The 3am Wake Up - Why It Happens and Tips to Get Back to Sleep

The 3am Wake Up - Why It Happens and Tips to Get Back to Sleep

Are you familiar with the 3am wake up? You are super tired and head off to bed at a good time, you fall to sleep quite quickly but then before you know it you are awake. You look around, see how dark it is and know it is still the middle of the night. Your brain automatically starts calculating how many hours it is until you need to get up and you begin to feel frustration kicking in that you are not asleep!

Why does this happen? Waking up at a specific time, such as 3:00 a.m., often occurs due to the natural end of a sleep cycle or as a result of a learned behavior. During REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, your body experiences muscle paralysis. When transitioning out of this phase, your body may briefly awaken as it adjusts and repositions itself. Typically, these awakenings are brief enough that you don't recall them. However, some instances can result in a full awakening and all the frustration (and associated tiredness!) that comes with being awake too early.

Grab yourself a can of Adapt Drinks Relax and we are going to take a deep dive into the 3am wake up, why it happens and tips to get back to sleep. We are going to cover the below and if you want to skip straight to a particular section just click on the heading.

Hormones and the 3am wake up

Hormones and the 3am wake up

It is around 3:00 am when the body's production of melatonin, a hormone that regulates sleep-wake cycles, typically reaches its highest point. Melatonin is produced by the pineal gland in response to darkness and helps signal to the body that it is time to sleep. As the night progresses and melatonin peaks around 3:00 am, the hormone's levels will start to gradually decline. This decline continues through the remainder of the night and into the early morning hours, preparing the body for awakening.

At the same time cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal glands, begins to rise. Cortisol is often referred to as the "stress hormone" because it plays a significant role in the body's response to stress, but it also follows a daily cycle. Cortisol levels start to increase 2-3 hours after falling asleep, typically around midnight. This rise continues through the early morning hours, with levels peaking just after waking up. The increase in cortisol helps to promote alertness and energy, aiding in the transition from sleep to wakefulness. So while we hear so much about not having high cortisol it is important that cortisol does increase so we get out of bed!

The interplay between melatonin and cortisol is crucial for maintaining a healthy sleep-wake cycle. As melatonin decreases and cortisol increases towards morning, the body gradually transitions from a state of deep rest to one of readiness for the day's activities. This hormonal balance is vital for ensuring a restful night’s sleep and an alert, energetic start to the day. Disruptions in this cycle can negatively affect sleep quality and overall health.

How healthy is your sleep hygiene?

sleep hygeine and the 3am wake up

Before we get into potential reasons for the 3am wake up we need to do a quick check of what is referred to as your sleep hygeine and see how healthy it is. Sleep hygiene refers to a set of practices and habits that are conducive to promoting good quality sleep. Sleep hygiene and the sleep-wake cycle are closely interconnected in terms of maintaining a healthy sleep pattern - if you don't have this right you are going to have issues with your sleep. Go through the check list below and make sure you are ticking off these points before looking at other reasons for the 3am wake up:

  • Consistent Bed Time Schedule - do you go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even on weekends?
  • Optimal Environment - is your your bedroom cool, dark, and quiet?
  • Stimulants - what is your caffeine and nicotine consumption like? Both have a detrimental impact on sleep.
  • Regular Exercise - are you engaging in regular physical activity during the day? Are you avoiding vigorous exercise close to your bedtime?
  • Bedtime Routine - do you have bedtime routine to cue your body it's time to sleep?
  • Screen Time - are you avoiding screens at least an hour before bed? Blue light from screens have detrimental impacts on the sleep-wake cycle.
  • Eating and Drinking - do you avoid heavy meals and excessive liquids close to bedtime?
  • Alcohol Consumption - are you avoiding consuming alcohol? While alcohol can initially make you feel sleepy, it can disrupt sleep later in the night and reduce sleep quality. (Obvious hint - Adapt Drinks Relax makes an excellent healthy substitute to help you unwind 🙂)

Reasons for the 3am wake up

This article is not medical advice is not going to address any specific medical conditions regarding middle of the night waking. If you have any concerns over night waking you should seek medical advice. With that said some common reasons you might be waking up at 3am are stress, for women perimenopause and the unavoidable factor - ageing! We will go through each factor and explain why and how it could be impacting your sleep.


reasons for the 3am wake up - stress

When your body experiences stress, it activates the body's "fight or flight" response, releasing hormones like cortisol that prepare you to respond to perceived threats. When this stress becomes chronic or intense, it can disrupt your sleep-wake cycle, leading to awakenings at specific times, such as around 3:00 am. Reasons why stress may cause you to wake up at 3:00 am:

  • Increased Cortisol Levels - as we discussed, cortisol levels begin to rise in the early morning hours to prepare your body for waking which is a good thing. If you are feeling stressed however this can cause cortisol levels to spike earlier than usual, potentially waking you up early and making it difficult to stay asleep.
  • Physical Symptoms - as you have probably experienced, stress often manifests itself physically with symptoms like a racing heart, sweating, or muscle tension. These symptoms can become more pronounced in the quiet of the night, so when your sleep cycle ends at around 3am and you are repositioning yourself you may feel this and it can lead you to wakening.
  • Increased Wakefulness - stress can heighten your overall state of alertness, making it more likely that you awaken when you are transitioning out of your REM sleep at around 3:00 am.
  • Light Sleep - stress interferes with your ability to achieve deep sleep stages. Around 3:00 am, when your body naturally transitions between sleep cycles, heightened stress levels can keep you in lighter stages of sleep, making you more susceptible to disturbances that wake you up.
  • Disrupted Sleep Patterns - after a few nights of increased waking due to stress you may begin to anticipate waking up at this time, creating a negative cycle where you start stressing about waking up causing further disruptions!
Needless to say managing stress can help decrease the chances of 3am wake ups. You probably know these techniques but here are some stress management techniques with associated resources you can try:
  • Yoga - helps manage stress by promoting relaxation, mindfulness, and reducing the physiological markers of stress like cortisol levels. Try some of these short free online yoga classes specifically designed to help you destress - 7 short free online yoga classes to help you relax
  • Breathing Exercises - help manage stress by influencing the part of our nervous system that controls automatic bodily functions. They promote relaxation by calming our body's natural stress responses, which can reduce feelings of anxiety and help us feel more at ease. You can learn more about and follow some breathing exercises here - Breathing exercises for relaxation 
  • Journalling - can help manage stress by providing a structured way to express emotions and thoughts, which can clarify feelings, reduce psychological tension and promote self-reflection. If you want to try journaling but not sure what to write, try something from this list of 30 self compassion journal prompts for stress relief.
  • Meditation - helps manage stress by fostering mindfulness and a heightened awareness of the present moment, which can reduce negative emotions, enhance emotional regulation, and promote a sense of calm and relaxation. Try one of these 7 guided meditations to help you relax
  • Adaptogens - manage stress by helping your body return to a state of homeostasis, that is it helps raise what is low and lower what is high (eg energy, stress). A can of Adapt Drinks Relax contains the adaptogenic herbs panax ginseng and schisandra berry so is a tasty way to consume a daily dose of adaptogens.


reasons for the 3am wake up - perimenopause

Perimenopause can significantly impact sleep patterns, often leading to waking up around 3:00 am. Several factors contribute to this:

  • Hormonal Fluctuations - during perimenopause, levels of estrogen and progesterone fluctuate unpredictably. These hormones play crucial roles in regulating sleep. Decreased estrogen can lead to symptoms such as hot flashes and night sweats, which can wake you up at night, particularly around 3:00 am when your body might already be in a lighter stage of sleep.
  • Night Sweats and Hot Flashes - a common symptom of perimenopause is night sweats, which can cause sudden awakenings. These episodes often occur around the early morning hours, disrupting sleep and making it difficult to fall back asleep.
  • Increased Stress and Anxiety - hormonal changes can also affect mood, leading to increased stress and anxiety. As we have just discussed, stress can cause more frequent awakenings and make it harder to return to sleep.
  • Disrupted Circadian Rhythms - hormonal shifts can disrupt your circadian rhythm, the body's internal clock that regulates sleep-wake cycles. This disruption can lead to irregular sleep patterns and awakenings at unusual times, such as 3:00 am.

In terms of strategies to help manage the impact of perimenopause on sleep and reduce 3:00 am awakenings, the key ones are already listed in sleep hygiene. All of these factors become even more important in this phase of life. Other strategies that may help are:

  • Adaptogens - specifically schisandra berry which has been found to be a safe and effective complementary medicine for menopausal symptoms, especially for hot flushes, sweating, and heart palpitations. And yes, it is one of the powerful adaptogens contained in Adapt Drinks Relax
  • Seeking Medical Advice - if night wakings are having a significant impact on your daily life it is important to consult with a healthcare provider. There are options like menopausal hormone therapy (HMRT) or other treatments that might help manage these symptoms.


reasons for the 3am wake up - ageing

As you age, changes in your sleep patterns and increased instances of waking up around 3:00 am become more common. Several factors contribute to this:

  • Changes in Sleep Architecture - with aging, the structure of sleep changes. Older adults spend less time in deep sleep (slow-wave sleep) and more time in lighter stages of sleep. This makes them more susceptible to waking up during the night, including around 3:00 am.
  • Circadian Rhythm Shifts - the body's internal clock, or circadian rhythm, can shift with age. Older adults often experience earlier bedtimes and wake times. This shift can cause them to wake up in the early morning hours, such as around 3:00 am, even if they have not had a full night's sleep.
  • Decreased Melatonin Production - melatonin, the hormone responsible for regulating sleep-wake cycles, decreases with age. Lower levels of melatonin can make it harder to stay asleep, leading to more frequent awakenings during the night.
  • Nocturia - did you know this is the fancy word for the need to urinate frequently during the night? Well it is and nocturia increases with age and could be the cause of you waking up at 3am and at other times across the early morning hours.

Obviously you cannot avoid ageing but as with perimenpause, as you age your sleep hygiene becomes increasingly important. On top of that here are some other strategies you could try:

  • Melatonin supplementation - this may help by regulating sleep-wake cycles and promoting deeper, more continuous sleep throughout the night. It’s super important to consult with a healthcare professional first though, as proper dosage and timing are crucial, and potential side effects such as daytime drowsiness or interactions with medications should be considered.
  • Managing liquid intake - this can help manage nocturia by reducing the volume of urine produced during the night. By limiting liquid intake before bedtime, especially diuretic substances like caffeine and alcohol, the frequency of nighttime awakenings to urinate can be reduced.

Tips to get back to sleep

Tips to get back to sleep when you wake at 3am

So you have taken all the precautionary advice but you still wake up at 3am. What can you do to help you get back to sleep? Well let’s start with the don’ts!

  • Don’t check the time - checking the time when you wake up at night can actually train your brain to continue waking at that specific time. This happens through associative learning where two events become linked in your mind through repeated exposure.
  • Don’t pick up your phone (or any other screen) - screens emit blue light that can suppress melatonin production, making it harder to fall back asleep.
  • Don't stay in bed awake for too long - if you're unable to fall back asleep within about 20 minutes, it's better to get out of bed. Engage in a relaxing activity like reading a book or listening to calming music until you feel sleepy again. Do it with minimal light and don’t do anything too exciting.

Now for the dos:

  • Practice Breathing Techniques - try the breathing techniques you have practiced during the day to manage your stress to signal to your mind and body it is time to relax.
  • Progressive Muscle Relaxation - start from your toes and work your way up, tensing and then relaxing each muscle group to release tension.
  • Visualisation - imagine a peaceful and calming place or scenario in detail to distract your mind from racing thoughts.
  • Write Down Thoughts - if your mind is racing, jot down your thoughts on a notepad to help clear your mind. Use only minimal light to do this.
  • Try a Sleep Meditation - use a guided meditation specifically designed to help you fall back asleep.
  • Listen to Relaxing Music - listen to calming music can help you relax your mind and it can also block out sounds that may be disrupting your sleep.

In the end, managing the frustrating phenomenon of the 3am wake-up involves adopting proactive strategies to give you the best change of preventing it from happening. Remember to prioritise having consistent sleep routines, optimise your sleep environment, integrate relaxation techniques to manage stress and use supplements where appropriate. Wishing you a great and unbroken night’s sleep!

Back to blog

Sparkling Adaptogenic Drinks

Adapt Drinks Relax is the perfect drink to help you wind down at the end of the day. Containing adaptogenic herbs and amino acids that have been shown to reduce stress and promote relaxation, Adapt Drinks Relax is a nightly ritual you can enjoy that is rewarding, delicious and good for you.

So go ahead and pour yourself a glass. You deserve it.