Why You Keep Waking Up at 3 am | Causes | Night Sweats

Reading: It’s 3:00 A.M. Why are You Waking Up?


It’s 3:00 A.M. Why are You Waking Up?

4 startling reasons why this gremlin strikes

By Sheryl Kraft

Your eyes pop open.

You’re wide awake.

Time to get up?

But wait: It’s still pitch dark outside. Ummm…maybe that’s because it’s only 3 o’clock in the morning.

Waking Up At 3 a.m. Due To Health Problems
What happens next seldom varies. You keep flipping into new sleep positions, hoping one will work. But nothing does, and meantime you’re noting every 15 minutes that goes by. Alarming thoughts course through your over wired brain: Did I forget to lock the front door or turn off the stove? How can I save for retirement when the cost of my dental bills and insurance premiums keeps going up? And, scariest of all, if I’m awake half the night, how will I get through my crazy-busy work day tomorrow?

Eventually, you do fall back to sleep — but not until you’ve stressed yourself so much that the next day you’re like an extra in The Walking Dead.

People who are awake in the middle of the night may feel very lonely, but in fact, they have plenty of company: More than 10 percent of Americans — and more women than men — report suffering from the two types of insomnia sleep onset, meaning you have trouble falling asleep, and sleep maintenance, the 3 a.m. wake-up call described above. There are a few medical conditions that could be contributing factors, including arthritis, asthma, chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems, endocrine problems, and sleep apnea. But if your doctor has eliminated those, then the answer to why sleep-maintenance insomnia is so common among women may lie in the theories and explanations below.

Waking Up at 3 a.m. Because of Pre-Industrial Ancestors
You don’t have a sleep disorder; you’re just following the example of your pre-industrial ancestors. “Segmented, or biphasic, sleep was the natural pattern of human slumber in the Western world and perhaps elsewhere from time immemorial to the modern age,” explains historian and sleep expert Roger Ekirch, Ph.D, award-winning author, and professor of history at Virginia Tech. Before the Industrial Revolution, people in Europe and North America didn’t necessarily sleep fewer hours than we do, he says, but they broke their snooze time into two segments, called first sleep and second sleep.

transformation post

That changed over the course of the 19th century, with the advent of gas lighting and, later, electric illumination, Ekirch says. These stronger and cheaper forms of artificial light enabled people to work (and play) much longer into the evening. So bedtimes were pushed later and later, disrupting our circadian rhythms and reordering our sense of time.

While gas and electric light were the major reasons for our changing sleep pattern, there were other powerful factors as well, says Ekrich. The Industrial Revolution, which began in the eighteenth century, brought not only new technologies but changes in cultural attitudes toward work and rest. In the new capitalist age, he explains, “Sleep [came to be seen as] a necessary evil, best confined to a single interval, and early rising became a very popular reform movement.”

You see where this is going. When you wake up in the middle of the night, you’re not suffering from a disorder and you needn’t feel anxious. You’re just a throwback, following our ancestral rhythms.

Waking up at 3 a.m. Because You’re Cycling From Deep to Lighter Sleep
“The average person wakes up about six times each night,” says James C. Findley, Ph.D, clinical director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the Penn Sleep Center in Philadelphia. Most of the time, he says, these wakings are so brief that we don’t remember them. But once you’re past the deep-sleep stage (the first 4 or 4 1/2 hours of slumber), it’s sometimes not so easy to roll over and snooze again after you’ve awakened. So if you turn in at, say 11:00 p.m., says Findley, by 3 o’clock in the morning you’re mostly out of deep sleep and shifting into longer periods of lighter sleep. And since your brain is more active during light sleep (the REM stage), it’s more likely that you’ll awaken.

What can you do? Findley suggests cognitive behavioral therapy, a treatment that is also endorsed by the NIH, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, and the American College of Physicians. The specific technique he advocates is called bedtime restriction. Here’s how it works:

Let’s say you typically go to sleep at 10:00 p.m. and wake five hours later at 3:00 a.m. Try “restricting” yourself to bed for 5 hours — but a different 5 hours. If you want to start your day at 6:00 a.m., go to bed at 1:00 a.m. Set that time in stone; don’t ever go to bed earlier. You’ll sleep for the same amount of time, but you’ll be getting up at a much more decent hour. Once the routine is working well, try moving your bedtime back by 15-minute intervals each week until you get to the point where you can go to bed earlier than 1:00 a.m. but stay asleep until 6:00 a.m., when you want to wake up.

Waking Up at 3 am Because You’ve Had Enough Sleep
“One of the most important causes of insomnia can be spending too much time in bed,” says Shalini Paruthi, MD, assistant professor in the division of pulmonary medicine at St. Louis University School of Medicine. For example, if you only need 6 hours of sleep but you turn in at 9:30 p.m. when you wake up 6 hours later it may be simply because you’re done. Of course, 3:30 a.m. is not an ideal time to start your day, so try going to bed later.

life long learner post

Waking Up at 3 a.m. Because of Menopause
If you never had this problem until you got older, then, yup, aging and its good friend menopause are playing a role. For one thing, says Findley, as we age we tend to get less of that deep sleep. But there’s more. If you’re post-menopausal, you need no introduction to night sweats. These are caused when the hypothalamus, which regulates your body temperature, becomes confused by fluctuating estrogen levels.

However, says Mary Jane Minkin, clinical professor at Yale and practicing OB/GYN, there’s a newer hypothesis for why menopausal women often awaken in the early hours: Their pituitaries may be making them do it. “When estrogen declines,” she explains, “the hypothalamus sends a hormone called GnRH [gonadotropic releasing hormone] to the pituitary gland. And since the hypothalamus is thought to produce GnRH most actively in the early morning hours, this activity may stimulate the nearby sleep center, which is also located in the hypothalamus.”

Remedy For Waking Up at 3 a.m.
The remedy for night sweats and early-hour wakefulness? Estrogen replacement may help, says Minkin, as may SSRI and SNRI antidepressants. One of her favorite non-medical remedies is Remifemin Good Night, which contains German black cohosh for hot flashes and various herbs for sleep.

So instead of lying awake and anxious, consider trying one of the approaches above. Or just give up and follow the lead of our ancestors, who embraced their wakefulness as a time to do some chores, converse with neighbors, have sex, or even steal some firewood. You say your partner has no trouble sleeping through the night, and your house has no fireplace? In that case, just pick up your phone and email, text, or tweet. Someone you like is sure to be awake at that hour, too.

Join Nest with Covey for immediate access to our private chat room in our CoveyConnect app called,“Up at 3 AM.”  Read other Covey articles on sleep: 4 Weird Sleep Tricks that Work, Take a Sleepcation from Your Spouse, Best White Noise Apps, My Sleep Rules and The One Beauty Treatment Every Woman Over 40 Needs.

  1. Nancy White

    This is pretty common for me. I find putting the bbc on my phone with earplugs gets me back to sleep in 15 minutes!

  2. Melanie Hansen

    I have books I’ve read often enough (so I don’t really need to hear them) on my ipod, so after a few minutes of wakefulness, I put my earbuds in and I’m lulled into dreamland again.

  3. Marta Shea

    I have tried going to bed later and I still get the same result: up at 1:00 am and 3:00 am. So then I get even less sleep. I have tried taking everything all natural that I can find, as well as anti anxiety meds and this seems to override everything I’ve tried. It’s awful! I have to be up at 4:30 and I work 9-10 hour days. It’s very exhausting. Don’t know what else to do.

    • lesley

      Thanks for your letter Marta. This is difficult. We need to do a follow-up article on stubborn issues like this. Stay tuned. In the meantime, you should speak with your DR to see if he/she has any solutions.

  4. Sarah

    Okay, so this article may make sense for me or may not…maybe someone reading my comment can help me out. I’ve been suffering with some really mysterious insomnia for 5 years, and doctors have proven worthless.
    I wake up 3-5 hours after falling asleep and cannot fall back asleep. Because my insomnia worsens the week before my cycle, I always felt the cause could be disregulated female hormone levels (though I was thinking excess estrogen stuck in my liver + estrogen dominance). Or possible causes I consider include high night-time cortisol, or a blood sugar spike in the middle of the night since during the daytime my body is use to eating every 4 hours. I do have anxiety, but I don’t believe my insomnia hinges on that. I’ve seen a sleep pysch. Didn’t help. I take zoloft and tryptophan to boost my serotonin. I’m too young (32) to be peri-menopausal, though I do get night sweats sometimes (only in the winter). And another oddity about my insomnia – it dramatically worsens in the winter/daylight savings. Because of that, I also have to wonder if it could be a circadian rhythm disorder. I work in a rather dark and windowless room all day, but I do use a sun lamp all day at work 9-5. I never really see sunlight in the winter except when driving to work and on weekends.
    Any insight is greatly appreciated.

  5. Sanjay

    One thing we can try, instruct your brain by saying yourself that “I am going into deep sleep and I not going to wake up until its 5am or 6am”. Repeat it 4-5 times when you are on bed and try to go asleep. This trick may help some one.

  6. kaushal kumar

    i always sudden get up at nearly 2 am to 3 am &i often see only dangerous natural disaster,sometimes i cant get forget it …i tried to get out of during this duration of dream but i totally become speechless&dumb…even much time in real life when something negative happened to me then i get shocked &confused because i felt that i had seen it in my dream…plz can u explain these all…

    • lesley

      Hi: this is a common anxiety situation. You might benefit from talking to someone professional about it. Thank you for posting.

  7. Mike

    It is now 03.50 in the morning and I have been awake for half an hour. This is a regular thing which happens every morning without fail. I do not worry about overmuch as I think I have gone through my sleep cycle. What I do is get in my most comfortable chair, settle down to read the news on my IPad and will eventually drift back off to sleep for a few hours. So really I don’t worry as this is part and parcel of getting old. I will be 78 in August.

    • lesley

      Thank you Mike for the lovely message. That is exactly what you’re supposed to do: not worry about it. Sometimes getting up and just going with it is the answer.

  8. Connie Nicholas

    To whom it may concern. I have found that drinking caffeine coffee or tea past lunchtime keeps me awake all night. I also wear ear plugs to sleep cause I am a light sleeper. Just a thought!

  9. Sarah

    My remedy for this is a Sleep Story from the Calm app…there is one read by Matthew McConaughey that is my go-to…mmmmm…

  10. Shirley Pickard

    I’ve had my sleep disrupted for around eight years now. Feeling exhausted at 10pm then waking at 3/3.30am. It can be difficult as i work 12 hour shifts. Tried reading,meditating and meds but nothing seems to work. It does make me feel anxious which is the worse part.

  11. CC

    I take 100 to 150 mg of Trazadone before bed (take at 9pm and have been for years) and I even smoke cannibus I don’t sleep past 330 now (6 hours). After feeling sad and frustrated, I’m making coffee by 4am. I have hours before work or until my work out class starts. I’d try to stay up later but I’m exhausted from the 330 am wake up. I have a pretty challenging and often stressful career but I’m happy, healthy and active. What can I do??

    • lesley

      We would suggest at that point you look into a sleep clinic. Have you been checked for apnea which may make you think you’re sleeping but you’re not so you wake exhausted? Also if you don’t stop your screen time early in the evening, you can end up repressing your natural melatonin which helps you sleep.

  12. hi

    this happens at 3am almost every night i have looked into every web page out their, and they all say different things, bad dreams, bad mood, low blood sugar, your thinking to much…
    i have herd it all and want to know the real answer.

  13. Lynne

    Slept well up to this Carona Virus now driving myself crazy ..wake up 4-20 every morning ..I know it’s just worry but can’t stop it ..self isolating awful time’s for us all ..stay safe..

  14. AA

    I have been very stressed out lately, and have been sleeping around 11pm and waking up at 3am somedays and other days i’ll stay up till 1am but i’ll still end up waking up at around 5am. Its like my body and sleep hates me and doesn’t let me sleep whatsoever! Im 19 so i don’t know if its anything to do with age.
    Also its 2020 and were going through a global Pandemic in which we have to be home at all times, which is also stressing me out to the max as i cannot go out for my normal exercise routine, even if i do go out i’m not ‘tired’ enough to sleep longer than a few hours.

  15. lamiyrah

    Hi I have been waking up around 3-3:30 AM every morning and I go to sleep around 11-12 PM I wake up thinking how did I go to sleep and not remembering being there sometimes can’t breathe I try to go back to sleep and can’t I thought I was nothing but it’s been going on for weeks and started to wonder if it’s something wrong with my body.

  16. James BonGiorno

    I have recently had a heart monitor placed in my chest called a defibrillator, this device is know to shock you when your heart rate increase’s. My problem is
    Similar to others, I sleep while my wife is awake the hours of 8 pm till 1:00 am, in my mind I fell this devise is going to shock me, mostly it in my mind an keeps me awake most of the time, it’s hard to live with so I just go with the flow, any advise would be very helpful, thank you.

  17. Bebo

    I hardly sleep,go to bed at 10:00, pm, can’t pass out,still awake until next day,try lorazepan, xanax,clonozepan, nightquil, Benadryl, nothing work,try meditation, most I have slept is 5 hours, if I see the clock and still awake I start to get anxious, is a nightmare, don’t know what to do. I’m 64 ,active,now I feel like 80.

    • lesley

      Hi Bebo: You don’t need to suffer. Look further into our content under “sleep” and you will find other solutions. You should also look into a sleep coach. There are also doctors trained in insomnia. You may need to change various habits and schedules. Check out nycsleepdoctor.com. Dr Kennedy did a great webinar with us as well.

  18. Christina Darragh

    It’s 4:25 and I have been awake since 3:30am which has been common for years. Such excellent comments. The article is life altering knowing I an not only NOT alone in this phenomenon but there are things I haven’t tried yet!
    Thank you for the article of intelligence and support and for each person’s share as I can worry less and have action items to try!

  19. piyush

    Today it’s the 2nd time i woke up exactly at 3 am in this week. I don’t know whether my body biological clock is set for that time to wake up is it that in rythm? i feel heavy breathing, i almost wake up gasping i don’t know understand why..i have no such Medical condition or pulmonary disease. I almost feels like something is on me choking and i just grasp my breath.

  20. Tahir Rana

    I was suffering with 3a.m insomnia since past 5 years. I went to every type of doctor. Took every type of medicine. Took 100s of tests. Few things helped. But very little.
    One day I accidently eat Garden Cress sprouts. That day, and few days after that my sleep increased almost 2 hours. That was a discovery. I started eating these sprouts regularly. After few days, my sleep increased 1 hours more. But also started to developed drowsiness. I stopped eating these sprouts. That thing cleared in 2 months. I started again, and this time nothing happened and now I sleep 8 hours every day, non-stop(Only Coffee and few more thing cause an insomnia, sometimes). It also helped me with other issues. This Pakistani herb solved an issue that seemed impossible once. I just wanted to share this for common benefit.

  21. Hana

    I’m 24 and for the past five nights have woken up at 1:30-2am after going to bed at 11. I then can’t go back to sleep until 4 (a good day) or 6 (a bad day). I’ve occasionally struggled with this but never for more than one or two nights in a row. Nothing significant has changed in my life (stress/injury/meds) so I have no idea why this is happening and it’s really starting to impact my mental health. Any idea why?

  22. Jana Snodgrass

    I too wake up at 3:30 every day. The difference is in about an hour or so I cannot stay awake. On anti depressants and anxiety meds. I’ve suffered with depression since the age of 27. I am 72 now. I’m getting flustered!

  23. Catherine

    I’m usually asleep by 10pm. I’ve set my alarm for 4:20am to take my thyroid med. Lately I’ve been waking up at 2:30, 3:00 an can’t get back to sleep. Im not very active and figure i don’t need much sleep. But I’ll be in my chair doing something reading, playing a game and I’ll have an accidental nap. It kind of scares me be I don’t see it coming. Its like I pass out but I only sleep a couple minutes. I only do this in my chair. Thank God
    I have major anxiety, no meds. Anyone else fall asleep like that? I’m 63.

  24. Ann

    It’s currently 4:28am and I’ve been up since 3. I’m 40 and have no idea when this actually started because I had 4 babies in my 20s so I had a very messed up schedule from that. My youngest is now 14 and no one has been waking me for many years now but I wake around 3 am most nights. I’m fairly certain it’s due to switching sleep cycles and being a lighter sleeper to begin with. I end up falling back to sleep eventually most nights but not immediately. Some nights, like tonight, I experience anxiety. It builds and builds until I’m in tears and feel like I’m going to freak out. The only way to stop the anxiety is to get up and do something for a while. This article makes so much sense. It definitely relieves some of the anxiety just hearing that this is common for so many and could infact just be a normal cycle for some. I’ll most likely be back to sleep by 6am and luckily I have no time I have to be up by. Hopefully whoever reads this will fall back to sleep soon as well.

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