Do you find yourself tossing and turning in the wee hours of the morning, wondering why you’re wide awake?
You’re not alone. Research shows that 32 million Britons often get up well before their alarm clock – at 4:05 am precisely.
And it’s incredibly frustrating. Regularly getting up too early makes it difficult to fall asleep again and leads to heavy sleepiness during the day.
It leaves you feeling drained and irritable and, unsurprisingly, increases your risk of chronic health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity and depression.
So what’s stopping you from counting sheep?
Lisa Artis of The Sleep Charity said there are several potential culprits and has outlined steps to reduce the chances of waking up at unsocial times.
hormones and low blood sugar
Sleep is controlled by our internal clock, or circadian rhythm — a 24-hour system that signals your body when it’s time to go to bed
It is regulated by the levels of two hormones – melatonin (sleep) and cortisol (stress).
Melatonin helps you fall asleep — and helps you stay asleep — while cortisol helps you get up and stay awake.
Too early a spike in cortisol levels, which can be triggered by low blood sugar, may be responsible for your sudden alertness.
When blood sugar goes down, your body tries to protect you by trying to increase it. Irritants, cortisol and unwanted alertness.
how to fix it
You’re unlikely to feel hungry in the middle of the night when your blood sugar is plummeting, which is why people sometimes have a hard time making the connection.
To reduce waking up at ominous hours, try alternatives for your last meal or snack in the evening, Lisa said.
Instead of high-carb or sweet snacks, opt for foods high in protein and magnesium, such as hard-boiled eggs, cottage cheese, pumpkin seeds, spinach, dark chocolate, cashews, chicken thighs, or turkey.
Protein can satisfy your late-night hunger pangs, while magnesium is known to aid in sleep.
The reproductive hormones estrogen and progesterone are linked to the sleep and relaxation hormones melatonin and serotonin.
When estrogen levels begin to fall before and during menopause, it can disrupt melatonin levels, meaning cortisol cannot properly balance.
In this case, the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep is impaired.
Recurring hot flashes, night sweats, dry skin, and decreased libido can also be signs of declining estrogen levels.
how to fix it
Try to include foods high in phytoestrogens in your diet throughout the day, Lisa said.
This mimics the natural estrogens found in your body, which can bind to your body’s receptors and produce similar effects.
Excellent sources of phytoestrogens include: Lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, tempeh, edamame, miso, soy milk, kale, garlic, onions, spinach, cauliflower, and broccoli.
Also, try to avoid eggs and milk that contain estrogen.
Investing in quality fabrics like 100% cotton and linen that don’t retain heat and wick sweat will also help reduce the effects of hot flashes that disrupt your sleep, Lisa added.
It’s natural to need to pee from time to time as your body is still working hard to break down everything you’ve eaten throughout the day.
However, if it happens multiple times a night, it could be a sign of an underlying condition called nocturia, Lisa said.
how to fix it
The NHS recommends that adults drink six to eight glasses of liquid a day – the equivalent of around 1.5 liters.
Lisa suggests reaching this total before 7 p.m. and not drinking more than one glass within two hours of waking up.
Think small sips, not big slurps — and that goes for nighttime, too, she added.
Stress and processing of emotions
Our brain divides the night in half – first sorting memories before turning to emotions in the final hours.
Soaring cortisol levels coupled with bursting out with emotions at 4am can cause people to wake up involuntarily.
Daily stress can also raise cortisol levels, and a particularly stressful day can provoke intrusive thoughts at night that turn into nightmares and wake you up at 4am.
how to fix it
When you’re feeling worry or frustration, your body activates your sympathetic nervous system — or the “fight-or-flight” response.
Suddenly your brain switches from sleep to wake mode.
You can counteract this by turning on your “rest and digest” mode, also known as the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), which slows our heart and breathing rates, lowers blood pressure, and aids digestion.
You can activate your PSNS by intentionally slowing your breath – inhale through your nose for a count of four, hold your breath for a count of four, and then exhale through your mouth for a count of four.
Repeat for up to ten breaths, increasing from four to six if you want to deepen the practice.
You can also try listening to 432Hz music, which some scientists say calms our bodies and minds.
Sharing a bed allows you to cuddle your partner while hugging releases oxytocin — the binding neurochemicals — and helps send safety signals to the autonomic nervous system.
And yawning can also stimulate the PSNS – even if it is not taken for granted.
Aging and evolving sleep cycles
Sleep cycles last around 90 minutes and we tend to spend an average of five a night, alternating between rapid eye movement (REM) sleep and non-REM sleep.
At each stage there is also a different threshold for how easy it is to be awakened.
In the second half of the night we experience the lighter phases of sleep more often, which is why we are more likely to wake up earlier when we wake up quickly.
If you go to sleep at the same time each night, you may reach the lighter stage and wake up at about the same time.
As we age, our circadian rhythm changes and we have less restorative deep (stage three) sleep and more light sleep, which means adults may wake up more often and experience shorter sleep durations.
how to fix it
First, determine your ideal bedtime. You can do this with The Sleep Charity calculator.
Start by multiplying 90 minutes (each cycle time) by five (the number per night) to get 450 minutes or 7.5 hours.
If you have to get up at 7am, count back 7.5 hours to find out that your bedtime should be around 11:30pm.
Make sure you’re in bed beforehand so you’re relaxed and ready for sleep, and give yourself 15 minutes to fall asleep.
Remember this is just a guide and always pay attention to how you feel when you wake up.
Our brains are great at connecting things.
When we regularly wake up in the middle of the night and then spend hours frantically trying to get back to sleep, our thoughts associate the bed with alertness and worry rather than sleep.
how to fix it
Break the habit by standing up.
It feels counterintuitive, but if you’re having a hard time falling asleep after 20 minutes, get up and do something relaxing.
Brew an herbal tea like chamomile, lavender, peppermint, or valerian root without turning on a bright light, Lisa said.
If you frequently wake up early, you may be suffering from insomnia.
According to the NHS, the condition involves difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep long enough to feel refreshed the next day.
how to fix it
There are a number of things you can try. These include: setting regular bedtimes and waking times, relaxing before bed, using thick curtains or blinds, not watching TV or using your phone in bed, and avoiding naps.
You should also reduce your caffeine and alcohol intake and avoid heavy meals and vigorous exercise a few hours before bedtime.
If your symptoms are interfering with your daily life, contact your GP.
Things you should never do
Now you know what you should do. Here’s what Lisa recommends never doing when you wake up at 4am.
1. Avoid firing up the brain
Stimulating activities like checking email, scrolling through social media, or watching a TV show can make it harder to relax and fall asleep again.
The bright screens and mental stimulation can further disrupt your sleep-wake cycle, she said.
Instead, opt for calming activities like reading a book or listening to soothing music.
2. Don’t fall into the nap trap
As tempting as it may be, resist the urge to take long naps during the day, especially if you’re consistently waking up at 4am.
Napping can interfere with your sleep drive and make it harder to fall asleep at night, says Lisa, who works with a sleep technology company simbasaid.
If you really need to sleep during the day, do it before 3 p.m. and keep it short (about 20 minutes).
3. Stay away from the hustle and bustle
Don’t let caffeine and nicotine turn your sleep into a jittery mood by cutting out stimulants six hours before bed.
Instead, prepare a soothing cup of golden milk — a traditional Ayurvedic medicinal drink made with turmeric, ginger, and warm milk, Lisa said.
Turmeric contains curcumin, which has potential sleep-promoting and anti-inflammatory properties that can help relax and improve sleep duration.
4. Avoid sleeping potion riots
While sleep aids may seem like a quick fix, taking them regularly can lead to addiction and mask the underlying issues causing your early morning awakenings.
It is best to keep them for occasional use and consult a doctor for proper guidance.
5. Don’t stay in bed
When you wake up at 4 a.m., it can be tempting to lie in bed and hope to fall asleep again.
However, if you’ve been awake for more than 20 minutes, get up.
If you stay in bed, there may be a connection between wakefulness and your sleep environment, making it even more difficult to fall asleep in the future.
6. Resist the temptation to turn on the “big light.”
Finally, it can be tempting to turn on a bright light when you wake up, but doing so can signal your brain to stay awake.
When you get up, try to keep the light as low as possible and make sure you can see safely.