Did you know that ‘why do I wake up at 3 am for no reason?’ is among the most posed questions to sleep experts? Waking up at 3 am is such a common occurrence that many people rarely notice it anymore.
But why does it happen? Does it have any significant meaning or impact? Should you embrace it or get rid of the causes?
According to sleep experts, common reasons include effects of the sleep cycle, poor sleep hygiene, sleep disorders, underlying medical conditions, menopause, old age, and simple sleep disruptors like body movement and noise.
Read on to dive deeper into this intriguing phenomenon to see the underlying science behind it and how to orient yourself better to deal with its downsides.
What Does It Mean When You Wake Up At 3 am
Waking up at 3 am is called nocturnal awakening, or more simply, early morning awakening. 35% of Americans experience nocturnal awakening several times throughout the week, making it as frequent as dreaming.
There are many reasons why you wake up at 3 am, but all of them involve a pattern or disturbance in your sleep cycle. It is best to always err on the side of caution before worrying about the severity of your frequently occurring awakening.
It is first important to look behind the curtain and understand the sleep cycle since this is what controls all that happens when you get into bed. Also, take note of your sleeping habits, sleep hygiene, any underlying medical conditions, dreams, and real-life stressful situations.
Understanding the Sleep Cycle
Many people mistake sleep for being uniform when in reality, it happens in a number of steps, all of which help you get better rest while still keeping you alert and addressing day-to-day occurrences through dreams and epiphanies.
The sleep cycle is between 7 to 9 hours and takes you through four stages: Wake to sleep, light sleep, deep sleep, and REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep.
These stages last at different lengths depending on your sleep cycle and the presence of any sleep disturbances. Most of your night is also spent in REM sleep; other sleep cycles get shorter the longer you sleep.
REM sleep is where you get most of your active sleep, where you dream, memory gets consolidated, and emotional processing occurs. It is called rapid-eye movement because your eyes move rapidly from side to side during this stage of sleep.
REM is different from other sleep cycles that are non-REM. The main difference is that the brain activity is more similar to that of someone who is awake and that you lose complete control over your muscle tone as compared to non-REM sleep cycles.
Wake to sleep/N1 stage (lasts 1 – 7 minutes) is the first stage when you transition into sleep mode as your brain slows down, making you drowsy. You can still move your muscles at this stage, but your breathing starts getting irregular. It is easier to get up at this stage, and it is the shortest stage.
Light Sleep/N2 (lasts 10 – 25 minutes) follows with decreased body temperature and heart rate. It is harder to be awoken at this stage since the brain activity is much slower, and you often spend half of your sleep in this stage.
Deep Sleep/N3 (lasts 20 – 40 minutes) is the hardest stage to wake someone from. This is where you get most of your restful benefits from body recovery, better immune system efficiency, and better creative thinking.
REM Sleep (10 – 60 minutes after falling asleep) is when brain activity picks up, putting you in a state of wakefulness. Your body also experiences temporary paralysis (muscle atonia), and it becomes harder to move or respond to muscle stimuli.
Your eyes begin to move quickly from side to side under your lids, and this is the stage where dreams often occur, but you can dream at any stage.
REM sleep starts about 90 minutes after you doze off and makes up about 25% of your sleep. It is another lighter sleep cycle but with more dreams.
According to sleep science, your body is more susceptible to disturbances during the lighter sleep cycles, more so during the REM sleep cycle, which is often where you are at 3 am if you started sleeping between 9 pm – 11 pm.
Now that we know why we are easily awakened at 3 am let us dive deeper into the reason behind this effect.
9 Science Reasons of Waking Up At 3am
1. Shift from Deep Sleep to REM Sleep
As you now know, your brain is more active and susceptible to sleep disruptors in REM sleep, which is where you usually are in the sleep cycle in the wee hours of the morning.
Transitioning from one sleep cycle to another can, in and of itself, lead you to wake up even though you have nothing else waking you up.
You also have the vivid dreams during REM sleep, and these can wake you up easily if they are too exciting or frightening.
Your body and brain are also in lighter sleep, meaning that you can move your muscles easier during REM sleep making it easier to wake up due to body shifting.
2. Sleep Disruptors
Sleep disruptors range from mild inconveniences like small background noises to light exposure from lamps & bulbs to snoring and snoring and, most notably, nighttime bathroom breaks (also called nocturia), which is very common during pregnancy.
If you are wondering why you keep waking up at 3 am to pee, then you should know it is not only because you drank too many fluids but also because your brain is more active and processes your need to want to go to the bathroom. The need for bathroom breaks is less frequent in non-REM sleep cycles.
3. Stress & Anxiety
Dreams, memory processing, and memory consolidation make you more aware of your stresses and anxieties during REM sleep. If you are wondering why you keep waking up at 3 am with anxiety, then here is your answer.
Unfinished tasks lay lurking in the mind till they get completed. It is important to note them down and lay out a plan that puts your mind at ease before you head into bed. This will help your mind relax and think less often about your tasks during the night.
It is also important to know that the body’s stress hormones (called cortisol, which also helps keep you alert) are affected when you fall asleep.
On typical days, sleep hormones (melatonin) work in a cyclic 24-hour cycle with the stress hormones. Melatonin is higher during the night to keep you asleep, and cortisol is higher during the day to keep you active, maintain blood pressure, respond to stress, and improve immunity.
The cortisol levels spike up when you are stressed or anxious, meaning their concentration will be higher than normal at night, thereby keeping you more active during REM sleep or between 2 am and 3 am when you have a lighter sleep.
The higher your cortisol levels remain, the easier it becomes to stay awake at night or wake up at 3 am. Having a doctor take a look at your cortisol levels can help you clarify if stress in your life is contributing to your frequent awakenings at different times.
4. Poor Sleep Hygiene
Poor sleep hygiene is when you do not put yourself in the best state to fall asleep better and get meaningful rest. Poor sleeping habits include inconsistent sleeping periods, frequent naps during the day, using electronics before sleep, lack of daylight exposure, and using drugs and alcohol close to bedtime.
If you have poor sleep hygiene, then the effects will not only be waking up at 3 am, but you will also have worse rest, wake up tired, fall sick easily, have trouble falling asleep, and feel a bit irritated and uneasy during the day.
5. You Are Under Medication, Drugs, or Alcohol Influence
Drinking alcohol before bed may make you fall asleep faster, but it disrupts your sleep cycle, making it easier for you to wake up at 3 am and harder to have the best rest across all four sleep cycles.
Many people use marijuana to also fall asleep faster or not stressed which makes them more susceptible to falling asleep for longer. However, other studies show that frequent use of marijuana can impair sleep quality and make it harder to fall asleep or maintain sleep.
Smoking cigarettes exposes you to nicotine which is known to disrupt sleep and causes many to develop sleep disorders like sleep apnea. Nicotine is a stimulant like coffee which will make your brain activity become more rampant and alert.
Some medications are also sleep disruptors, including antidepressants, diuretics, many cold remedies, and beta blockers. Check-in with your doctor first to know if your medication is affecting your sleep.
6. You Are Getting Older
Sleep quality reduces as we get older due to a variety of reasons, including poor health conditions and changes in lifestyle. Sleep is controlled by what we call a master clock in the hypothalamus part of the brain.
This part of the brain has 20,000 SCN cells (suprachiasmatic nucleus) which essentially control our 24-hour circadian rhythm. These cells rely on information from other organs and hormones, including the eyes and melatonin levels.
As we age, our lifestyle and deteriorating health conditions do not allow us to get optimal information from our bodies to keep the 24-hour cycle running. This contributes to shorter sleeping periods and frequent awakenings at night, even at 3 am.
Waking up at 3 am can also be due to the onset of menopause. Hot flashes are a common symptom of menopause which greatly contributes to sleeplessness and sleep disturbances at any time of the night. Please note that menopause has been noted to cause sleep apnea, too; check in with your doctor for more guidance on the matter.
7. Sleep Disorders
If you start noticing changes in your sleep, including waking up at 3 am, then it may be a sign that you are developing a sleep disorder.
Common sleep disorders that can wake you up at 3 am include insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, arthritis, neuropathy, restless leg syndrome, gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), and nightmare disorder.
8. Underlying Health Conditions
Many medical conditions that can cause frequent or chronic pain can cause you to wake up at any time. A lot of respiratory health conditions will affect your sleep, including asthma and smoking addictions.
Heart conditions like irregular heart rhythms and high blood pressure will also affect your sleep cycles, making it harder for your brain to stay inactive during REM sleep mostly.
Other health conditions that can cause you to wake up at 3 am include COPD (chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease), Endocrine disorders, Dementia, Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, and Nocturnal hypoglycemia.
Spiritual & Biblical Meaning of Waking Up At 3 Am
So, why do you keep waking up at 3 am every night in spiritual terms? Well, to answer that, we need to talk about the Witching Hour, or as it is also known – the Devil’s Hour.
The Devil’s hour has a long cultural, idiomatic, and colloquial history based on our shared experiences in spiritual and supernatural terms. Many religions and spiritual schools of thought regard this as the time when evil is most rampant around us, from demons to ghosts, witches, and lots of supernatural activity.
Origins go back to the 1500s in the Catholic Church beliefs and the 1700s in European traditions. The time is not specifically 3 am, but it is considered to be between after midnight and 4 am.
The Witching Hour is more than just fiction since it has been scientifically noted that coming out of REM sleep causes agitation, terror, and disorientation. This may be due to nightmares, night terrors, and other mysterious sleep phenomena.
With this in mind, we can tell that waking up at 3 am can help you dive deeper into the revelations that may come from your dreams. This is the perfect time when your mind unravels mysterious patterns in your life, and you get more aware of the steps you need to take in your waking life.
Waking up in the night, especially around 3 am, is a common occurrence, as you can tell, and it is rarely a cause for concern. You will stop waking up at 3 am with several lifestyle changes by striving for better sleep hygiene and by addressing day-to-day stressful/challenging experiences.
Even though most causes are not serious, it is always best to seek a doctor’s help to address any underlying medical conditions that may be the cause. This is ever so important if you are an older adult who is more susceptible to larger causes like menopause and onset of dementia.