The 3am Effect: why do you keep waking up in the small hours?

For some of us, waking up in the middle of the night occurs as regularly as clockwork. But why, and what can you do to change it?

Whether you wake up with a start or groggily return to focus, waking up through the night is the norm for many of us. However, simply waking up through the night isn’t necessary a cause for concern in itself. In fact, it happens to all of us. After nodding off, we move through different stages of sleep that averages out at around a 90-minute cycle. These cycles are usually punctuated by brief awakenings. Most of the time we return to sleep without ever realising we’ve been awake, but sometimes we can be more aware. Speaking to The Guardian, sleep coach Katie Fischer explains the “misconception” of sleeping the whole night through: “nobody ever does.” Waking up as many as five to seven times per night is normal – what are termed micro-awakenings – but what is it that causes more conscious disturbances where we are roused more fully?

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Why do you wake up at 3am?

Reasons for waking up in the middle of the night can vary. Sometimes, it’s for obvious and ultimately harmless reasons, such as being too hot or cold, needing the toilet, having a nightmare or hearing a noise. Other times, it can be due to medical reasons, such as sleep apnoea, nocturia or insomnia. However, waking up during the night isn’t an automatic insomnia diagnosis, explains Professor Alice Gregory of the University of London, but it can be a warning sign: “If you find yourself waking regularly during the night, certainly flag this with your GP so they can consider any possible underlying causes.” Diet can have a lot to do with your sleep behaviour. We often hear that we shouldn’t drink coffee before bed, but the long-lasting impact of caffeine is frequently underestimated. Sleep experts recommend stopping caffeine consumption by 3pm at the latest. Likewise, water is key. Going to bed even mildly dehydrated can disrupt sleep. One in ten people also use alcohol as a sleep aid, but this can have significant disruptive effects after the initial crash. As well as drinks, Fischer describes the existence of “anti-sleep foods” that are high in sugar or cause flatulence or heartburn. Meanwhile, an anti-inflammatory diet that favours fruit, vegetables, lean proteins and healthy fats can improve the symptoms of conditions like sleep apnoea.

Changing your sleep behaviour

Making thoughtful changes to your diet and exercise regime is key to improving your sleep. Exercising during the day has been shown to improve sleep in the long run, but anything strenuous should be avoided just before bedtime. However, mental and behavioural changes are just as important as dietary ones. Experts recommend reserving the bedroom for sleep alone. More and more people are using their bedroom as a place to relax during the day – a space that doubles as a living room or even a dining room. This results in us training our brains to associate our bedrooms with wakefulness. Along with staple advice like avoiding screens before bed, keeping your bedroom cool and dark and creating a staple routine, a change of mindset can be beneficial to your sleep health. This is something advocated by sleep consultant Maryanne Taylor: “People might have this belief that they are a ‘bad sleeper’ and there is nothing they can do about it. Sometimes it’s about changing people’s perceptions of what good sleep looks like.” We all sleep differently. The answer to whether your sleep quality is good or bad lies in how you feel around 30 minutes after waking. Are you refreshed and raring to go or groggy and deflated? If it’s the latter, then you should take steps to improve the way you sleep.

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