Is waking at 3am normal?
In all the years I have been helping customers in health food shops, the most frequent sleep related question I have been asked is ‘why do I always wake up at 3am?'. It seems that this is a huge problem for people, far more than issues of actually getting to sleep.
Indeed, when we ran a survey about sleep problems on the A.Vogel website, by far the biggest group (nearly 50%) identified early morning waking as the sleep issue that bothers them the most.
However, it's important to recognise that waking up during the night is normal - we all do it several times a night and it is part of the normal sleep cycle. We normally fall straight back to sleep so don't remember, but when we stay awake or feel groggy the next day it becomes a problem.
Which organ is to blame for your 3am wake up?
Modern diets and lifestyles put a lot of pressure on the body, whether it’s from too much fatty food and refined sugar, from the consumption of alcohol or stimulants, or from too much stress – or a combination of all these!
One organ in particular that suffers from this type of lifestyle is the liver – and, you guessed it, it’s the liver that carries out many of its main functions in the early hours of the morning!
The science behind it
One thing to be aware of is that, according to Traditional Chinese Medicine, our internal organs work to a 24 hour ‘clock’, with certain times of day being peak times for that organ. This is the time that the organ will carry out its most essential functions.
The schedule is as follows:
Large intestine: 5am-7am
Small Intestines: 1pm-3pm
Endocrine system/pancreas: 9pm-11pm
Gallbladder: 11pm -1am
In Chinese medicine, any repeated issues that occur at a particular time of the day suggest an imbalance in the corresponding organ. For example, I do not wake early but often feel excessively tired at around 6pm and this, according to my acupuncturist, is because my kidney function is weak.
As you can see from this schedule, 1-3am is ‘liver time’. One thing the liver needs is energy, and for that it uses glycogen from the body’s sugar stores. The problem is that adrenaline production also uses up glycogen, and adrenaline is what we produce when we are stressed and when our blood sugar levels are unstable.
So if you spend the whole day stressed and with your blood sugar levels going up and down like a yo-yo, by the time it gets to 1am, there will not be enough glycogen left for the liver to regenerate. In this scenario, the body has to produce adrenaline to compensate – and as adrenaline is designed to keep us awake, you will wake up at this point.
How can I stop waking up at 3am?
Luckily, unless there are serious medical conditions compounding the problem, there are lots of things you can do to help yourself if waking at 3am is a problem for you:
1. Look after your liver
The liver does not like alcohol, junk food, very rich food or drugs like painkillers. Cut these out as much as possible and make your last meal of the day the lightest, so that the liver is not trying to regenerate while dealing with, for example, a cheese fondue at the same time.
Simple, healthy food is best for the liver but if you think your liver might need extra help, consider taking a remedy made from traditional liver-supporting herbs such as artichoke, dandelion root and milk thistle.
You may also want to follow our Nutritionist Ali's simple tips for a liver detox!
2. Keep a remedy near you
While changes to your diet and lifestyle can take a while to implement and to take effect, what can you do in the short term, or when you find yourself wide awake in the middle of the night?
One thing I would do is keep a bottle of Dormeasan by your bed and take a dose when you wake up – this should help you to get back to sleep quickly as, in tincture form, Dormeasan can enter your bloodstream effiecently, resulting you feeling the benefits quicker!
Prepared using a blend of Valerian and Hops, Dormeasan gently helps to your mind and body to relax, encouraging a deep, natural sleep cycle without any of the drowsy side-effects associated with conventional sleep medicines.
You can read more tips on how to get back to sleep in one of my previous blog posts, '5 tips to help you get back to sleep.' And do not check your phone!
3. Look after your adrenals
The adrenals, as I have said before, are boring! They do not like stimulants such as sugar, caffeine, stress or even stimulation from things like computer screens and the Internet. It is hard to limit stressful scenarios, as we all have to work and have busy lives, but you can limit the impact on your adrenals. In an ideal scenario, cut out all refined sugar and caffeine from the diet, or at least cut out caffeine after noon.
Stop using smartphones and computers after 8-9pm, and try deep breathing or meditation techniques before bed. To reduce stress levels in the body during the day, consider one of our Bach flower remedies, such as Mood Essence, and taking magnesium supplements at night can also be useful.
4. Balance your blood sugar levels
To best balance your blood sugar, eat regular meals and avoid all refined sugar and carbohydrates such as white bread or pasta, etc. If you do feel your blood sugar dipping, eating a protein-rich snack such as nuts is better than reaching for sugary things – although the sugar will perk you up initially, it will only lead to your blood sugar levels crashing again a little while later.
Some people with night-time waking might find that they need a small, healthy snack before bed to stop their blood sugar dipping at 3am. Try oatcakes or a banana. For more night time snack ideas check out my top 5 foods to help you sleep blog post.
Do you regularly wake at 3am? Or is your sleep constantly disruptive at another time of the night?
Originally published 01/04/15, updated 01/03/21