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Why You Wake up at 3 AM… and How to Stop, so You Can Finally Sleep Through the Night
If you’ve ever found yourself groaning in agony at the mere thought of going to sleep because you just know you’re going to wake up in the middle of the night, you’re in good company.
Once you’ve started waking up in the middle of the night, you’ll often do so night after night at roughly the same time. And every time, you will yourself to sleep, count backwards from 100 and do deep breathing exercises, but to no avail. It’s irritating, infuriating, exhausting… and, fortunately, entirely solvable.
Because once you learn why you’re waking up in the middle of the night, you can stop doing it.
How to Break the Night-Waking Cycle
Your body is a complex organism that relies on sleep to repair itself.
That’s why, as an adult, you need an average of 7-8 hours of sleep a night. But as you know, sleeping through the night is often easier said than done.
Here are the top three reasons your body wakes you up at the same time every night — and how to combat each one:
Drinking alcohol before bed often induces nighttime wakefulness because, as alcohol is metabolized from your bloodstream, your brain is stimulated.
Drinking seems like a sedative at first because it initially makes you feel sleepy. But as the alcohol is processed, your body works to eliminate it from your system — and that effort disrupts your body’s restful state, causing you to wake up.
What can you do to help break this cycle? To put it simply: curb your alcohol intake. Usually, a drink or two isn’t enough to cause you to wake during the night, so implement a 2-drink maximum to make sure you’re able to sleep through the night.
It’s also smart to prioritize consuming alcohol earlier in the day, so the stimulation that comes from processing it wears off before bedtime. And of course, drink plenty of water between drinks to stay hydrated.
Ironically, anxiety about sleeping is often the very thing that keeps us awake.
When you go to bed anxious, your brain can’t relax into deep REM sleep and will wake during the night. This is sometimes referred to as “middle insomnia” or “sleep-maintenance insomnia”.
If you suspect anxiety is at the root of your night-waking routine, you’re in luck: there are lots of things you can do to relax your brain before going to bed or when you wake during the night.
Try a few of these stress-relieving techniques:
- Keep a gratitude journal. Reflecting on what you're thankful for has been proven to help improve sleep quality and quantity. To quiet your mind, set aside some time to make a list of all the positive things that happened in your day before you fall asleep.
- Make a list. If you’re consistently haunted by unfinished tasks floating around in your head, keep a notebook by your bed. Write down every single thing that you’re worried about — and then close the book. As you write them down, consciously let them go and tell yourself not to worry about them again until the morning.
- Breathe in some lavender. The scent of lavender has long been known to induce relaxation. There are a variety of lavender-scented products you can use, like lotions or oils. Choose the format that works best for you, take a deep breath and feel your stress melt away.
The third cause of night-time waking is various ailments or medical conditions.
Anything from gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) to chronic pain can cause middle-of-the-night waking. As we cycle out of deep sleep, the brain will register pain and alert the body to wake up.
Dr. Michael Perlis, the Director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania, offers a helpful “rule of thumb": five or more awakenings per night, lasting only a few minutes each, points to a medical issue.
If your medical condition is waking you up at night, talk to your doctor to see what options are available to manage the symptoms. This tossing and turning can make the medical condition worse, as your body needs rest to repair itself.
"If you tend to wake up once or more for a longer period of time, that’s probably something else.” Keeping a sleep log can help you track your wake times and durations. This tracking can help you uncover the root cause of your nightly wakings.
Here's to Sleeping Through the Night
Getting stuck in a repetitive cycle of waking up in the middle of the night is one of the most frustrating experiences a sleeper can have.
But fortunately, it’s fixable. Take a step back and rework your sleep routines, reduce your stress levels and, if necessary, take care of your health. Specifically, make sure your anxiety levels and alcohol consumption are in check.
Make the changes you need to make to get the rest you need — it’s worth it.
(1) Heid, Markham. “This Is Why You Wake Up at the Same Time Every Night." Medium Elemental, 9 Jan. 2020, www.elemental.medium.com/this-is-why-you-wake-up-at-the-same-time-every-night-ce9f4d2ba0c8
(2) Das, Aneesa MD. “Why do I wake up at the same time every night?" The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, 11 Jul. 2018, www.wexnermedical.osu.edu/blog/why-do-i-wake-up-at-the-same-time-every-night
(3) Andrews, Linda W. “How Gratitude Helps You Sleep at Night.” Psychology Today, 9 Nov. 2011, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/minding-the-body/201111/how-gratitude-helps-you-sleep-night
Did you wake up, look at your phone, and realize it's the third time in the week you woke up at 3 AM? 😫
Here are the top 3 reasons.
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