If you often find yourself waking up two or three hours before your alarm, you’re not alone. Waking up too early is a common problem among people at many stages of life and health.
This form of sleep disturbance is upsetting and can cause exhaustion. Luckily, there are several treatment options and lifestyle changes that can help you get a full night’s sleep again.
There are several reasons why you might wake up earlier than you want to — and with fewer hours of sleep than you’re used to getting. These reasons include the following.
1. Age-related sleep changes
As you get older, changes in your circadian rhythm cause you to need fewer hours of sleep at night. This might disrupt your sleep patterns and cause you to wake in the early morning hours, before you’ve intended to start your day.
Women experiencing hormonal shifts due to menopause might have disrupted sleep. And men experiencing urinary problems because of age-related changes in the prostate might also find it harder to sleep through the night.
Many adults in the middle of life report difficulties sleeping not only due to age-related and hormonal shifts, but also due to circumstantial issues. Anxiety, acting as caregiver to one or both aging parents, medications, loss of a partner due to death or divorce, having an “empty nest,” work-related stress, and more can cause people at midlife to have trouble staying asleep.
Anxiety — in all its forms — can disrupt your sleep. While sleep-onset insomnia — the kind of insomnia that prevents you from falling asleep when you want to — is most often associated with anxiety, feeling anxious about a situation or event can also cause you to sleep fewer hours at a time.
Anxiety disorders are widely associated with insomnia of all kinds.
But you don’t have to have an anxiety disorder to experience problems going to sleep or staying asleep. Some circumstantial issues that can trigger anxiety and sleep deprivation are:
- work-related stress
- family problems
- marital strain
- job loss
- death of a family member or friend
The simple situation of waking up a few hours before your alarm is supposed to ring can create so much anxiety that you can’t get back to sleep.
Watching the clock and worrying about how little sleep you’ve gotten, whether you’ll get the rest of the sleep you want, and fearing you’ll miss your alarm if you do go back to sleep can all keep you wide awake in the early morning hours.
Insomnia is a sleeping disorder characterized by the inability to fall asleep, stay asleep, or both. People who deal with insomnia can have either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic) symptoms.
Acute insomnia is usually situational and can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. If you’re experiencing insomnia more than three times per week, for longer than three months, you could be diagnosed with chronic insomnia.
Some risk factors for insomnia include:
- elevated stress levels
- health issues that affect sleep cycles
- anxiety, depression, and other emotional disorders
- certain medications
- working swing shifts or nights
- having a sedentary lifestyle or job
- jet lag from travel
- low income
- substance abuse
- mental illness
Some of the medical conditions that can cause insomnia include:
- hormonal disorders
- thyroid dysfunction (hypothyroidism, hyperthyroidism, Hashimoto’s, etc.)
- body pain (arthritic, neuropathic, or otherwise chronic pain)
- sleep apnea
- breathing issues like allergies or asthma
- GI issues like acid reflux
- neurological illnesses
While people experiencing insomnia might manage to sleep, they don’t wake up feeling refreshed because they don’t get enough deep sleep.
This can lead to a cycle of additional stress and anxiety if you’re waking up too early in the morning — especially if you just managed to fall asleep a few hours before and were expecting to stay asleep for longer.
During pregnancy — especially the first and third trimesters — it’s common to experience sleep disturbances. In early pregnancy, your body goes through a number of physical and hormonal changes rapidly.
Some of these include heartburn, morning sickness (nausea and/or vomiting which can affect you during the day or at night), cramping in the legs, shortness of breath, discomfort in the abdomen, breast tenderness, vivid dreams, back pain, and the urge to urinate throughout the night.
While many pregnancy-related sleep disturbances might ease during the second trimester, they tend to ramp up again during the third. As your baby grows larger and your body changes more to accommodate them, sleeping can become difficult yet again.
Sinus congestion, leg cramps, hip pain, the urge to urinate, and similar discomforts can keep you from getting a restful night’s sleep during your third trimester.
There are multiple ways to treat waking up too early, depending on the cause. Visit your doctor to rule out emotional disorders like anxiety and depression, insomnia, and the possible medical conditions that can trigger sleeping difficulties.
If an underlying condition is causing you to lose sleep, your doctor will prescribe treatments, lifestyle changes, or medications that should restore your ability to stay asleep.
For women who are experiencing pregnancy-related insomnia, symptoms should subside once your baby has been born. Sleep deprivation during your infant’s early months is normal, but see your doctor for prompt treatment if you develop symptoms of postpartum depression.
Ask for support from family or friends when you need it, too. With the right approach, you’ll be sleeping better soon.
Sometimes, our sleep issues can be corrected by simple environmental and lifestyle changes, like:
- getting regular exercise
- avoiding caffeine and other stimulants after early afternoon (1 or 2 p.m.)
- blocking light in your room and keeping it quiet, dark, and comfortable
- covering the display on your clock and any other small (or blinking) lights in the room
- regulating your bedroom temperature
- meditating, doing gentle yoga, reading something calming, listening to music, or taking a warm bath before bed
- avoiding naps — especially long ones, late in the afternoon
- eating your last meal earlier in the evening
- trying not to drink much — or eat many water-containing foods—in the hours before bedtime
- avoiding bedtime snacks that could disturb your digestion (and sticking to bland, easy-to-digest foods)
- sticking to a strict schedule for your sleep
- practicing relaxation techniques like deep breathing and self-hypnosis
- keeping the room dark when you awaken too early
- reevaluating time- and stress-management skills
- avoiding sleeping in when you’ve had a poor night’s sleep
For severe sleep difficulties that relate to anxiety, age, and circumstances, your doctor may recommend cognitive-behavioral therapy for insomnia (CBT-I) or a treatment called timed-light exposure.
These treatments work together to address circadian rhythm issues and thought patterns that may be interfering with your ability to cope with sleep loss (or may be causing the insomnia itself).
Waking up too early is both inconvenient and distressing, and lack of proper sleep can lead to a host of other health problems.
Work together with your doctor to pinpoint the reason why you’re waking up too early — or any underlying health conditions that may be contributing to the issue. With the right tools and interventions, sleep disturbances can be treated successfully.