Why do you keep waking up at the same time each night?
If you find yourself persistently waking up at roughly the same time each night, you’re not alone. The National Sleep Foundation has estimated that around 40% of Americans1 have trouble staying asleep at night and closer to home here in the UK, it’s thought that 56% of women and 49% of men are long-term poor sleepers.2
While stress appears to be a recurring culprit, affecting around 50% of the population’s sleeping habits3, as I discussed in my article ‘Waking up at 3am’ sometimes the time that we wake up at can speak volumes about our physical health and it is possible that your body could be trying to tell you something.
According to traditional Chinese medicine, our internal organs work to a 24 hour clock (not dissimilar to the biological clock that governs sleep!) and that certain times of the day can be peak times for particular organs, when they will be working at their busiest. Waking up during the night could be a sign that something isn’t quite right with that particular organ.
It’s definitely an interesting theory and as sleep scientists know, a variety of bodily functions are performed while we sleep, such as hormone secretion and memory consolidation etc. So today I’m going to go more in depth to examine what your nightly wake-up times could mean and possibly how you can treat them.
Endocrine system and pancreas: 9pm – 11pm
Your endocrine system can loosely be described as series of specialised organs and glands that are responsible for the secretion of certain hormones.
As you may already know, certain hormones are secreted while you sleep and are governed by your body’s circadian rhythm. For example, cortisol, melatonin, prolactin, ghrelin and the human growth hormone (HGH) are regulated by your circadian rhythm.
Interestingly, hormones can also be linked to your pancreas as this small organ is responsible for producing insulin, which helps to lower blood sugar, and glucagon, which can raise blood sugar levels. It also helps to produce digestive enzymes to break down food and help your body to digest fats, proteins and carbohydrates.
In Chinese medicine, your pancreas and endocrine system are particularly busy around 9pm-11pm at night so any disturbances during this time are believed to be connected to these two systems. Sometimes this period is known as the ‘triple warmer’ and is thought to be closely linked to your thyroid and adrenal function. It’s believed that sufferers display physical symptoms such as urinary difficulties, abdominal swelling, water retention and, on an emotional level, feelings of paranoia and hopelessness.4
It’s possible that you could be suffering from a hormonal imbalance or it could be linked to your blood-sugar levels, which immediately brings conditions such as diabetes to mind. Diabetes has been linked to sleep difficulties, either due to high blood sugar levels or low blood sugar levels, which can both impact your sleep patterns. In fact around 33% of diabetes sufferers have reported having disturbed sleep, with high blood sugar levels sometimes driving you to the bathroom during the night, and, unfortunately, sleep deprivation in turn can also sometimes increase your chances of developing insulin resistance.5
Aside from diabetes, your pancreas is also thought to be affected by alcohol consumption and high levels of triglycerides, which are synthesised from fatty foods. So even if you’re not affected by diabetes, a night of overindulging may be having an impact on your sleep!
What you can do
If you do think that it’s possible you may be suffering from a hormonal imbalance, it’s always worth discussing it with your doctor or GP. Your diet can also play a big role in helping to regulate your blood sugar levels and supporting to your pancreas so I would try to avoid fatty, processed or sugary foods during the day and instead focus on foods that may help your pancreas, such as leafy green vegetables like spinach or antioxidant-rich fruits such as blueberries and cherries! Try to limit your intake of alcohol and if you are a smoker, consider the ditching the habit. The NHS provides plenty of helpful information about quitting smoking here.
Gallbladder: 11pm – 1am
Your gallbladder is a small digestive organ that is located just under your ribs and normally it stores bile, secreting it into the digestive tract after you eat to help you breakdown foods, as well as emulsifying fats so they can be absorbed into your blood stream, and removing cholesterol.
However, in recent years gall bladder problems seem to be increasing with the formation of gallstones becoming a bigger problem. This can be a real issue as sometimes gallstones do not present any symptoms so you may not even realise that you have a problem! In Chinese medicine, gallbladder symptoms are associated with shoulder pain, dizziness, headaches and emotional problems such as resentment and bitterness.
Unfortunately, age, gender and body weight do play a role in how predisposed you are to gallbladder problems. Women are twice as likely as men to develop gallstones due to factors such as excess oestrogen, which is sometime brought on by factors such as hormonal contraceptives and HRT. As you age, your body will also start to release more cholesterol into your bile, aiding the formation of gallstones.
What you can do
Gallbladder problems are frequently linked to dietary issues – food allergies, a diet high in refined, fatty, sugary foods or inadequate levels of stomach acid. If you want to support your gallbladder, it’s important that you start be slowly cutting back on processed carbohydrates and unrefined carbohydrates.
Instead focus on getting plenty of fibre into your diet and healthy fats, such as foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids. Vitamin C is also thought to be good for supporting your gallbladder so green leafy vegetables such as spinach should definitely be back on the menu.
Since low levels of stomach acid are thought to also affect your gallbladder health, it might be worth checking out our low stomach acid pages written by our digestive expert Ali Cullen. As she details, chronic stress over a prolonged period of time can affect your stomach acid levels so do try to take steps to eliminate stress.6
Liver: 1 – 3am
Your liver is responsible for cleansing your blood, producing bile and storing glycogen as well as a multitude of other essential body functions. It is the only organ you possess that is capable of healing itself so that should say something about its importance straight away!
In Chinese medicine, waking up at a time when the liver is active is supposed to indicate that your liver could be becoming overwhelmed by the detoxifying process, stimulating symptoms such as back pain, PMS and irritability.
I did speak a little more extensively about the liver in my blog ‘Waking up at 3am’ and I mentioned that the liver uses glycogen from the body’s sugar store as energy. Glycogen, as I mentioned earlier, is secreted to raise your blood sugar levels. It also plays a key role in the production of adrenaline, a hormone that is released when your body experiences stress.
What this means is that if you continuously experience stress, you will be producing more adrenaline, which in turn uses up your stores of glycogen, raising your blood sugar levels. Without any glycogen stores your liver won’t be able to function properly and may produce even more adrenaline to compensate, which may disturb your sleep and keep you awake at night.
What you can do
Stress is not good for your body as a whole and it certainly won’t be doing your liver any favours. That’s why it’s important to tackle the issue at the root – I offer more information about stress here but for now, I would recommend getting plenty of fresh air and exercise, or possibly trying one of our gentle stress remedies such as AvenaCalm.
When it comes to supporting your liver, cutting out rich, processed foods can make a real difference. The impact of alcohol on your liver is also well-documented so it might be worth cutting down your intake. If you feel your liver could use an extra helping hand, we do offer a remedy prepared using traditional liver-supporting herbs such as dandelion, milk thistle and artichoke!
Taking part in a simple liver detox may also do your liver the world of good too so it’s definitely worth considering!
Lungs: 3am – 5am
The chances are you’re already well versed in what your lungs do (they allow oxygen into your body and get rid of carbon dioxide) but their presence on this list may seem a little odd.
However, in Chinese medicine, the lungs refer to the whole of your respiratory system, including your sinuses and nose, and are often associated with immune protection and grief. If there is an imbalance, it’s not unusual to experience symptoms such as wheezing, coughing or low immunity.
Sleep and the respiratory system can have a noticeable impact on each other – your lungs help to expel waste from your body and during REM sleep breathing can become faster while your cough reflex is repressed, however, in cases of obstructive sleep apnoea, your airways can become blocked which may lead to low blood oxygen levels. When this happens, your body will instinctively wake-up in order to correct this blockage.
Respiratory problems could also refers to issues such as allergies or infections though, or even an inflammation of the sinuses so it’s important that you consider all the possibilities.
What you can do
When it comes to disorders such as sleep apnoea, you have to consider a range of factors, such as your diet, weight and lifestyle. However, when it comes to issues such as your immune function and allergies, there are plenty of treatment options.
For example, one of our most popular products during the hayfever season is Pollinosan, a natural hayfever remedy that can also help with allergic rhinitis, diminishing some of the irritating symptoms associated with such allergies.
Sinuforce is another one of our remedies that’s very popular at this time of year, providing rapid relief from nasal catarrh and congestion. You could also try our Cough Spray too if you’re suffering from a dry, tickly cough that’s keeping you up at night; however, if you really want to support your immune system, I’d recommend our Echinaforce Echinacea tablets, which are traditionally used to combat cold and flu symptoms!
Large intestine: 5am – 7am
There’s nothing worse than waking up forty-five minutes before your alarm is due to go off. It’s too soon to get up but your chances of falling back asleep are greatly reduced so why do you keep waking up at 0545? The answer possibly lies with your large intestine.
Your large intestine is responsible for absorbing water from indigestible food matter and eliminating any useless waste products from the body. According to Chinese medicine, it’s perfectly normal to wake up at this time to perform a bowel movement, however, persistently waking up without feeling the need to evacuate your bowels can sometimes hint at larger problems such as constipation or dehydration.
What you can do to help
Keeping a glass of water nearby might be useful but it might be a good idea to avoid caffeine at this time as it may cause further irritation and can act as a diuretic. Instead, focus on drinking plenty of plain water and think carefully about your diet.
Since constipation can often be triggered by not eating enough wholegrains, vegetables or other foods that are rich in fibre, it's probably time to increase your intake of these products. Stress and anxiety can also take their toll on your digestive system too, so try to deal with these issues as best you can, whether it's taking a gentle stress remedy or practicing deep breathing techniques.
Unfortunately, there are medicines out there that can cause bouts of constipation, as our digestive expert Ali details, so it's always worth checking the side-effects of any medications you may be taking. We do offer a natural remedy for the short-term relief of occasional constipation, Linoforce granules 12 years plus, which may help to ease some of your symptoms.