You know the scene. You wake up in the middle of the night and roll over to check your phone, but you don’t really need to. You already know it’s 3 am.
Most people wake up several times during the night. This is often accompanied by the body shifting its position. These nightly awakenings usually coincide with transitions from one sleep stage to another and are so brief, we often don’t remember them in the morning.
“The average adult awakens seven to 15 times each night, and this is normal,” says Michael Perlis, director of the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine. But the 3 am wake up is one that can bring us out of deep sleep and may make it hard for us to doze off again.
The Historical Reason for Waking up Early
The reason for this 3 am wake up can be traced back to before the Industrial Revolution, when people in Europe and North America broke their sleep into two segments: first sleep and second sleep. Due to the advent of artificial light, people were able to work (and play) much later into the evening. This meant bedtimes were pushed back later and later, disrupting our circadian rhythms and reordering our sense of time.
In this new Capitalist age, sleep become something one needed in order to do one’s job and was lumped together into a single interval of sleep, rather than the two we were used to.
You wake up at 3 am because this is the time you shift from deep sleep into a lighter sleep. If you turn in at 11 pm, by three in the morning you’re mostly out of deep sleep and shifting into longer periods of lighter sleep, known as REM. Your brain is more active in the REM stage, so it’s more likely that you’ll awaken.
In the world of religion and spirituality, the 3 am wake-up has great significance. Wayne Dwyer, who was a famed American self-help author whose first book sold 100 million copies, urged people to embrace the 3 am moment. “Put your feet on the floor, get out of bed, feel the morning breeze, and listen to your inner thoughts,” he said.
If you are struggling with the 3 am wake up, you may benefit from the sleep restriction method. It’s perfectly normal to experience this pattern of waking, so try to acknowledge it and wait for sleep to come again. If it doesn’t, you don’t have to just lie there feeling anxious. Get up and read or listen to music and try again once you feel drowsy.
Practicing what is known as good “sleep hygiene” can significantly increase your chances of having a good night’s sleep. Sleep hygiene practices include:
- Avoid spicy or rich foods before bed. No more late-night curry or ice-cream parties — these can trigger indigestion and heartburn which is uncomfortable and can wake you up.
- Avoiding stimulants such as caffeine and nicotine in the afternoon and evening.
- Avoiding alcohol. Even though a glass of wine can help you fall asleep fast, it can disrupt your sleep in the second part of the night as the body begins to process the alcohol.
- Exercise. As little as 10 minutes of aerobic exercise a day can drastically improve your quality of sleep. Aim to hit the gym earlier in the day though, as exercise can increase energy post-workout.
This is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care professional.