Imagine the following: you come home after a long day of work, eager to succumb to sleep’s sweet embrace. But, just when you do, you wake up. Try as you might, you can’t go back to sleep. Or maybe you can, only to wake up again in another couple of hours. If that scenario sounds familiar to you, don’t worry — you’re not alone. In fact, waking up at 3 A.M. is a pretty common occurrence.
Although nighttime unrest doesn’t usually indicate a serious medical condition, consistently not getting enough sleep can be detrimental to your well-being in the long run. Sleep is your body’s way to recharge, and it’s extremely important for both your physical and mental health.
Not getting enough shut-eye can lead to a lack of concentration and a lower overall mood. Even worse, it puts you at a greater risk for depression and cardiac disease. So, if you’re regularly waking up at 3 A.M. and would like to know what’s causing it (and how to stop it), read on.
What Happens When You Sleep
Before you can tackle your sleeplessness problem, you need to understand what happens when you’re asleep. Humans’ sleep cycle consists of two phases — the so-called REM stage and the non-REM one.
REM stands for rapid eye movement and refers to the part of your slumber during which you’re actively dreaming. During REM, your body is in a state of deep sleep, and it’s much harder for you to wake up.
If your REM phase is interrupted for whatever reason, you’ll likely wake up feeling groggy, disoriented, and tired. REM typically begins 30 to 45 minutes after you fall asleep, and lasts for about an hour and a half.
On the contrary, the “downtime” between each REM phase is known as non-REM sleep. It’s closer to a nap than a deep slumber, and you’re much more likely to wake up during that time. If you do, you’ll feel less disoriented and better-rested — even if you only slept for half an hour.
However, simply taking a 20-minute power nap and calling it a day (or night) is not enough. To get a good night’s sleep, you need to go through at least three uninterrupted REM phases. Waking up at 3 A.M. can make that quite difficult, as it can disrupt REM or delay its onset.
Waking Up at 3 A.M. — Common Causes
Now that you’re familiar with the basic sleep cycle, you can start ruling out potential causes and pinpoint the culprit for your sleeplessness.
For example, if you feel well-rested and aware when you wake up during the night, you were probably in a lighter state of sleep. That might mean your REM phase is delayed because you’re not tired enough when you go to bed, or it could be blue light making it harder for your brain to go into “sleep mode.”
On the other hand, if you wake up feeling groggy and disoriented, it could be because your REM sleep was interrupted — which, in turn, could indicate some underlying health issues. Of course, that doesn’ mean you should run to the doctor in the middle of the night.
Many things can lead to your waking up at 3 A.M., but most of them are as mundane as watching TV right before bed or having a stressful day at work.
In fact, even the transition from REM sleep to the non-REM phase can sometimes cause you to wake up. That’s a fairly common occurrence and happens multiple times a night. It only becomes an issue if you’re having a hard time falling asleep again.
So, without further ado, here are some of the most likely causes for your waking up in the middle of the night:
1. Watching TV or Using Other Electronic Devices Before Bed
Light is one of the main factors that affect your internal clock. If it’s dark outside, your body registers the lack of light as “sleep time.” So, it starts producing what people call the sleep hormone, which makes you…well, sleepy.
Likewise, when your eyes sense light, they send a signal to your brain as if to say, “Rise and shine!” That’s why the morning sun can make you feel more energetic and “awake.” And, out of all the wavelengths that make up the visible light spectrum, blue light has the most powerful effect on your body.
However, human eyes haven’t evolved to differentiate between light sources (yet). So, any blue light, regardless of its origin, will have the same “Wake up!” effect on you. That’s why staring at electronic devices, such as TVs, smartphones, and laptops before bed can interfere with your sleep.
2. Stress, Anxiety, or Depression
If you’ve had a rough day or are generally going through a stressful time in your life, your unrest can manifest in your sleep as well. Stress can cause nightmares, making you wake up during the deep stages of sleep, or prevent you from falling asleep altogether.
Some conditions, like depression and generalized anxiety disorder, can also cause or exacerbate existing sleep problems. If you keep waking up at 3 A.M. for seemingly no reason and you suspect the cause might be related to your mental health, you should consult with a sleep expert or a therapist.
3. Sleep Apnea
Another medical condition that can interfere with your sleep is sleep apnea. Besides difficulties falling and staying asleep, symptoms include drowsiness during the day, irritability, and headaches.
Sleep apnea is characterized by labored breathing that repeatedly stops and starts again during the night. Needless to say, that can be extremely dangerous, so if you’re experiencing those or other symptoms, you should see a doctor.
4. Exercising in the Afternoon or Evening
While exercise is one of the pillars of good health (along with a proper diet and sleep), it can interfere with your internal clock. Strenuous physical activity essentially tells your body that it’s not time for bed yet and that it should stay alert.
Exercising speeds up your heart rate and raises your body temperature. It also causes you to produce adrenaline, dopamine, and other feel-good hormones. That chemical cocktail is what people call “the runner’s high,” and its effects last for up to a few hours. It’s also what makes exercise a great way to start your day — and a poor way to end it.
5. Water, Alcohol, and Caffeine
Caffeine is usually the main suspect when it comes to sleep difficulties, and for good reason. Its effects can last for up to twelve hours, and it might just be the cause for your waking up at 3 A.M.
But coffee’s not the only beverage that can make getting a good night’s sleep more difficult than it needs to be. Many people drink alcohol to unwind after a long day. And while a glass of wine is unlikely to prevent you from getting some shut-eye, you should avoid consuming large quantities of alcohol before bed.
Although it might make you sleepy at first, it will also cause your blood sugar and cortisol levels to spike — and both of those things can disrupt your sleep.
Similarly, drinking too little water during the day will leave you dehydrated, which can also make falling asleep difficult. If you forgot to monitor your water intake during the day, though, don’t try to make up for it before bed — unless you want to make frequent trips to the bathroom.
As you can see, most causes for sleepless nights boil down to poor sleep hygiene. If you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep, you should examine your sleeping conditions. For example, make sure there aren’t too many artificial light sources in your bedroom, like TVs and laptops. Also, it’s generally best to avoid using such electronic devices before bed.
Of course, that’s not realistic for many people. If your bedtime rituals include watching Netflix or playing video games, you should get a blue light filter — like f.lux. Additionally, try to limit your alcohol and caffeine intake and avoid drinking coffee after 12 P.M.
However, If you suspect the reason for your waking up at 3 A.M. might be a medical one, you should consult with a doctor or sleep therapist. In the majority of cases, though, that’s unnecessary. Just give the above suggestions a try, and the chances are you’ll sleep like a baby tonight. Good luck and sweet dreams!