an underlying medical or mental health issue contact your medical care provider for an assessment.

Why do I wake up at 3 every night?

People who are experiencing sleep disorders, other medical issues, mental health issues, or high levels of stress may find themselves having trouble sleeping through the night. Are you experiencing high levels of stress during the day or has something recently changed in your daily routine? A number of factors can contribute to night waking. The best way to learn the cause behind your middle of the night insomnia is to seek support from a licensed medical or mental health professional.

What causes middle of the night insomnia?

There are a number of factors including mental health disorders that can contribute to middle of the night insomnia. People who are suffering from stress, depression, anxiety, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) may find they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep through the night. If you've recently started having middle of the night insomnia and you're not sure why -- contact a licensed professional to get help.

What is it called when you wake up multiple times during the night?

Waking during the middle of the night on a regular basis is called "insomnia." People experience insomnia for many reasons. Those who are experiencing high levels of stress during their daytime waking hours may find themselves unable to sleep through the night. Medical and mental health issues can also induce middle of the night insomnia.

Can I take melatonin in the middle of the night?

Check with your medical provider before taking any vitamins, supplements, or medications to determine the best dosage (if any) for you. Your medical provider will recommend options for treating insomnia that may or may not include herbal remedies using natural sleep aids like melatonin. It is important to check with your medical provider before beginning any new exercise of medical regimen related to your health.

What is sleep maintenance insomnia?

Sleep maintenance insomnia is a form of insomnia that makes it difficult for people to stay asleep. People who suffer from sleep maintenance insomnia often have trouble falling back to sleep in the middle of the night. A hallmark of sleep maintenance insomnia is waking in the middle of the night where you feel it's too early to get up, and too late to go back to sleep. According to Harvard researchers, this form of insomnia is more common in women in the United States.

How can I get rid of insomnia in the middle of the night?

If you're experiencing middle of the night insomnia start by reducing the amount of stress in your life wherever you can. Develop a relaxing sleep routine to let your mind and body know it's time to wind down and rest. Turn off distractions like bright lights and televisions. Experts recommend a cool dark room or a room with ambient lighting for the best night's rest. If you're still having issues falling or staying asleep after developing a sleep routine -- contact your medical or mental health provider to get help.

How do you fall asleep in the middle of the night?

Experts say it's natural to wake up in the middle of the night from time-to-time. If you find you're staying awake for more than 15-20 minutes at a time, get out of bed and engage in a quiet activity for a few minutes and then go back to bed. If you're developing a pattern of being unable to fall asleep or stay asleep, there may be a bigger issue at hand. A licensed therapist can help you figure out the underlying causes of waking up in the middle of the night.

How many times does the average person wake up during sleep?

According to the Sleep Foundation, it's not uncommon for people to wake a few times during sleep. As long as you're able to fall back to sleep easily waking 2-3 times a night isn't a concern. If you find yourself awake for more than 15 minutes at a time during sleep on a regular basis, this may be a sign of something bigger like insomnia, high stress levels, or mental health issues. Contact your medical or mental health provider if falling or staying asleep has become a concern.

Why do I wake up every night at 3 am?

There are a few reasons why someone can wake up at 3am, but one of the most common reasons is because of your blood sugar. When it starts to get low, your body may be trying to tell you that it is hungry, which can wake you up at an inconvenient time. If nighttime awakenings bother you more often than not, you may want to do something about it. Talk to your doctor about possible conditions you may be experiencing, and get checked out, before you develop a problem with your sleep cycles.

How can I stop waking up at 3am?

If you want to stop waking up at 3am, you need to determine the reason you’re waking up. If you are able to fall back asleep after waking up at this time every night, there’s probably not much for you to be concerned about. You may be waking up at this time because you reach the end of your sleep cycle. There’s no reason to think you have a sleep disorder, unless you experience additional symptoms. If you don’t suffer from medical conditions, like heart disease, and have a good level of health fitness, there is probably a simple solution to help you improve sleep. You may also be experiencing a lowering of your blood sugar levels, which just means you are hungry.

What happens at 3am?

Many people wake up at 3am for no apparent reason. There are multiple possible causes for this, and many are fine. For instance, you may be experiencing nighttime awakenings, which is when you wake up in the middle of the night many nights. If you are able to fall back asleep, even after you occasionally wake up at 3am, you probably have normal health and wellness. If you are concerned about your sleep cycle and want to ensure that you are always getting proper rest, you may want to visit a sleep expert for advice.

How do you break the cycle of waking up in the middle of the night?

To break the cycle, you will need to try to determine the cause of your nighttime awakenings first. You can have your blood pressure and blood sugar checked out, in order to rule out certain conditions. Moreover, you can visit a medical center, where you can also get assessed on your heart rate, brain, spine, and get an overall health check. If you choose to visit a sleep expert or licensed therapist instead, they will be able to tell you about deep breathing exercises you can do and explain to you how your circadian rhythms work.

What can I do to stay asleep all night?

When you want to be able to get good sleep and stay asleep through the night, you should limit your social media use before bed, and take steps to make sure your bedroom is comfortable for you. You don’t want to suffer from night sweats or hot flashes, which cause you to get bad sleep, sleep which you really need to get through your days. A sleep expert or licensed therapist can give you additional techniques to consider when it comes to getting deep sleep, so consider reaching out to one near you.

What causes middle of the night insomnia?

One thing that can cause middle of the night insomnia is sleep apnea. Another possible cause is low blood sugar. If you wake up at 3am or the same time every night, you may just have similar sleep cycles each night. You can practice deep breathing to see if this will help you get back to sleep sooner, or you can make sure that your sugar levels are normal. Then you will know whether you are waking up because you are hungry or for some other reason. 

Will melatonin help me stay asleep?

Melatonin is designed to help the body go to sleep, but it may not be able to help you stay asleep. You may still experience a problem with staying asleep, or falling back asleep, depending on different circumstances. You can talk to a sleep expert to learn more about melatonin and what it will do.

Is it bad to take melatonin every night?  

Melatonin is designed to be used as a short-term solution to help ease you to sleep. You should discuss any and all side effects with your doctor.

What are the side effects of melatonin?

A few side effects you may experience when you use melatonin are nausea, dizziness, or a headache. If you experience these things and it causes you concern, you can go to a medical center and get checked out. However, these symptoms may also signal that your blood sugar is low, which is also a condition that is easy to alleviate. There are no serious brain, spine, or other major side effects expected when it comes to taking melatonin.


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