There are many reasons why you might wake up in the middle of the night. Adopting certain habits may help improve your sleep quality, depending on the cause.
Waking up in the middle of the night isn’t uncommon. Most people actually awaken several times at night without even noticing because they fall back asleep quickly. Some of the awakenings are only seconds long. Some of the awakenings may long and falling back to sleep may be difficult and distressing.
If you wake up at 3 a.m. or another time and can’t fall right back asleep, it may be for several reasons. These include lighter sleep cycles, stress, underlying health conditions, or even environmental factors. The latter might include the noise from the truck picking the garbage, the pet jumping on the bed wanting to play or go out.
Your 3 a.m. awakenings may occur infrequently and be nothing serious, but regular nights like this could be a sign of insomnia. Altering your sleep habits, reducing stress, and seeing your doctor about factors that may cause disrupted sleep can help you avoid these unwanted awakenings.
Read on to learn more about causes and solutions for waking up in the middle of the night.
Nighttime sleep involves multiple sleep cycles. It’s not uncommon to wake several times a night during these cycles, though most of the time you’ll go right back to sleep afterward.
These cycles occur throughout the 7 to 9 hours of sleep adults typically need.
Sleep cycle stages
The stages of a sleep cycle include:
- a transition from wakefulness to sleep
- light sleep
- deep sleep
- REM sleep
The length of each stage will vary throughout the night. You have longer deep sleep cycles earlier in the night and longer REM sleep cycles as morning approaches. REM sleep is lighter sleep when dreams most often occur.
There are many reasons you may wake up at 3 a.m. You might frequently awaken during a time of stress. Or your 3 a.m. wake-ups may be a sign of insomnia.
It may be difficult to identify the cause of these bothersome disruptions to your sleep, but here are some reasons you may find yourself awake at 3 a.m.
Stress may be the first thing to consider if 3 a.m. awakenings are a new thing. When you feel stressed, your body activates your sympathetic nervous system, and you may jolt awake in the middle of the night.
You may experience an increased heart rate and blood pressure. These bodily changes can make it difficult to fall back asleep.
Your stress levels may be elevated if something in your life is causing anxiety or worry. Stress could be related to changes or uncertainty surrounding your job, relationships, health, or finances.
You should discuss your stress levels with your doctor if they’re prolonged. Therapy or lifestyle adjustments can also reduce stress.
Insomnia is a diagnosable sleep condition in which you have difficulty falling back asleep after waking at night on a regular basis. A significant portion of the population experiences insomnia. Have trouble falling or staying asleep 3 or more nights a week, for 3 or more months, with daytime consequences is considered chronic insomnia.
Aging plays a huge role in your sleep cycles. When you get older, your sleep cycles change, you may take medications that alter your sleeping patterns, and you might develop another condition that impacts sleep.
As you age, the quality of your sleep decreases, as you spend less time in deep sleep. Therefore, you’re more prone to awakenings from external factors like noise and light. Your sleep-wake times may also shift with age. You may go to bed and wake up earlier than you did at a younger age.
Discuss age-related sleep changes with your doctor if you experience insomnia or find yourself on an odd sleep schedule. One
You may take a medication that interferes with your nightly sleep. These can include:
Talk with your doctor if you suspect a medication is causing you to wake up in the middle of the night. You may be able to try another medication for your condition or practice lifestyle modifications that promote quality sleep.
Other health conditions
You may develop a condition that affects your sleep and causes a 3 a.m. wake-up. Some of these conditions include:
- Sleep apnea: This condition causes you to stop breathing during your sleep.
- Gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD): GERD causes heartburn or indigestion.
- Arthritis: This type of inflammation makes moving your joints very painful.
- Restless leg syndrome (RLS): RLS causes your legs to feel jumpy.
- Depression: Depression is a mood disorder in which feelings of sadness, loss, or anger interfere with your daily life. Medications used to treat depression may cause insomnia.
- Neuropathy: With this disorder, you experience tingling in your arms and legs.
- Enlarged prostate: An enlarged prostate can cause a man to feel the urge to urinate frequently.
- Menopausal symptoms: Night sweats or hot flashes may awaken you.
Treating an underlying condition may help you sleep better and manage insomnia. If you suspect you have one of these conditions, your doctor can help diagnose and treat it.
Preparing yourself for quality sleep is very important. Not practicing good sleep hygiene may cause nighttime awakenings. Poor sleep hygiene can be caused by:
- looking at computer or cellphone screens close to bedtime
- drinking alcohol or caffeine before bedtime
- eating too close to bedtime
- eating spicy food in the evening
- sleeping somewhere that isn’t conducive to sleep
- taking naps too late in the day
- not getting enough exercise
Changing these habits can improve your sleep significantly. Talk with your doctor if you think that you need professional assistance making some of these lifestyle adjustments.
There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to better sleep. In most cases, sleeping medications aren’t going to be the magic pill to help you avoid nighttime awakenings.
Instead, using several of these strategies to get quality nighttime sleep may help you avoid the dreaded 3 a.m. wake-up:
- Aim for a consistent bedtime each night, and wake up at the same time each morning.
- Sleep in a comfortable, dark, quiet space.
- Make sure you’re sleepy enough before going to bed, and don’t lie there for 20 minutes or more if you can’t fall asleep.
- Adopt a nighttime routine that helps you relax, such as reading or meditating before bed.
- Turn off screens well before you turn the lights out.
- Get adequate exercise during the day but avoid doing it right before bed.
- Avoid drinking caffeinated beverages after lunchtime.
- Eat dinner several hours before bedtime and avoid spicy foods.
- Reconsider drinking alcohol late at night.
- If you smoke, try to quit smoking.
If you often wake up at 3 a.m. and have difficulty falling back asleep, it’s important to talk with your doctor. Your doctor may suggest you have a sleep study to learn more about your sleep cycles or diagnose a sleep disorder.
Treatments for insomnia may include lifestyle modifications, adjustments to your sleep-wake times, or cognitive behavioral therapy.
You may also want to see your doctor if these wake-ups cause problems for you during the day. Problems associated with a lack of consistent sleep may include:
- having trouble remembering things
- feeling very sleepy during daytime hours
- being unable to function at your normal levels
Waking up at 3 a.m. can be bothersome, but it’s not always a sign of a larger problem. Temporary stress could prompt you to wake up in the middle of the night every so often.
More frequent wake-ups at 3 a.m. that keep you up for a significant amount of time could be a sign of insomnia or another health condition.
If your sleep is disrupted regularly, talk with your doctor to find out more about the underlying reasons for the wake-ups. Practicing good nighttime habits before bed can help you fall and stay asleep.
It’s generally recommended not to go back on your phone if you can’t sleep at night. Smoking a cigarette or having a glass of wine are also not recommended. Instead, try deep breathing exercises or reading a few pages of a book.
The brain is the most active part of your body when you sleep.