This is why you keep waking up at 4am – and what you can do about it

Ever find yourself awake, staring into space at four in the morning? Is it just a bad habit, or is there something more sinister going on? And why does it always seem to happen at 4am?

“We start to experience less deep sleep after around four to five hours,” says Lisa Artis, deputy CEO of The Sleep Charity. And once we’re in that lighter sleep phase, we wake much more easily.

If you generally fall asleep around 11pm – which is a very common bedtime, 4am wake-ups are more likely. And there are many factors leading to these inconvenient stirrings.

Hormones

woman unable to sleep
Not sleeping can be stressful. (Alamy/PA)

“Sleep is guided by our internal clock or circadian rhythm. One of the most significant and well-known circadian rhythms is the sleep-wake cycle,” Ms Artis continues.

“Sleep is regulated by the levels of two hormones: melatonin and cortisol, which follow a regular 24-hour pattern. Melatonin assists you in dozing off, while cortisol helps get you up, and keeps you awake,” she explains.

Keeping an eye on your hormones is important in preventing those late-night wake-ups.

“Engage in calming activities before bedtime, such as reading, listening to soothing music, or practising relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or meditation,” says Dr Mariyam H. Malik, GP at Pall Mall Medical.

Equally, pop your phone down for a bit.

“Blue light from electronic devices can suppress melatonin production. Try to avoid screens for at least two hours before bedtime, or use blue light filters. It is best to charge them in a separate room overnight,” Dr Malik adds.

Diet

Caffeine, heavy meals, alcohol, sugar, and a lack of magnesium or B vitamins could lead you to have a more disturbed night’s sleep, according to Dr Malik.

Sugar and carbohydrates may have a particular impact.

“A diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates can cause blood sugar fluctuations, leading to wakefulness during the night,” she says.

“It’s unlikely you’ll feel hungry in the middle of the night if your blood sugar dips,” notes Artis, “but to reduce ungodly hour awakenings, trial alternatives for your last meal or snack of the evening. Instead of carb or sweet-based snacks, opt for protein-packed and magnesium-rich foods, like hard boiled eggs, cottage cheese, pumpkin seeds, spinach, dark chocolate, cashews, chicken thighs or turkey.”

Protein can take the edge off your night-time hunger, she says, while magnesium is known to support sleep.

Needing a wee

Do you wake up needing to wee at the same time every night?

“Try not to drink excessive amounts of fluids before bedtime,” advises Malik. “It’s important to stay hydrated, but try not to drink anything for around two hours before your usual bedtime. Go to the toilet before you go to bed to empty your bladder. ”

Age and life stage

old man nodding off
As you get older, your sleep patterns change. (Alamy/PA)

“Sleep tends to become more disrupted as people get older,” Dr Malik explains.

“Sleep patterns change with age, and various factors can contribute to sleep disturbances in older adults. Some common reasons for sleep disruption in the elderly include changes in your circadian rhythm, decreased melatonin production, medical conditions or medications, and potential sleep disorders.”

It can also affect women during the perimenopause. “The reproductive hormones – oestrogen and progesterone – are entwined with the sleep and relaxation hormones, melatonin and serotonin,” says Ms Artis.

“When oestrogen begins to fall before and during menopause, it can create a disturbance in the sleep-promoting hormone melatonin, meaning it can’t properly balance out cortisol. When this happens, the ability to fall and stay asleep is affected.”

Recurring hot flushes, night sweats, dry skin, and low libido can signal waning oestrogen.

Ms Artis advises incorporating foods with high levels of phytoestrogens into your diet throughout the day to help with this. “Phytoestrogens imitate the natural oestrogens found in your body. As a consequence, they can bind to your body’s oestrogen receptors and produce similar effects.” Try lentils, kidney beans, chickpeas, tofu, edamame, spinach, cauliflower and broccoli.

Worrying

Stress is not good for sleep.

One study by Bupa even found that 32 million people wake up worrying about their health at precisely 4:05am. The report, which surveyed 4000 British adults, revealed that more than three-fifths wake up in the middle of the night.

If you are finding yourself awake at all hours worrying, or waking up with stressful dreams, there are a few things that may help.

“Keep a journal by your bedside and write down your worries before going to bed. This practice can help get your concerns out of your mind and onto paper, making it easier to let go of them temporarily,” says Dr Malik.

You may also want to “engage in mindfulness or meditation exercises before bedtime. Mindfulness can help you focus on the present moment, reducing anxiety about the past or the future.”

Do you have difficultly sleeping the whole night through? What’s your tactic for better sleep? Why not share your experience in the comments section below?

Also read: How many steps do you really need for a healthy heart?

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