Are you consistently waking up expecting the blessed sunshine of a new day only to find you’re a few hours early? If so, rather than anxiously staring at a dark ceiling while ‘04:00’ flashes menacingly on your alarm clock, consider whether it’s one of the following reasons so you can reclaim those sleep hours.
Tick off the obvious
Often your sleep disruption has a clear physical indicator. If you’re waking up to notice nothing out of the ordinary (in fact, you may be in good company, read this article which celebrates the 4am crowd) – apart from being awake at an ungodly hour – skip this section. Otherwise, the reason might be below.
Bursting to go to the loo?
You’re drinking too many fluids (or alcohol) close to bedtime, so you need to go more than usual in the night.
Sunlight pouring into your room or artificial lights on?
Perhaps your bedroom curtains aren’t keeping light out as the sun begins to rise, or you need to remove any light-emitting devices. Increased light levels reduce melatonin, a hormone which induces and maintains your sleep state.
Experiencing heartburn or gassiness?
This is a possible sign that you’re eating heavy meals too close to bedtime. When the digestive system is busy, it’s not a great recipe for unbroken sleep thanks to problems like acid reflux.
Feeling anxious or stressed?
If you’re waking up feeling tense or on edge, it’s likely you need to take steps to address any anxieties or stress. At its heart, sleep is a deep form of relaxation, and you can’t relax when you’re anxious.
Sweating or shivering?
The temperature of your bedroom affects the quality of your sleep, with 18℃ being the sweet spot for humans to drift off.
The not so obvious
The annoying truth is that there are many reasons you could be waking up at the same time each night which don’t have clear signposts. Here are some common repetitive sleep disturbance causes that aren’t obvious to the naked eye.
Your blood sugar
Sleeping through the night creates a big window when you’re not eating. But it’s also a time when your brain is very active, performing neurological tasks to do with memory and emotions which require blood sugar. If your last meal of the day isn’t robust enough, or you’re leaving too long a gap between eating and bedtime, it could be that your blood sugar falls too low while you’re asleep.
Low blood sugar causes your body to produce a stress hormone to raise it back to normal levels. The release of this stress hormone is what wakes you up.
Your regular nightcap
Alcohol in the evening will tend to make you feel drowsy so falling asleep feels easier. But this is only because alcohol is a sedative. During the first half of the night, it will work to keep you sedated, but once the sedative effects wear off, your sleep will become much lighter in comparison. If you’re regularly drinking before bed and waking up at 4 am, it’s possible they are connected.
Your rigid sleep patterns
As we descend into sleep, we move through 5 different sleep ‘stages’. Some of these stages are lighter than others. Together, the 5 stages make up one sleep cycle which repeats itself throughout the night at 90 – 120-minute intervals. It could be that your lighter stages of sleep seem to fall around 4 am. If you’re a light sleeper in the first place, this might be why you’re regularly waking up at that same time.
Your preconception with the 8-hour sleep pattern
A quick look at history tells us that the unbroken 8-hour sleeping pattern might not be the only way to restore yourself anyway. Literature going from the 15th Century to as recently as the 1920s mentions this idea of “a first sleep” and “a second sleep”. Before artificial lighting, people faced longer stretches of darkness, and generally slept in two sets of 4-hour sleeps with a break in the middle.
Such bi-modal sleep patterns haven’t become completely extinct when you consider those hotter climates where many still take a siesta in the middle of the day on top of their nightly sleep. So perhaps the more natural practices of your ancestors could help to demystify your seemingly inexplicable 4 am wake up call.
When to get help
Chronic sleep deprivation affects your cardiovascular system, your immune system, your memory, your mental health, your body weight, and more. If you’ve addressed all the above possibilities and you’re still consistently waking up at 4 am every night but unable to get back to sleep, be sure to consult with your doctor.