Waking at 3am

Why are you waking during the night?

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07 March 2024

Is waking at 3 am normal?

In all the years I have been helping customers in health food shops with their sleep problems, whilst some struggle to fall asleep, the most frequent sleep-related question I have been asked is ‘Why do I keep waking at 3am?'.

It seems that regularly waking during the night, and at roughly the same time, 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%) waking in the middle of the night as the sleep issue that bothers them the most.

However, it's important to recognise that nocturnal awakenings are normal - we should come to, becoming more awake during our nighttime sleep, as this is part of the normal sleep cycle. It can be frustrating as most of us want to stay asleep or feel that we are achieving a deep sleep. Luckily, in most cases, we normally fall straight back to sleep so don't remember, but when we stay awake for longer or feel groggy the next day, it becomes a problem and it can suggest more significant sleep disruptions are at work. 

Then, especially if this pattern becomes more routine, waking in the middle of the night, it can easily contribute to sleep deprivation. We all need enough sleep to function optimally - both in terms of our physical and mental health.

Why do I keep waking at 3am?

Whilst waking consistently in the middle of the night could be linked to something more serious such as sleep disorders; there could also be links to certain organs.

Now, generally, modern diets and lifestyles can 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, too much stress, a poor sleep environment, failing to put in place good sleep hygiene – 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 and can therefore easily disrupt you and wake you from a deep sleep!

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 and night being peak times for that organ.

This is the time that the organ will carry out its most essential functions and repair work, and this could translate into waking hours during the night, or early morning awakenings, (essentially impacting on your internal body clock) if more repair work than usual is required.

If the organs in question (those under more pressure in your body) carry out their repair work in the middle of the night. This can mean that the classic sleep cycle that you want to maintain, comprising different phases of light sleep, deep sleep, and REM sleep, can become disturbed.

The schedule is as follows:

So, how are the different organs and systems mapped out in terms of this unique, 24-hour clock? Years of research and careful monitoring have concluded it likely goes something like this:

Large intestine: 5am-7am

Stomach: 7am-9am

Spleen: 9am-11am Heart: 11am-1pm

Small Intestines: 1pm-3pm

Bladder: 3pm-5pm

Kidneys: 5pm-7pm

Circulation: 7pm-9pm

Endocrine system/pancreas: 9pm-11pm

Gallbladder: 11pm -1am

Liver: 1am-3am

Lungs: 3am-5am

In Chinese medicine, any repeated issues that occur at a particular time of the day suggest an imbalance in the corresponding organ and the appropriate support measures should be put in place.

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.

Conversely, interrupted or noticeably lighter sleep at certain points during nighttime sleep, or fully waking up at 3, could signal another organ (in this case the liver), could be under pressure.

As you can see from this schedule, 1-3am is ‘liver time'. One thing the liver needs is sufficient energy, and for that it uses a chemical called glycogen, made 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, with your sympathetic nervous system more dominant, with your blood sugar levels going up and down like a yo-yo, (lots of caffeine will also only make this pattern worse, by the time it gets to 1am, there risks not being enough available glycogen left for the liver to regenerate.

In this scenario, the body has to produce adrenaline to compensate – and as adrenaline is involved in our 'fight or flight response' and designed to keep us awake, you will wake up at this point and disrupted sleep cycles become apparent.

How can I stop waking up at 3am?

Luckily, unless serious medical conditions (this could sleep-related such as a sleep disorder, or otherwise such as high blood pressure) are compounding the problem, there are lots of things you can do to help yourself if waking at 3 am is a problem for you and you would like nothing more than to achieve better sleep:

1. Look after your liver

The liver does not like alcohol, junk food, very rich food or drugs like painkillers, and an unhappy liver has long been linked with disrupted sleep.

Limit these elements of your diet as much as possible if you're keen to get a good night's sleep 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, plus the liver is particularly fond of bitter tasting foods such as many of the green vegetable options. So, but if you think your liver might need extra help, consider adding some bitter greens before each meal, of it you're finding this hard to keep on top of, taking a bitter herbal remedy such as artichoke, dandelion root and milk thistle can work nicely too.

You may also want to follow our Nutritionist Ali's simple tips for a liver detox to help get you started.

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 you could try is to take a dose of Sleep Well Dissolvable Granules. These combine Lemon balm*, lettuce, L-tryptophan, and magnesium to contribute to a calm, restful sleep.

*Lemon Balm helps maintain a normal sleep 

A.Vogel Sleep Well Dissolvable Granules | Pour Directly into Mouth | Natural Orange Flavour

£15.99 (14 sachets x 2g) In Stock

Then, you can read more practical tips on how to fall asleep should you wake in the middle of the night in one of my previous blog posts, '5 tips to help you get back to sleep,' if you're keen to improve your sleep quality.

Then, do not check your phone! This is the number one rule when it comes to combatting poor sleep hygiene. Blue light which radiates from screens can easily knock off your circadian rhythm and contribute to more trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep or more generally knock off your sleep cycle patterns (if you're too stimulated).

Please note, if your waking in the middle of the night is thought to be linked to something more serious such as sleep disorders, sleep apnea or obstructive sleep apnea, for example, you should always see your doctor or a healthcare professional who can look into your sleep disturbances in more detail.

Then if you're really not sure what the cause of your problem may be, but are quite sure you don't stay asleep, or achieve as much deep sleep as you'd ideally like, see some points below for some other possible causes of trouble staying asleep.

3. Look after your adrenals

The adrenals, as I have said before, are boring! Ok, this is a joke, but here's the things, they do not like stimulants such as sugar, caffeine, stress or even stimulation from things like computer screens and the internet.

It is often easier said than done to limit stressful scenarios; we all have work and busy family lives, but you can still take the extra time and effort to try and 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. This simple tip could just help you to stay asleep come bedtime.

You can also take control in other ways. If you have trouble drifting off or wake ups are common after nodding off, cut out some poor sleep hygiene habits and stop using smartphones and computers after 8-9 pm.

Instead, try and make some extra efforts to force your body to actively relax - try deep breathing exercises or meditation techniques before bed. A warm bath before bed can also get your body into the way of winding down and helps support good sleep hygiene.

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 to help you get more sleep. Don't worry, these options won't force you into a light sleep before you require it, but it will help set you up nicely for drifting off to sleep easier when the time comes.

Another tip is to get outside earlier in the day. Exposing your eyes to natural light is a lovely tactic for encouraging your natural circadian rhythm to fall back into place. If you have difficulty falling asleep, this tactic in the morning can translate into better sleep cycles at night, and can be considered natural (and free!) sleep medicine.

4. Balance your blood sugar levels

To best balance your blood sugar, eat regular meals and try to limit refined sugar and carbohydrates such as white bread or pasta, etc.

If you do feel your blood sugar dipping, opting for a protein-rich snack such as a handful of nuts or seeds is always going to be better than reaching for obviously sugary options. Although you might assume the sugar will perk you up initially, it will only lead to your blood sugar levels crashing again a little while later, which could lead to interrupted sleep, contributing to nighttime awakenings and causing you to wake up early from your slumber.

Some people with disturbed sleep might find that they need a small, healthy snack before bed to stop their blood sugar dipping at 3am and suddenly being aware of a period of lighter sleep. Try oatcakes or a banana to help keep your blood sugar more balanced and help improve your sleep quality. Also, don't be tempted to go to bed hungry as this could also add to your trouble falling asleep, or contribute to early morning wake ups.

For more nighttime snack ideas check out my top 5 foods to help you sleep blog post.

5. Consider other underlying health conditions or causes

Wondering if there could be any other underlying health conditions or causes of your non conventional sleep patterns? Nighttime awakenings could also be linked to some other factors you might not have considered including:

Restless leg syndrome

Restless leg syndrome can be linked to nutrient deficiencies in some cases, such as iron, magnesium or B vitamins.

Most people will likely benefit from some extra magnesium anyway (so many modern habits drain this important nutrient such as stress, medications, alcohol or opting for processed foods) and the lovely magnesium fits into a nice, relaxing sleep hygiene routine too.

My top tip is to try our magnesium bath oil or massage oil for topical application, as well as topping up orally with a magnesium supplement in order to achieve optimal absorption.

Periodic limb movement disorder

A more extreme version of restless legs, periodic limb movement disorder could result or jerking or cramping of your legs during sleep and unsurprisingly, this could result in difficulty falling asleeo or poor quality sleep once your body eventually succumbs.

This isn't exactly the optimal conditions for avoiding night waking, so speak to your doctor if you are struggling to get your symptoms under control and want nothing more than to get back to sleep!

Perimenopause or menopause

Some people may reach a certain age, struggle frequently to get back to sleep, and just put this down to age related sleep changes. But you don't need to accept this fate without further investigation or answers.

See, sleep issues could be a direct result of perimenopause hormonal fluctuations, or an indirect result of other perimenopause or menopause symptoms such as night sweats or hot flashes.

Menopause Support could be a top choice to help you to manage several different menopause symptoms, or if you're keen to manage a specific symptom such as hot flashes or night sweats, the herbal ingredient Sage could help.

Mental health conditions

Stress exists on a wide spectrum. Stress can easily lead to other mental health symptoms such as anxiety or even depression, or there may be a stand-alone disorder such as post traumatic stress disorder.

Unfortunately, all of these states can disrupt sleep; keep you awake, mean you struggle to get back to sleep after a wake up, or contribute to early morning wake ups.

Talk to your doctor if you feel you are struggling to manage any mental health symptoms or if they are translating into other symptoms such as trouble sleeping.

Irregular blood pressure

High or low blood pressure and the associated symptoms could easily affect sleep and mean that you find you wake up more frequently or struggle to get back to sleep. From low energy to headaches, be sure to check with your doctor if you have disruptive symptoms you'd like checked.

If you can't decipher any reason for your disturbed sleep or are struggling to find a solution, a sleep specialist could also be worth approaching. Achieving a more natural sleep cycle, and the preferred circadian rhythm once more is crucial to achieve a more restful night, and there is help out there should you need it.

Originally published 01/04/15, updated 08/03/24

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