Trouble Sleeping? – Reasons You May be Waking Up at Night

You may be surprised to hear that waking up in the middle of the night is common. One US study found 35.5% of people wake up in the middle of the night on three or more nights per week.1 Understanding why this sleep disturbance occurs in so many people is not easy to pinpoint, but there are some theories to consider that may help you come up with solutions.

It keeps happening—you wake up at 3:00 in the morning. While sleep experts recommend waking up at the same time each day, surely this is not what they had in mind. As the rest of the world sleeps peacefully, you're awake counting sheep. And you’re not alone. Welcome to the 3 AM Club.

Why the 3 AM wake-up call?

You may be wondering, “Why is this happening to me?” and “Why always at 3 AM, also known as ‘the witching hour' according to urban legend?” There are several theories behind the 3AM phenomenon. But if you’re getting insufficient sleep—first things first—make sure your healthcare practitioner checks for any potential medical issues. Things like arthritis, asthma, chronic pain, endocrine or gastrointestinal problems, or sleep apnea could be factors. Once those are ruled out, you're left wondering about other potential causes. So, what's the deal with this sleep maintenance misfortune? Here are a few theories to ponder:

Ancestral sleep patterns:

Our preindustrial ancestors had different sleep patterns. Without artificial light, they slept in sync with the sun's rising and setting. Historian and sleep expert Roger Ekirch, PhD, explains that their natural sleep patterns were segmented or biphasic. They had a “first sleep” and a “second sleep.”1 So, the 3 AM break could be related to sleep cycles.2

Sleep cycles and awakenings:

A typical sleep pattern starts with about 4 to 4 ½ hours of deep sleep, followed by a shift into the lighter REM stage. While it’s normal to wake up multiple times during the night, most awakenings are too brief to remember, unless they occur during the lighter sleep stage.3 But that still begs the question: Why 3 AM?

Hormonal imbalances and sleep:

If you’re a menopausal woman waking up with hot flashes, the cause isn’t exactly a mystery. But hormonal imbalances, in general, may cause sleep disturbances.4 Because the liver metabolizes hormones, an overloaded, sluggish liver could thereby indirectly contribute to hormone-related sleep disturbances.5

Blood sugar and sleep:

Workhorse that it is, the liver acts as our body's blood sugar “warehouse manager,” converting glucose into glycogen for storage.6 The liver breaks down the glycogen, releasing it into circulation during fasting periods, such as sleep.6 But even during sleep, the brain is still the body’s primary consumer of glucose.6 If liver glycogen supplies are low, the brain releases cortisol to get production back on track, causing wakefulness. While a small amount of carbohydrate can temporarily alleviate hunger, you don’t want to rely on a 3 AM snack to get you back to sleep. Consult a healthcare practitioner for blood-sugar related sleep disturbances.

Solutions for waking up at 3 AM: practice sleep hygiene basics

Whatever the cause may be, your body’s repeat 3 AM wake-up call is more than a nuisance. It is creating a major challenge to meeting the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep per night for adults 24-64.7 And due to disrupted “hunger hormones,” being a member of the 3 AM Club can take a toll on your waistline.8,9 But there are things you can do to help manage sleep disruptions. Good sleep hygiene could make a difference.

Try practicing these sleep hygiene basics for a better night’s sleep:10

  • Establish a sleep routine. Go to bed at the same time each night
  • Avoid blue light and stay off screens in the bedroom.
  • Avoid caffeine and alcoholic beverages close to bedtime
  • Refrain from eating before bed or having late-night snacks
  • Get daily exercise
  • Create a cool and dark sleep environment
  • Implement stress management techniques

You might never really figure out exactly why your body decides to wake up at 3 AM. But if it's happening frequently and causing you to experience sleep debt, it's a good idea to reach out to your healthcare practitioner. They can give you some valuable insights and guidance to help you understand and tackle the issue effectively.

Metagenics offers a variety of products to promote relaxation and restful sleep:

This content is not intended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Individuals should always consult with their healthcare professional for advice on medical issues.


  1. National Sleep Foundation. Accessed December 10, 2023.
  2. Kraft S. Accessed December 24, 2018.
  3. “Understanding and Improving Sleep Patterns.” SleepScore Labs Blog. Accessed December, 10, 2023
  4. Kravitz HM et al. Obstet Gynecol Clin North Am. 2018;45(4):679-694. 
  5. Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, 2nd Edition, by Michael Murray, ND, and Joseph Pizzorno; Prima Publishing; Rocklin, CA; 1998.
  6. Mahan KL et al. Food, Nutrition & Diet Therapy. Philadelphia, PA. Saunders. 2004.
  7. National Sleep Foundation. Accessed July 19, 2017.
  8. Spaeth AM et al. Sleep. 2013;36(7):981-990.
  9. Patel SR et al. Am J Epidemiology. 2006;164(10):947-954.
  10. Centers for Disease Control. Accessed December 10, 2023.

This entry was posted in General Wellness, Men's Health, Women's Health and tagged , , on by .

About Maribeth Evezich

Maribeth Evezich, MS, RD is a functional nutrition and therapeutic lifestyle consultant. Maribeth is also a graduate of Bastyr University and the Natural Gourmet Institute. Whether she is in her kitchen experimenting, at her computer researching, or behind the lens of her camera, she is on a mission to inspire others to love whole foods as much as she does. She lives in Seattle, is on the faculty of Bastyr University, and is the founder of Lifestyle Medicine Consulting, LLC and the culinary nutrition blog, Whole Foods Explorer. Maribeth Evezich is a paid consultant and guest writer for Metagenics.

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